Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ICC Talks to Darfur Refugees in Chad

Victims of conflict welcome outreach mission, but say more must be done to help them establish their rights before the court.
By Tajeldin Abdhalla, Assadig Mustafa Zakaria Musa

Darfuri refugees living in camps in Chad have welcomed a recent visit by staff of the International Criminal Court, ICC, but say the Hague-based court needs to engage with them more regularly to ensure they are able to exercise their rights as victims.

The outreach and victim participation units of the Hague-based international court spent three weeks in May visiting victims of the long running conflict in Darfur now living in refugee camps in eastern Chad.

The court says the  aim of the mission to four of the eight refugee camps in eastern Chad was to reach out to the refugees, and the victim participation and reparation unit also explained the rights of the victims of crimes committed in Darfur, which are under the court’s jurisdiction. These rights include the right to participate in the legal procedures against someone charged with the crimes committed against them, as well as the right to seek compensation and reparation if suspects are convicted by the court.

The ICC has issued arrest warrants for three senior Sudanese officials – President Omar Bashir, former humanitarian affairs ministers Ahmad Harun and janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb. All three are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The government of Sudan does not recognise the ICC and is not cooperating with the court.

Last month’s visit was gratefully received by those living in the camps of eastern Chad.

“They gave us some valuable information and they answered questions which we hadn’t known who would answer. We think this was very important and fruitful,” said one refugee living in the Gaga camp.

Others said the visit helped address some of the confusion about the court and the role of victims in the proceedings.

“People have different understandings and conceptions [of the court], but they did tell us about the importance of [victim] registration and reparation, which was a very good thing,” said a teacher from another camp, Farchana.

However, others noted that the visit was a long time in coming, and complained that the court was not really engaging with the victims whom it is required to serve, given the arrest warrants it has issued in Sudan.

While it has not access to Darfur itself, the court has previously visited camps in eastern Chad to provide information to the refugees. However, while the court does not disclose exact numbers of victims, it is thought that few victims currently living in eastern Chad have yet been registered as part of legal proceedings, even though the first arrest warrants against Sudanese officials were issued as far back as May 2007.

“The court has been very slow with proceedings in the Darfur case, so we want the court to move quickly,” said one refugee in the Farchana camp following the court’s visit. “[They should] not be absent from us for one or two years and then suddenly appear. This is not good, because the people of Darfur are standing on hot coals. [The court] should always keep in contact with us.”

The New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch, HRW, has raised concerns about the court’s ability to engage with victims on the ground.

HRW’s Elizabeth Evenson said this was “a real challenge” for the court, which lacked adequate staff on the ground.

“The court is based in The Hague. It has staff located in each of the countries or, if security conditions don’t permit, in neighbouring countries. But those offices are very small; they are only a few people,” Evenson said, speaking from the ICC review conference currently under way in Kampala, Uganda.

The conference is being attended by representatives of the state parties to the court in an effort to assess its progress since its inception in 2002. The issue of victims and how to reach out to them was scheduled to be a central point of the discussion.

The court says one of the goals of its latest visit to eastern Chad was to establish permanent channels of communication between the camps and the court in The Hague. It says it will have a permanent representative based in Abéché, eastern Chad, by the end of 2010.

Under the court’s founding treaty – the Rome Statute – victims of criminal cases before the ICC have a right to representation by a lawyer and to participate directly in the trial of a defendant. They have the right to request specific questions of witnesses and to appear in the courtroom.

Although a group of victims living outside the region have obtained legal representation and are taking part in ICC pre-trial proceedings with regard to Darfur, few of those living in the region have been able to do so.

There have been some questions about how ready the court is to facilitate this process.

Following the mission to eastern Chad, refugees voiced concern that the application forms for recognition as a victim before the court were not yet available in Sudanese Arabic or in local languages.

The court says it is trying to address this problem.

“All the forms are so far in English and French. While in our meetings with refugees we have addressed this point, it needs to be addressed by a decision of the judges of the court,” a court spokeswoman, Diala Chehade, said.

Evenson, from HRW, said the language problem “is a big burden that needs to be overcome”.

Other refugees emphasised a need for the court to build relationships in the region and establish itself with those affected by the war in Darfur.

“They should have taken more time with us to form committees so that the work can be done from within the camp, because we are very isolated from the court,” said the teacher at the Farchana camp. “We are away from the courts, so they should involve people who are on the ground.”

The ICC acknowledges that it has been slow to reach victims of the Darfur conflict, but said it was now working with groups and schools inside the camps to build a network that will help inform refugees of their rights.

“It is true that there has been some delay, firstly because the court is not able to get into Darfur and also because of a lack of communication such as internet,” Chehade explained.

She added that security was another important consideration, as many of those who fled the fighting in Darfur are reluctant to be part of anything connected with the court out of fear for their safety.

A camp leader said victims also lacked confidence in the ICC, making them reluctant to register with the institution.

“This can be dealt with by more visits and more information sessions [from the court],” he added.

The court says it is also working with non-governmental groups to deliver its message.

“We have non-governmental organisations working with these people and teaching them how to complete this [victim registration] form,” said Chehade. “This may reduce any fears or suspicion that some Darfuri people have.”

Forging relationships with victims is seen as key to enabling them to participate.

Evenson said that the experience of other countries where the ICC is operating showed that victim participation increased as people became more familiar with the court.

“In the Uganda situation, the rate of applications has gone up over time because people have become more familiar [with the process],” she said. “So even though the arrest warrants have been out for a very long time now, and there aren’t any trial proceedings, people are still getting to know more about the ICC, getting to know more about their rights to participate, and so it has actually increased the appetite for the right to participate.”

Observers say the court’s ability to meet its responsibility to victims depends on its 111 member states increasing their support for this area of work.

Evenson said she hoped the ICC conference in Uganda would spur them into action.

“We really hope the review conference will be an opportunity for states to understand what it is the court needs to do in the situation countries, to reach victim communities, to inform them about their rights, and to facilitate their participation,” she said.

Tajeldin Abdhalla Adam is a Radio Dabanga reporter and IWPR trainee. Assadig Musa is working with Radio Dabanga. Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague and producer of a radio show for Radio Dabanga about justice issues.

The article was produced in cooperation with Radio Dabanga (http://www.radiodabanga.org/), a radio station for Darfuris run by Darfuris from The Netherlands.

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