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

Preira Helps Give Victims a Voice

Senegal lawyer works to ensure that war crimes survivors have a role in ICC investigations.
By Katy Glassborow
Didier Preira from Senegal is tall, thin as a beanpole and nearly always has a smile on his face, belying the strains of his onerous job at the ICC.

As head of the Division of Victims and Counsel, Preira provides support for war crimes victims who want their voices heard during the investigations into atrocities that have been - or still are being - committed in their countries.

He also looks after the lawyers acting on behalf of suspected war criminals and those representing alleged victims to ensure they have everything they need to do their jobs properly.

Preira's job necessitates a large degree of diplomacy and insight. As one of eight children born to parents from Cape Verde who settled in Senegal, Preira claims to have learned the art out of necessity in childhood.

His Catholic father worked as the chief accountant of a French public company in Dakar, Senegal's capital. All of his brothers and sisters were university educated, and Preira studied law at Dakar University before becoming a lawyer, working in private practice for fourteen years.

In the mid-Nineties, he moved on to represent people accused of orchestrating Hutu-Tutsi violence in Burundi in 1993. An estimated 300,000 were killed after a Hutu was elected leader following the country’s first democratic elections. Preira became involved in a United Nations-run programme to provide legal assistance to those suspected of orchestrating the violence.

Preira told IWPR that impartial Hutu or Tutsi defence lawyers were in short supply, so there was a need to bring in external assistance. “I intervened in representing several accused, but many of them were convicted before even being tried because the judges presumed they were guilty,” he said.

Lawyers in Burundi did not enjoy the same levels of independence as outsiders. Preira said he worked hard to support them in taking a “strong stand against the judges”, and was thrilled when “local lawyers started to represent their clients with greater objectivity and independence irrespective of their ethnicity”.

As well as trying to ensure fair trials before prejudiced judges, Preira recalled vociferous courtroom audiences who liked to shout out how they had been victims of great crimes at the hands of those standing trial. Initially, he and his fellow defence lawyers needed escorts to get out of court safely, as the public labelled them "genocidaires” because they were defending suspects. “I tried to tell them that the whole system would be discredited if the accused was convicted before due process,” he said.

Preira was asked in 1999 to join the defence support and detention management section of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR, based in Arusha, Tanzania. There were many challenges surrounding the legal dynamic, as only Hutus were prosecuted, even though Tutsis also committed crimes during the country’s 100-day genocide of 1994 in which an estimated 800,000 people died.

He said this made it difficult for those standing trial to trust the system, "As a result they challenged everything the court was doing.”

Even though the ICTR detention centre had been built from scratch and was run by the UN, Preira said the accused even challenged the meals they were served, “They wanted to have a very specific diet which included, for instance, a particular yoghurt, and filed motions to achieve this. In their minds, the institution was against them, so they wanted to fight it and embarrass it at any cost.”

Preira regularly met the accused men and women to hear their complaints and attempt to persuade them they were getting the very best care possible.

Jean Pele Fomete, head of the Court Management Section at the ICTR, told IWPR that he sees Preira as a born diplomat, “He listens to people and works out the best possible scenario in the interests of justice. He is firm on principles and knows how to get the trust of others.”

As well as dealing with the disgruntled accused, Preira also dealt with their defence lawyers at the Rwanda tribunal. Benoit Le Chartier, now a legal affairs officer for the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, worked with Preira at the ICTR in administering legal aid and recommending which defence lawyer was best suited for which accused. “The lawyers were submitting pay sheets to us, and we had to spend UN money wisely and justify the amounts we spent," said Le Chartier. "Therefore we were often in stressful situations, but Preira kept things under control with a smile.”

While working at the ICTR in Tanzania, Preira noticed that there was something missing in the way such ad hoc war crimes tribunals were run - the voice of the victims. Fomete told IWPR that “with others at the ICTR he sent a request to the United Nations to find a way of factoring the concerns of witnesses and victims into the judicial process”.

Accordingly, the 1998 Rome Statute that underpins the way the ICC works made ground-breaking provisions for victims to participate in the investigations of war crimes and of those individuals suspected of being responsible. So, when Preira came to the ICC in 2004, Fomete says he was “very aware of the necessity of having witnesses involved, and for making victims’ communities aware of their legal rights”.

Beyond this, because all the situations the ICC is so far dealing with are from Africa, it is important to understand the concerns and attitudes of African communities, and how to approach them, even before encouraging their participation with the ICC.

“Africa is a diverse continent, and I normally talk about it as ‘the Africas’,” Preira told IWPR, pointing out that within each region - north, south, east and west - there are differences.

He stressed that all victims of war crimes are vulnerable psychologically, economically and physically, and find it hard to document what they have suffered. “We need to explain how they can meet the standard of documentation we need, but also to alleviate their burdens," he said. "As an example, if they cannot prove their identity they can call reliable witnesses within their community to verify who they are.”

For a man who seems to know all the law books inside out and can recite statutes and legal clauses off the top of his head, Preira is also aware that judicial proceedings need to adapt to the reality on the ground. While the court cannot ignore the standards of permissible evidence, “mechanisms can be put in place whereby victims can, for example, put a fingerprint instead of signing their name if they have never held a pen before”.

At ad hoc tribunals like the ICTR, victims are used throughout the process as witnesses. At the ICC, however, they can also be heard as participants putting forward their views and concerns at stages of the proceedings deemed appropriate by the judges.

The hope is that this will provide insights which could even prompt Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, should he feel it appropriate, to widen the scope of his investigations.

“The prosecutor is investigating crimes for which these victims have suffered, so their views should be put forward,” said Preira, adding that in the case against Thomas Lubanga - an alleged Democratic Republic of the Congo militia leader who is so far the only person to have been arrested under the ICC's statute and brought to The Hague for trial - victims need to show that the harm they have suffered is linked to the specific crime for which he is being tried, the conscription of child soldiers.

Le Chartier said Preira’s clear-cut approach is perfect for dealing with victims, who come full of expectations, “We always have a dilemma in the UN - to tell the truth, or to be reserved. Didier tells people what they can expect and is very honest and straightforward.”

Another ICC innovation has been to set up a Trust Fund to provide victims of war crimes with reparations - an amount of money that can go some way to compensate for what they have suffered.

Preira said he firmly believes justice is not only about sentencing. “There are perpetrators of crimes, and there are victims," he said. "If the latter have suffered, they need to be compensated. They should play an active role as victims, and receive the compensation they deserve. The satisfaction that someone has been convicted may not be enough, but reparation is a way of ensuring that justice is completely done.”

Preira is adamant that the court has to seek the views of victims on compensation rather than imposing a system on them. “If communities want a traditional form of reparation, this will be taken into consideration," he said. "The ICC does not want its decision to disturb the cultural environment in which victims are living.”

Having practised private law in an African state and having worked for an international criminal tribunal in Africa, Preira is especially keen to see that African lawyers become more involved at the ICC.

Fomete agrees and told IWPR, “Lawyers like Preira know the culture and the environment that accused and victims are from. In most of our countries, people don't even have simple things like addresses, so it is important that African lawyers are part of the ICC pool.”

Preira worries that African lawyers see the ICC, which is based in The Hague, Holland, as an institution “far away”, but said they have the skills to play a major role in the way the court renders justice, “They can do it as prosecuting trial attorneys, as lawyers representing accused or victims, or as judges.”

To try to ensure this happens, Preira helps organise seminars across the continent to engage local lawyers in training. He feels it’s critical for them to be part of this “historical oeuvre”, which will be “very important in the history of Africa and for all humanity”.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Pandemic Highlights Cuban Chaos
Difficulty accessing basic supplies has made it hard to institute social distancing and lockdown measures.
Cuba: Mystery Surrounds Failed Aid Donation
Seeing Cuban Media Through a Gender Lens