Congolese journalist Gaïus Kowene had the opportunity to visit the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently.
“I finally get a chance to go to the ICC. Before me two gigantic white towers, surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. The closer I get, the harder my heart beats! I imagine the courtroom, rituals seen on television and – especially – my former vice president, Jean Pierre Bemba, sitting obediently. He’s being prosecuted for his alleged role in war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by his militia in the Central African Republic.
A surprise: the doors do not open automatically. Then through security control, I rush to the front desk, where a man is waiting for me, a little tough-looking, like a Hollywood actor.
“How can I help you, sir? ” he asks me kindly. Stage fright makes my voice shake, but I manage to stay calm. I tell him that I am here for the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba. He explains: “Sir, the judge has decided this morning that the hearing will be closed. Even people already in the room must go out.”
I keep Zen, don’t show my disgust. Quickly, I turn towards the exit, as if nothing had happened, with a sense of both anger and disappointment. The previous week, the ICC had also had cancelled a hearing without explanation. And then there was the status conference for The Terminator, Bosco Ntaganda, which lasted just one hour even though it had been scheduled for an entire day. And finally, the trial I tried to participate in at the last minute, now behind closed doors, without warning … What a slap in the face!
I tried to understand and got this response from the ICC Public Affairs Office.
But the answer seems too vague. “The Chamber had ruled, in consultation with the Unit for victims and witnesses, to hold the hearing in camera due to protective measures for this witness. The Chamber found today that the same measure of protection should apply for the testimony in progress. “
Yes, okay, let’s protect the witness. But must the ICC always wait until the last minute to make this provision? The hearings are supposed to be prepared in advance, in every detail. For an average citizen who visits the ICC for the first time, it gives the impression of a big machine with super disorganized improvisation as the order of the day.
Personally, I know that in any human endeavour there are imperfections and that sometimes it is necessary to make changes at the last minute. I do not claim to be a guru, but I believe more effective communication would, at least, keep the ICC’s improvisations covered, by informing people on time.”