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Does the rest of Africa feel as removed from the ICC as I did?

The trial of former Ivory Coast president, Laurent Gbagbo is currently underway at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Rumana Akoob reflects on the day that she spent inside the court, watching the trial of a man charged with committing crimes against humanity against the Ivorian people.

The ICC is responsible for investigating and, if warranted, trying individuals charged with the crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Former Ivory Coast president, Laurent Gbagbo is being tried for crimes against humanity, including rape and murder, committed by the state’s defence and security forces and political militias between December 2010 and April 2011, after he lost the presidential elections.

He was arrested in April 2011 after the UN Security Council passed resolution 1975 (2011), repeating its calls for Gbagbo to step down and urged an immediate end to the violence against civilians. Following military operations conducted by forces loyal to the opposition, President Alassane Ouattara, UNOCI and French Licorne troops, Gbagbo was arrested and placed in the custody of President Alassane Ouattara’s government. He was under house arrest till October 2011 when an ICC warrant of arrest was signed by Ivorian state prosecutor, Simplice Kouadio. The ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo visited the country and the ICC opened an investigation in October 2011 into acts of violence committed after the election. Gbagbo’s trial started in January this year.

All this took place after around 3, 000 people perished and others lived to tell tales of their terror. Since the court’s inception in 2002, Gbagbo is the highest profile person to be tried by the ICC.

I travelled to Den Haag or The Hague in the Netherlands with 19 other journalists on what some may dispute and call a propaganda trip (since it was sponsored by the Dutch government in the wake of South Africa announcing its leave from the ICC, some thought maybe they wanted us to visit the court to convince us of its successes) and we were lucky enough to visit the actual court.

The court is fairly new, being established in 2002, but because it was based in a city with many other courts such as the court for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice, which countries from around the world worked together to build it and take responsibility of each fixture, I expected a beautiful courtroom that told many stories with its architecture. Unfortunately, the ICC did not have a good story to tell. Not for me, anyway.

We arrived early but as a large group, we were only allowed through the security check five at a time. It was so cold outside that you had to wear at least three layers of clothing – certainly not weather an African was accustomed to. Before walking into the courtroom, I checked for the South African flag. I got a little panicky when I couldn’t find it at first, and thought it would be the first and last time I saw our flag at the ICC because of our withdrawal. As I entered the elevated viewing gallery in court with nothing but a pen and notebook, I saw we were separated from the court by glass.

The judge, a white, middle-aged man, sat about ten metres opposite us. It did not seem to be a great morning for him, as he was short with the female defence lawyer on the left of the court. He kept telling her to change her questions because they were suggestive, “Can you tell me if this is the death certificate of your brother?” she asked the witness, to which the judge rolled his eyes and said, “I would have asked if he could tell us what the document is.” Most of the people in the court – journalists and NGO workers – had on headsets which interpreted the testimony into the language of their preference. The defence lawyer was interviewing a witness who was stationed in the stand under us, so we could only see him on the screen provided in the viewing deck.

He spoke in French of the loss of his brother at a protest and how that day haunted him. We were instructed not to identify the witness, but his account of the day he was shot when he protested with thousands, seeing people attacked, and recurring nightmares as a result of the violence reflect a fraction of the horror the rest of the country went through during the conflict.

While listening to this I looked at the man who sat on the right of me in court. A colleague nudged me and said it was Gbagbo. He had a sullen look on his face. It was the face of the man who may be responsible for thousands of murders and rapes. He was dressed in a grey suit, a baby blue shirt and a blue tie.

A he listened to the witness, he examined each document while squinting at the screen before him with what seemed to be great interest. He took slow and deliberate sips of water from a disposable cup while he listened.

His co-accused, Blé Goudé was the Minister for Sports and Youth in Laurent Gbagbo’s government, and is also on trial for crimes against humanity. He sat about three metres away from Gbagbo in striped black and white traditional Ivorian clothing. He sat inattentive, looking around and for a period, with his index finger and thumb on his chin.

The court was nothing like I expected. It was devoid of character, with rows of desks and chairs for the defence and accused’s legal teams, witnesses and the accused. The concrete and sharp angles with cameras pointing in every direction made me feel unsettled.

The whole experience felt very surreal. The court has been like a fairytale we read about at school and have never been in direct contact with. We are so removed from the ICC, because of its location I assume, and our reliance on wire news. Despite finally physically being there I still had to put on a headset and listen to court proceedings from behind glass, which kept me feeling removed. The only difference between watching the trial on TV and sitting at the court was the moment that Gbagbo locked eyes with me. He looked helpless but I did not feel anything but the guilt of a spectator. It’s been my job to inform the public for four – going on five – years, but there, I felt like an invader, having a fellow African peering up at me from below.

While I sat there, many questions arose in this problematic space. Was it okay that so many Africans sat behind glass each day and were watched by people in a far off land? Was it okay that mothers poured their hearts out to strangers who couldn’t even understand a word they said, without help from interpreters? Was it okay that the court is full of people who could not relate to victims, such as judges may not have experienced conflict in their own home countries?

I was happy to leave the courtroom after that display of survivor and accused. Shipped to Europe then have people gaze at you through glass… sounds familiar?

The fact that most of the cases investigated by the ICC are of African countries was brought up often on this trip, as was the question that other African states may follow South Africa’s example and withdraw from the ICC as well. While I disagree with South Africa’s withdrawal from the ICC, I also disagree with the court’s setting for for witnesses, victims and survivors. Maybe it’s time that the ICC meets with African leaders to discuss the complaints that the ICC is biased, rather than continuing to accept African states’ notices of withdrawal from the court.

About Rumana Akoob

Rumana Akoob
Rumana is multimedia journalist who likes pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.

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