Court of last resort offers international opportunities

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UQ Law students are taking their skills from the Queensland class room to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as they complete internships to expand their practical law experience. The ICC is “a court of last resort for the prosecution of serious international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity”, and is located in The Hague, Netherlands. Two UQ students shared their experiences with us – Keilin Anderson reflects on her five-month internship as she returns to Australia, while Nora Abdalla shares her excitement and nerves as she prepares to depart for a six-month stint as an intern within the Investigation Division of the Office of the Prosecutor.

Keilin Anderson

I have just completed a five-month internship with a Judge of the ICC, specifically in trial chambers where I worked on a number of cases including those currently in hearings, at the sentencing stage and in the reparations phase.

What attracted you to this internship?

After spending the last two years participating in and then coaching UQ’s Jessup International Law Moot team I developed a deep interest in public international law – in large part thanks to the incredible support and mentoring of academics such as Professor Anthony Cassimatis and Dr Caitlin Goss.

I was eager to complement this academic interest with practical experience and to gain an understanding of what working in international criminal law entails. I am drawn to the field both on the principled level of ending impunity for atrocious international crimes but also on a more practical or procedural level. So many of the Court’s approaches to issues of procedure and evidence remain in development and flux which affords a huge degree of legal creativity and makes day-to-day work both challenging and rewarding.

Keilin stands with the ICC flag - white on blue.

Keilin with the ICC flag.

Keilin with the ICC flag.

With 2018 marking the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute I also think that now is an incredibly important time to gain a better understanding of the Court, its strengths and, indeed, its shortcomings. It is no secret that the ICC is under increasing scrutiny with States such as Burundi, South Africa and The Philippines taking steps to withdraw from the Rome Statute. Just one month into my internship, John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, delivered his scathing speech which declared the ICC as ‘dead’ to the US – this sure made for interesting lunchtime discussion! I think that the best way to constructively contribute to these debates and to defend a robust but balanced system of international criminal law is to gain actual insight into the Court, its work and the people working tirelessly to achieve the goals envisioned some 20 years ago.

What was the highlight for you?

The very opportunity of contributing to the work of the Court each day and simply attending and assisting with an ongoing trial has been the highlight of my entire legal studies and experiences to date.

I have also been able to work with some of the most intelligent but also passionate colleagues, immensely improved my knowledge of international criminal and humanitarian law, refined my research, drafting and French skills and am leaving with a new network of lifelong friends from across the world that share a common value of working towards a more just world.

What were the challenges?

Obviously, funding an unpaid internship is always a huge challenge. In that regard, I am particularly grateful for the financial support of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law and the National Council of Women Queensland.

I was also completing my final full time semester of my Law and Arts degrees while overseas so had to juggle my work at the Court with assignments and carefully calculating deadlines with a ten-hour time difference.

Another challenge was learning to look beyond my common law training to consider approaches to legal issues in other countries and especially in civil law systems. While challenging, this was actually a huge highlight of my time at the Court. I was able to learn from colleagues from a wide array of legal and cultural backgrounds, observe the different approaches of Judges from civil and common law systems and ultimately reflect on the Australian approach to issues of criminal law, evidence and procedure. During my time at the Court, Australian Professor Anthea Roberts gave her impressive lecture on the question of ‘Is International Law International?’. One of Professor Roberts’ key messages was that in considering different approaches to international law she was better able to understand her own views, beliefs and assumptions. This is true of my experience at the ICC. I hopefully have not only become a better student of international law but am also returning home with a deeper understanding of our own domestic procedures and principles.

Professor Anthea Roberts on Is International Law International?

What did an average day or week look like for you?

An average day usually started by riding my bike to work through the typically cold, wet and dark Dutch mornings. I would usually have hearings which meant putting on my robes and heading to Court ready to observe and summarise witness testimony. Other common tasks included legal research on issues of international and comparative criminal law, attending meetings with the team and Judges, summarising the parties’ submissions and assisting with the drafting and proofreading of decisions.

After work I was also able to make the most of being based in The Hague where there is always an interesting lecture or conference on international law happening. Living in Europe also meant lots of weekends away to nearby countries and incredible opportunities like attending the centenary of the end of World War One at Villers-Bretonneux and a reception at the Australian Ambassador to France’s residence. Commemorating the centenary of the end of ‘the war to end all wars’ was a particularly moving experience amidst my work on cases concerning horrific conflicts and alleged war crimes.

Would you recommend this opportunity to other students?

If you have an interest in international criminal law then definitely! I would also encourage students to seek out opportunities at home including the Jessup Moot, the Pro Bono Centre’s fantastic offering of international and human rights focused projects and general work experience in local firms.

This will not only help you demonstrate your interest in the field but will mean you can contribute more meaningfully and learn even more during an internship.

What’s next for you?

I am currently completing The Hague Academy of International Law’s inaugural Winter Course on Private and Public International Law. After that I will be returning to Australia to commence as a Judge's associate at the Federal Court before starting as a graduate at Ashurst in 2020. Longer term I am hoping to pursue post-graduate studies, get more hands on practical experience in international law and hopefully one day carve a career in public international law and advocacy.

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

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Nora Abdalla

I will be at the ICC for six months as an intern within the Investigation Division of the Office of the Prosecutor. My role will be to assist the Investigative Analysis Section in their collation, analysis and processing of evidence for certain cases.

What attracted you to this internship?

To be honest, at the end of my degrees I was still unsure about where I wanted to go. This internship offered me the opportunity to explore an area of law I’ve always been interested in, while gaining valuable, practical insight into how international criminal investigations operate.

I figured there was only so much I could read about the subject and it would be worthwhile to just go ahead and see it for myself.
Nora stands in the sandstone cloisters at UQ.

Nora in UQ's Great Court.

Nora in UQ's Great Court.

What do you hope to get out of it?

I’ve only been here a week and I am already getting so much out of it. I’ve met heaps of great people who are passionate and dedicated to the organisation. I’m also gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the prosecution process – from early referral and admissibility stages through investigative analysis right up to the trial stages. I’m hoping the experience will help me to better understand the options available to me in this sphere and what causes I might want to contribute to in the early stages of my career.

Is there any parts of it that make you nervous, or excited?

To be honest, everything about moving overseas for an unpaid internship is challenging. I’m settling into a different lifestyle, finding the means to support myself with no earning rights, and just generally uprooting mid-Queensland summer to go live somewhere 30 degrees colder. At work, I’m also more involved in a stage of prosecution that is very unfamiliar to me and relying a lot on secondary language skills. But I'm excited to learn all I can and am very aware of how fortunate I am to be here, so I'm committed to fully embracing it - nerves and all!

The whole experience is taking me far outside my comfort zone personally and professionally, which I’ve always thought was the best way to learn.

So overall there’s a lot to be excited about!

Nora poses with flags from many countries.

Nora at the International Criminal Court.

Nora at the International Criminal Court.

What will you do after you’ve finished the internship?

I’m trying to not plan too far ahead, I expect this experience to redirect me somewhat in terms of where to aim my efforts. As things currently stand, I’ll be back in July to begin my practical legal training and gain my admission.

Learn more about UQ Law internship and work experience opportunities online.

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Photo by Brett Zeck on Unsplash

Photo by Brett Zeck on Unsplash