In June 2017, I observed the testimony of a prosecution witness in The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Ongwen stands accused of directing attacks by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in May 2004 against civilians in an internally displaced persons’ camp in northern Uganda. The alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by those under Ongwen’s command include murder, enslavement, inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering, cruel treatment of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, and pillaging.
The witness testifying that day was a victim of the attacks. She recounted how her newborn child was thrown into the bush by the attackers, and how she was subsequently pursued and brutally beaten as she searched for her baby. As a protected witness, her face was purposely distorted so that she was unrecognizable to the public. But her background was nonetheless clear – her experiences were that of a young woman from a rural area, her dress was traditional, and she testified in Acholi.
How does such a witness find herself in The Hague, addressing international judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers in a modern courtroom that is outfitted with the latest technology? Who takes her initial witness statement? Helps her arrange her travel to Europe once she has been selected to testify? Meets her at the airport upon arrival? Finds her suitable clothing for the European weather and helps her settle into her accommodation? Who orients her to the courtroom procedures, the microphones she will speak into, and the images that will flash before her on a screen? And very importantly, who interprets her critical testimony about what she experienced from Acholi into the working languages of the Court, English and French, conveying the tone of her speech along with her inevitable hesitation and emotion, so that it can become part of the official trial record?
These are just some of the questions I seek to answer through an ethnographic project I began in 2017, which I have tentatively titled “Global Court, Local Languages: How the ICC Pursues Multilingual Justice.” It is true that every international court must accommodate in some way the multilingualism found both across its geographic jurisdiction and within its own professional ranks. This task may not be particularly daunting, however, if the court has official or working languages that are widely spoken and for which there exists a large cadre of trained translators and interpreters. For institutions that must accommodate speakers of rarer languages, the challenges are considerably greater. Indeed, the difficulties associated with using such languages throughout the various phases of an international criminal process may raise fundamental questions about accuracy, fairness, and budgetary allocation.
As an anthropologist with a background in African sociolinguistics, I am particularly interested in the use of African languages in a wide range of ICC activities. A number of challenges arise in the course of these activities, stemming from a variety of factors. These include the absence of trained language professionals for many of the target languages, the lack of existing lexical items to denote international legal concepts, the languages’ frequent lack of a written tradition, and low rates of literacy in victim communities
The ICC is currently using more than thirty languages from the African continent in its investigations, trials, interactions with victims, and outreach activities. Despite the centrality of these languages to various ICC situations and cases, African language experts, along with the structures created to support their work, operate largely in the shadows. Furthermore, the innovative strategies developed by ICC language services staff around recruitment and training of African language interpreters, development of legal lexicons, and other vital activities are rarely acknowledged publicly. Despite the obvious multilingual nature of all ICC situations and cases, the constant use of interpretation and translation (even between its working languages), and the visible presence of interpreters in the courtroom, the Court’s language services remain strangely unseen and unsung.
I recently finalized a paper that presents some of the preliminary findings from this research project – “Unseen and Unsung: ICC Language Services and their Impact on Institutional Legitimacy.” This paper, prepared for a PluriCourts conference in October 2017 on the theme of “The Legitimacy of Unseen Actors in International Adjudication,” is currently under review for publication. I also had the opportunity to present these findings at the ICC itself, to an audience comprising language service professionals along with judges and other staff members.
I welcome all comments and suggestions on my paper, available at the link above, as well as my larger ongoing project.