Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Culture at the International Criminal Court

 ‘An international criminal justice system is an exercise in public international law, comparative law, language, and culture.’ 

(Christopher L. Blakesley, ‘Wrestling Tyrants: Do We Need an International Criminal Justice System?’ (2017) 48 University of the Pacific Law Review 175, 177.)

I was pleased recently to contribute a chapter to a publication project out of Utrecht University, based on the important theme “Intersections of Law and Culture at the International Criminal Court”.

My own chapter is based on the findings of an ethnographic research project, begun in 2017, that examines how the ICC addresses the challenges of multilingualism. My research seeks to answer the following questions: 1) How does the ICC funOfficial Opening of the Permanent Premises of the ICCction in a fluid linguistic landscape where a new “situation language” – one relevant to ICC investigations, trial proceedings, victim-related services and outreach activities – can be added at any moment as the Court opens investigations, confirms charges, reaches out to witnesses and affected communities, and carries out trials? 2) How does the ICC handle the special challenges of working with languages of lesser diffusion? 3) How do differences in culture compound those associated with differences in language? And 4) How do language and culture issues play out in day-to-day operations of the Court?

It is clear that the International Criminal Court is an institution characterized by multilingualism at all levels. Not only do staff members themselves hail from diverse language communities, but it has two working languages and the situation languages bring many more modes of communication into the institutional mix.  I argue, however, that while the presence of, and need to communicate in, many languages may be obvious to those involved in the work of the ICC, the multiplicity of cultural understandings and stances that are a corollary to linguistic diversity may be less so.

Through conducting 60 interviews – to date –  focused on language issues, along with observations of trials and other Court activities, it has become obvious that cultural challenges emerge frequently as staff members carry out their diverse roles. Sometimes cultural issues are easily recognizable, for example when witnesses are unable to answer questions about dates or time of year with specificity, or when victims of sexual violence must overcome cultural norms in order to describe their experiences publicly and in detail. Much less recognizable, and sometimes invisible, are the assumptions and understandings inherent in the Court’s own institutional arrangements and the conceptual framework underlying its ‘global fight to end impunity’. Culture tends to be ascribed to people and places in situation countries, while the powerful set of beliefs and practices that shape how the Court conducts its work in The Hague and communicates its messages outward remains under-examined by its very own actors.

My contribution aims to lay bare a broad spectrum of cultural impacts found at the Court, using the perceptions and words of interviewees along with pertinent scholarship and published commentary. It begins by describing the language/culture nexus and establishing a working definition of ‘culture’ for the purposes of the chapter. Subsequent sections illustrate two categories of cultural phenomena that impact the work of the ICC – those that are explicit or largely recognized, and those that are more implicit in that they may pass unnoticed or not be considered cultural at all. The chapter ends by suggesting some basic notions about culture(s) that Court staff members and others involved in the institution’s work would do well to keep in mind as they carry out their various functions.

Readers are invited to read my entire paper here. You can also read an earlier blogpost on this ethnographic project. I welcome all comments and suggestions, as always.


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