THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — If she had been working for the prosecution, Lena Casiez would have enjoyed four months of maternity leave. But as a legal assistant for a defense team at the International Criminal Court, Casiez worked until five days before she went into labor and returned to the office immediately after the birth.
ICC staff enjoy a variety of perks including paid time off, a comfortable pension, parental leave and even a biyearly paid trip to visit one's homeland. But defense counsel and even many who support the victims of war crimes and genocide have no such benefits. They work without employment contracts, sick leave, vacation time or even protection from harassment.
“This is a human rights issue for us, but also a fair trial rights issue for our clients,” Sara Pedroso, one of the defense lawyers at The Hague-based court, said in an interview Thursday as she stood with some 20 others in the cold rain outside of the conference center where the court's governing body, the Assembly of States Parties, was holding its annual meeting. Many defense and victims' counsel wanted to attend the annual meeting of countries who are involved in the ICC but were informed with less than 24 hours' notice that they would not be allowed inside.
Legal Aid Policy
In July of this year, a group of defense lawyers sent a letter to the court’s registrar, a neutral office at the court that handles administrative issues, asking for their staff to be placed on the same contracts given to prosecution staff. Pay for defense counsel has been frozen since 2013, and they lack basic labor protections that are normally guaranteed by European Union employment law as well as the law of the Netherlands, where the court was set up by a treaty in 2002.
Nearly all defendants before the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes are declared indigent. Their defense is funded by the court itself, and remuneration for both defense and victims counsel is dedicated by the ICC’s Legal Aid Policy.
The legal aid system at the court aims to ensure “adequate, effective and efficient legal representation.” It considers defense teams and, many of those who represent victims, to be external staff and excludes them from the otherwise generous benefits given to those who work for the court itself, including the Office of the Prosecutor.
The court’s registrar, Peter Lewis, says his hands are tied by the policy. In August, in response to the letter from defense lawyers, Lewis said he hoped an agreement to update the policy for 2025 could be reached during the assembly's annual meeting.
Lewis, who has held the office since 2018, has been aware of the issue since he took the role. A 2017 report commissioned by his predecessor called for support staff to be given compensation equal to those who work at the court.
Like the defense lawyers, 33 support staff from both defense teams and those representing victims sent a letter to the registrar in early September that requested the same contracts available to their prosecution counterparts. Letters were also sent from the teams of several defendants, including Alfred Yékatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, militia leaders from the Central African Republic who are charged with murder, torture and the destruction of religious sites.
“I support my team,” Yékatom told his lead lawyer Mylène Dimitri when she explained the situation. Dimitri has already lost two staffers because of the working conditions. “I can’t effectively represent my client without these people,” she told Courthouse News. Casiez, who gave birth in the lead-up to the trial's opening, wrote motions while breastfeeding her 1-month-old.