Study Examines Impact of Testifying Before International Criminal Tribunal

Credit: ICTY
Credit: ICTY

The Victims and Witnesses Section (VWS) of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has issued a report entitled Echoes of Testimonies: A Pilot Study into the long-term impact of bearing witness before the ICTY, which recommends programs to ensure witness safety and shares the findings of a four-year study on the overall impact of testifying before the ICTY, the court established to prosecute those most responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. [ICTY Press Release] As its work comes to a close, the ICTY sought to understand the perspectives of, and consequences for, the more than 5,000 witnesses who participated in the court’s proceedings. See id. According to the report, although the process of testifying is different for each witness, most participants reported positive experiences, describing perceived safety after testifying and feeling fairly treated by the ICTY. The VWS is now encouraging international judicial institutions to follow up with witnesses and to establish ties with the witnesses’ communities, reasoning that such reforms can better protect the well-being of participants who testify in criminal trials.

Report Findings

The ICTY cooperated with the Castleberry Peace Institute of the University of North Texas (UNT) in carrying out the study, which involved interviews with 300 fact witnesses who have testified before the ICTY. See UNT and ICTY-VWS, Echoes of Testimonies: A Pilot Study into the long-term impact of bearing witness before the ICTY (2016). The participating witnesses came from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and Croatia and were randomly selected for brief interviews between 2013 and 2015. The report explains the workings of the VWS and the study methodology, before describing the interviewees’ profiles and laying out the study’s results.

According to the report, most of the witnesses interviewed through the study described altruistic motivations for testifying, such as helping the judges arrive at an accurate conclusion and lending victims needed assistance. Some testified with in-court protective measures, while others testified publicly. Most reported feeling relatively safe after testifying, as well as generally optimistic about their lives today. The majority of the participants also denied that testifying had negatively impacted their health. See id.

While most interviewees reported experiencing no harm as a result of testifying, a “significant number” indicated they had been negatively impacted, including as a result of threats to their safety, criticism from others, and economic consequences. See id. at 69. Moreover, the study authors recognized a lack of comprehensive data on the short- and long-term impact of testifying on witnesses’ psychological and physical well-being. While a majority have not had significant health consequences, some found testifying to be emotionally and physically challenging. Nonetheless, the report finds support for the idea that the experience of testifying was “not intrinsically traumatic,” so long as witnesses had support and employed internal coping strategies. See id. at 94.

Witnesses before the ICTY believed that “the judicial process has been too slow, the sentences often too lenient, and that guilty pleas sentences have not served the interests of justice,” but perceived the ICTY proceedings as fair overall and fair towards witnesses. See id. at 104.

Previous Findings on Witness Participation in International Criminal Proceedings

In 2015, the Human Rights Center (HRC) at UC Berkeley School of Law conducted a similar study that examined the experiences of victim participants who had taken part in trials at the International Criminal Court (ICC). See Human Rights Center, The Victims’ Court? A Study of 622 Victim Participants at the International Criminal Court (2015). The HRC interviewed 622 victim participants and dozens of informants in four countries – Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda – where the ICC had begun adjudicating major international crimes. Id. at 2. This study was conducted independently of the ICC itself. Id. at 8.

Overall, the HRC’s findings were less positive than those of the VWS’s study of witnesses before the ICTY. The HRC indicated that most of the victims did not know enough about the ICC to make well-informed decisions regarding their participation in its cases. Id. at 71. Their level of knowledge was often related to where they lived; participants in rural communities tended to have an inferior understanding of the ICC than did their urban counterparts. Specifically, participants from urban Cote d’Ivoire had a strong understanding of the ICC and what it meant to be a victim participant, whereas those from rural Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya typically lacked comparable knowledge. See id.

The study also found that most of the participants wanted the ICC to deliver convictions, with few reporting doubts about whether the accused were actually guilty. Additionally, most indicated that they had expected to receive reparations for their contributions, and that this expectation largely motivated their decision to join the ICC cases. See id.

Victim participants also indicated that filling out ICC applications boosted their confidence in the judicial process, giving them assurance that the Court would learn their experiences and use that knowledge to build a case. However, few reported wanting to testify in person at The Hague, partly out of fear that doing so could put them at risk for future retaliation. The vast majority of participants felt comfortable taking part in the trials through intermediaries rather than in person. Even so, some participants continued to fear reprisals because of their ties to the ICC. Moreover, many felt disillusioned by the substantial length of the ICC’s judicial process. See id. at 72.

Based on these findings, the HRC made several recommendations to the ICC. First, it highlighted the importance of increasing ICC transparency to eliminate false expectations of compensation from taking part in trials. The HRC argued that making such reforms could yield more efficiency in the victim participation process by identifying those victims who are motivated by a desire to provide material assistance to the Court. See id. at 73. Furthermore, the HRC recommended that the ICC employ more legal assistants in ICC situation countries, reasoning that having regular opportunities to learn about ICC activities and developments could lead to more meaningful witness participation. See id. The HRC also recommended that the ICC implement reforms to speed up the trial process and train ICC staff to be more transparent about what the Court can actually provide victim participants. See id. As for the States that are parties to the ICC, the HRC encouraged them to invest in outreach and educational programs for victim participants, especially for those who lived in rural areas. See id. at 74.

Additional Information

For more information on international humanitarian law, international criminal law, the ICTY, and the ICC, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.