Working at the United Nations ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – an interview with Dr Silvia D’Ascoli

Barbara Zak

Dr Silvia D’Ascoli is an international criminal lawyer from Italy. In her career, she worked inter alia at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), at the Mechanism for International Tribunals (IRMCT), and for human rights and humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International and INTERSOS. She also regularly lectures in Human Rights at the Catholic University of Lille (Faculté Libre de Droit), France. You can follow her on twitter.

1 – Could you tell us about your academic background and interesting internships or volunteer work that led you to choose to work in the international criminal law?

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© Dr Silvia D’Ascoli

I graduated in Law in Italy and later did a PhD in international law at the European University Institute (EUI). Since I always had a personal strong interest in human rights issues and international justice, when I was a university student I started working as a volunteer for the local group of Amnesty International in my hometown. That was a truly enriching experience that shaped the direction of my law studies. In fact, my interest for human rights and international justice brought me to specialise in international human rights immediately after the law degree, and then led me to take a master degree in international and transnational crimes.

During the course of this master, I applied for an internship at the UN ad hoc Tribunals (the ICTY: International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and the ICTR: International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). I was very glad to be accepted at the ICTY, where I then interned for six months for the Office of the Prosecutor. The work and legal challenges that I experienced during this six-month internship were so fascinating and unique that I fell in love with that job and understood that I wanted to pursue a career in that field. When I did my PhD in international law at the EUI, I presented a PhD project in the area of international criminal law, focusing in particular on the works and jurisprudence of the UN ad hoc Tribunals. I think this combined experience (practical, as I did an internship at one of these Tribunals; and academic, as I had a master and a PhD in international criminal law) were successful keys in later being able to secure a job in the field.

 

2 – You worked as a legal officer in the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICTY. What was the procedure to apply for this job? What did your work consist in?

I joined the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the ICTY in 2007. The recruitment process followed the standard process of UN applications: a vacancy is posted on the UN website (back then, the ICTY; currently: careers.un.org) and the application is submitted online. The applications are then screened to make a shortlist of candidates. I was shortlisted and invited for a written test. Having passed the written test, I was then invited for an interview. At the end of the whole process, an offer of employment is sent to the successful candidate(s). Needless to say, I was extremely happy and honoured to join the ICTY! I started working at the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICTY as Associate Legal Officer (P-2) and I later became Legal Officer (P-3). The difference between the two positions is in the level of seniority and in the years of experience required for the position. P-2 positions (like the Associate Legal Officer position I started with) are generally entry-level positions requiring a minimum of two years of working experience, while the following levels (P-3, P-4, etc.) require more years of working experience (for example, P-3 positions require a minimum of five years of relevant experience). Obviously, as the level of the positions increase, so do the responsibilities associated to the position.

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© Dr Silvia D’Ascoli

When I started working for the ICTY in 2007, I joined the Trial Section of the Office of the Prosecutor. This meant that I was assigned to a trial team working on an on-going case before a Trial Chamber of the ICTY. My work as Associate Legal Officer first, and then Legal Officer, consisted in working for the team as a co-counsel under the supervision of a Trial Attorney/Senior Trial Attorney. A substantial part of the work was to conduct legal research on a diverse range of factual, procedural and substantive issues in comparative criminal law, international criminal law, international humanitarian law, and human rights; prepare legal submissions for court, including briefs, motions, research papers and memoranda. I also conducted witness interviews, recorded witness statements, lead Prosecution witnesses in court and cross-examined Defense witnesses. In sum, the work was akin to that of a counsel working on a criminal case, with the difference that the framework was that of a trial before an international criminal court, dealing with international crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

3 – You also worked for the United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (UN-MICT). How was it different from your previous work at the ICTY?

I worked at the UN-MICT for about a year (2015/2016). This Mechanism is responsible for a number of functions derived from the ICTR and the ICTY, one of these functions being to conduct and complete all appeal proceedings against trial judgements, or sentences, pronounced by the ICTR, the ICTY, or the Mechanism itself. At the MICT, I worked in fact on the preparation of the appeals for the Karadzic case and the Seselj case. This involved, in addition to legal research and legal analysis, the review of the trial judgements, trial records, as well as the evidence relied upon by the Trial Chambers, in order to identify possible grounds of appeal; the preparation and drafting of the appeal briefs, and related motions. In sum, the main difference was that I worked on cases on appeals instead of cases on trial.

4 – I have read that you were the manager of a refugee/migrant-related project linked with the European Union Asylum, Migrations and Integration Fund (AMIF). Could you explain to us the essence of this project and the EU’s involvement in it?

Between 2016 and 2017 I worked as Project Manager for INTERSOS, a humanitarian organisation with headquarters in Rome, to coordinate a refugee/migrant-related project based in the city of Crotone, Calabria, aimed at offering medical, psychological and social assistance to asylum seekers. This project was based on an initial Centre that INTERSOS had in Crotone since 2014, when the organization opened its first polyclinic there, to offer medical assistance, social services and psychological support to migrants, asylum seekers and Italians living in poverty. In 2016, this polyclinic expanded and became part of a larger project funded through the European Union Asylum, Migrations and Integration Fund (AMIF). The EU’s involvement in the project was by providing funds through the AMIF – together with funds from the Italian Ministry of Interior – and to oversee the implementation of the project according to EU’s rules and procedures.

In 2017, the project was further expanded in collaboration with UNICEF to provide assistance to unaccompanied minors on a national scale. It included relief operations in the Central Mediterranean on board of the Italian Coast Guard units, and extensive monitoring of standards in reception centres all over Sicily. Furthermore, the project assisted unaccompanied minors in Italy at the main transit points.

5 – Could you share with us your experience as an active volunteer for Amnesty International, an NGO focused on human rights?

As I mentioned above, I joined Amnesty International (AI) when I was a university student in my hometown. I volunteered with the local group, helping with campaigning, fund-raising and human rights training. It was an amazing experience as it allowed me to gain a deeper level of understanding of human rights violations worldwide, to learn how to campaign, how to conceive effective actions and to advocate for human rights, and it also allowed me to connect with very inspiring people that worked relentlessly to make a difference in this world. Very quickly, I got involved in various campaigning activities at the local level (in my hometown and in my region), I cooperated at the national level with the Italian Section of AI in Rome, and ended up working also for the International Secretariat of AI in London. I remained with Amnesty International for over a decade, until I had to stop because of relocation and work-related reasons. Overall, during my years of activism with AI, I contributed to the organisation in different capacities: as a member of the national Training Network; member of the Board Committee on Human Resources and Membership of the Italian Section; member of the national Committee on Refugees and Immigration issues; member of the Board Committee on International Policy; member of the Italian Delegation to the 2007 International Council Meeting of AI, held in Mexico. I will be forever grateful to AI for everything I learned with the organisation, and for the amazing people and friends I met during those years.

6 – What would you advise to students who aspire to pursue a career in international criminal law?

International criminal law is an increasingly challenging and competitive field. My advice to those wishing to pursue a career in this field would be, first of all, after having completed their legal degree and legal training, to gain experience at the national level (whether that is as a defence lawyer, prosecutor, judge, or solicitor, etc.). I think professional experience and practice in domestic jurisdictions is essential as it prepares well for the challenges that a career in international criminal law presents. Further, recruiters in international tribunals value domestic experience and consider it an asset in candidates.

Second, I would also advise students to acquire some specific knowledge of international criminal law, either through specific graduate or post-graduate courses, master degrees or specialisation/training courses, or through internships in relevant organisations/tribunals.

A combination of domestic practice and field-specific knowledge would make their profile pretty strong and interesting to the eyes of recruiters.

 

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview and for your time.

 

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