01 Mar The Impact of Unpaid Internships at the ICC on the Development and Legitimacy of the ICC
[Karl Kemp is a freelance South African journalist whose work has appeared, inter alia, in VICE and Rolling Stone magazine.]
The controversy and angst engendered by the subject of unpaid internships is nothing new to my generation. In 2015, an UN intern in Geneva was found sleeping in a tent next to the city’s eponymous lake, unable to afford housing, having lied on his application form regarding the fact that he had sufficient means to support him during the program. The world’s paid-internship advocacy groups have come into ever-sharper focus since, as UN interns around the globe staged protests and walkouts. International organizations, and the UN in particular, have become notorious for their lack of paid internship and entry-level positions.
As I write, myself and dozens of my fellow LL.M public international law graduates from the University of Amsterdam class of 2017 are embroiled in a seemingly futile struggle to break into a subsection of this world – that of international criminal justice. This problem is patent and pressing in the UN system generally, and yet it has particular bearing upon the institutions of international criminal law, and especially the under-fire ICC.
Though the Hague-based court and standard-bearer for international criminal justice has been facing an onslaught of think-pieces and media glamorizing regarding its alleged ‘racial bias’ since time immemorial, there are other, more tangible and less clickbait-worthy issues that needs be solved. Many of my former classmates have attempted to survive on a shoestring budget working internships before relenting and turning to the lucrative corporate private international law world in Amsterdam. Others take low-paid positions at academic research institutions or manage social media accounts for legal think-tanks in order to ‘get a foot in the door’. Whilst admirable, and of course serving a vital part of legal development, this imbalanced state of affairs serves to keep potentially brilliant lawyers from the judiciary and further adds to a field of professional commentators rather than practitioners.
The question of unpaid internships is not a purely moral or ethical one. Quite clearly, there are budget constraints and other factors that the general public are not privy to which influence the ICC’s spending priorities. Rather, the problem is that unpaid internships have a real and tangible impact on the work of the ICC and the development of international criminal law generally. The institution should prioritise a sustainable policy of centralized training in order to avoid a crisis of legitimacy. Should a crisis of legitimacy arise, the moral aspect of the debate will come into play regardless of the court’s best intentions.
Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that a lack of a salaried staff of interns is the root cause of the ICC’s woes, but it does represent a useful symbolic representation of a more abstract issue that touches at the roots of the ICC’s legal culture – that of a lack of a sustainable, future-orientated approach to the persons that will eventually people its halls and be tasked with delivering the aforementioned international criminal justice, and the effect this has on the court’s overall trajectory.
The link between inefficiency and unpaid internships may be extrapolated as follows: The ICC’s work, and that of its forebears, is often accused of being hampered by a clashing of legal cultures and an unsettled legal practice engendered by the attempted fusion of continental and common law procedures. It has been argued by scholars that this approach leads to inefficiency and a lowering of fair-trial standards.
Specifically, Jackson and Brunger note that
“the process of harmonization has developed in a pragmatic manner on the basis of those procedures that seemed most accessible to hand and has resulted in a procedural convergence of largely ‘adversarial’ structures. Yet such a convergence…was achieved without a shared consensus as to how these structures were to be utilized for the purposes of doing international justice. This absence of consensus created a vacuum for an inevitable fragmentation of practice.”
As a standard-bearing court, these kinds of issues leave the ICC more vulnerable to external criticism, and rightly so. Any globalized institution that acts outside national sovereignty should be held to the utmost standards of fairness and legitimacy. This means that efficient, fair and transparent procedures at the ICC are of paramount importance. The work of the ICC must be the benchmark standard for international criminal justice and as such any missteps are detrimental to perceptions of legitimacy – and hence key to the project of international justice
Currently, the ICC more resembles an ad hoc body of lawyers with already settled ideas of what legal practice entail, which then necessitates an overly flexible and inefficient system to compensate. For example, the abstract system of free proof evidence, in which evidence is freely admitted and weighed in totality at the end of proceedings, has come under fire by scholars like Peter Murphy, who accuse it of placing the accused in a precarious position regarding their trial rights by creating ‘evidential debris’. He notes that “in addition to making trials much longer and more complex than they need be, such evidential debris poisons the record and ultimately makes it more difficult for judges to assess the weight of the evidence and arrive at the truth”. Scholars have further questioned issues such as the role of the judge in proceedings, whether rules of evidence should be applied, and what role witness statements should play. These are all sharply distinguished in the various legal traditions, and it is unsurprising that lawyers trained in one or the other have difficulty accepting and putting into practice that with which they are not familiar.
These ingrained approaches, continental and common and all the various substrata of them, are baggage brought with lawyers from domestic jurisdictions, and that this has carried on happening despite the ICC now being operative for a generation, may be partly ascribed to the policy of unpaid internships and related matters pertaining to a failure to invest in young lawyers. The combined practice of unpaid internships and a lack of centralized, specialized legal training forces aspirant lawyers and advocates like myself and many of those in my former classes to train at domestic levels (if we have not given up on ICL entirely) in hopes of coming back to the ICC with sufficient experience to gain a paid position – and hence reinforces the paradigm of clashing legal cultures, and hence contributes to the aforementioned unsettled legal practice and inefficiency of procedure. And of course, it is those from developing countries who labour most under the living costs of The Hague, (consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in Europe) – those that the work of international courts most affect, and who have most of a stake in the success of the court.
Given the uniquely limited range of entry-level positions and the internships that take their place in such a system, these few opportunities simply must be made as accessible as possible to as many aspiring criminal lawyers as possible. Paying interns and centralizing and prioritizing training and practical education from the ground up should thus be a core component of a new strategy to address inefficiencies. It would go some ways to ensure that international criminal lawyers are exactly that – not criminal lawyers who are forced to adapt to a system which does not have a jury, or rules of evidence admission, or does have a complete dossier approach, or does allow hearsay, or any other example from the wide range of clashes at the ICC.
Obviously, paying interns will not resolve the issue entirely. There is no international bar exam, and domestic qualifications will remain necessary for the foreseeable future should young lawyers wish to eventually appear in court. But attracting young persons to a secure financial working environment will allow for a focusing of effort and ideas; interns that will learn the workings of the ICC and international criminal law before they are influenced by domestic systems – lawyers whose foundations are laid in the field, upon which to build, rather than the other way around. The distinction is fundamentally important, and should serve to guide the ICC in developing a workable strategy.
It would appear that few career paths are more difficult to navigate, more frustrating to tread, more confusing to reach the top of, than international criminal law. Young aspirant international criminal lawyers need a measure of reassurance that the field is developing and welcoming to those who wish to practice, as opposed to comment or proselytize. We cannot all be academics and scholars; a horde of know-better’s pressganging a small body of litigators, prosecutors and defence counsels. The ICC simply has to broaden its approach or we will wallow in the politics we so desperately need to be divorced from, risking being known as a profession of chatter rather than action.
Case selection controversy may eventually be resolved as it is not a constitutive element of the ICC in that it does not affect its structure or function. The same cannot be said of the bare-bones composition of the court from the ground- up – and by prioritising legal training and reforming a vision for the future of ICL, the court would do better in ensuring long-term sustainability. Paying its interns would be a huge step in that direction.