An Intern’s Insight into International Criminal Law

Over the summer break of 2014 I headed to Phnom Penh for a three month internship at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). This special Cambodian Court, with the assistance of the United Nations, has been charged with ascertaining the truth behind the alleged crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

When applying, I decided to put the Defence Support Section as my first preference and I was fortunate enough to be accepted. There were two principal reasons why I wanted to work for the Defence. From a legal point of view, I have always been interested in defence and fair trial rights. Additionally, on a more personal level, I wanted to challenge myself to separate any preconceived notions I may have had about the regime and really focus on the work and the client. We are told at law school that this skill is fundamental and necessary in the legal profession and I knew that the ECCC, with its confronting subject matter, would pose a real challenge.

Within the Defence Support Section, I was fortunate enough to work on Case 002, which was at the trial stage by the time I arrived in Cambodia. I was on the defence team for Nuon Chea (otherwise known as Brother Number Two) who is on trial for genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and violations of the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code.

I was one of two interns in a team of 9 national and international staff. My duties were primarily focused on trial preparation. This involved both research and evidentiary analysis. It also meant I was in the Chambers at least two days a week, monitoring and analysing the trial. I truly loved this work, and found that I learned the most inside the courtroom where you see the preparation applied in practice..

In terms of working in the field of international criminal law, my internship made me appreciate some of its challenges.. First, and most importantly, you need to be passionate about the work. I know this may seem trite, but this zeal is absolutely essential as the hours can be intense, the bureaucracy can be tedious and the lifestyle transient.

Secondly, and this feeds off my first point, you need to be a fairly independent person. In a workplace that relies heavily on interns, there is a high turnover of both work and workmates. This is not an exclusive feature of international criminal law, but is something you must be prepared for. Whilst you do become well versed in farewell speeches, you will also have the amazing opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. I left Cambodia with some lifelong friends.

Finally, and again this may seem obvious, but a grasp of another language aside from English never hurts. At the ECCC there were three official languages (English, French and Khmer). Whilst the Interpretation Unit translated the proceedings, and most evidence was also translated, I found that it was really helpful to understand French. It allowed me to analyse translations, communicate with others in the court and access evidence that had yet to be translated.

My three months in Cambodia were invaluable. I learned a great deal, made some great friends and was privileged to get the opportunity to work with and learn from some very talented and generous colleagues. I would highly recommend such an experience to anyone who has an interest in human rights or international criminal law.

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