How to watch a war crimes trial in The Hague

As a legal officer at the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal in The Hague, I heard many stories.

Some were heartbreaking, like the story of the woman who watched from her balcony as seven of her neighbors and friends were shot beside a river.

Some were heroic, like the story of a man who escaped a mass execution and lived to tell a truth that would otherwise never be known.

Others were intellectually intriguing, like the stories of security officers who described the nature of the relationships between paramilitary forces and those alleged to have supported and trained them.

These complex and sometimes terrible stories come into focus through the testimony of the victims, soldiers, peacekeepers, security officers, diplomats and experts who serve as witnesses at the tribunals.

The judges and lawyers assigned to these cases aren’t the only ones watching these stories unfold, though: they are also free and open to the public.

They’re conducted in or translated into English and The Hague is less than an hour and a half from the flower markets, coffee shops and museums of Amsterdam.

Here’s how you can experience your own war crime tribunal, where the trials provide a fascinating insight into these unique legal processes — and the terrible events that make them necessary.

1. Choose a court

There are two courts in The Hague where visitors can watch war crimes proceedings: the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

The ICTY was established in 1993 during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. It is an ad hoc tribunal, established to deal only with crimes that occurred on the territory of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Prominent accused include Slobodan Milošević, who died during his trial in 2006, and Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, whose trials are in progress now.

The ICTY was the first institution to carry out international war crimes trials since the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg following World War II.

Its success restored life to the idea of international war crimes prosecutions, building momentum that led to the establishment of the ICC.

The ICC was established in 2002. Unlike the ICTY, it is a permanent institution. Its jurisdiction extends to crimes committed on the territory of any of its 122 member states, as well as to cases referred to it by the UN Security Council.

There is currently one trial in progress at the ICC, in the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The trial of current Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is scheduled to begin on November 12 and the trial of two other Kenyan politicians began on September 10.

2. Check the schedule

The ICTY and the ICC are both working courts, so their schedules change from day to day.

It’s best to check the schedule a day or two before your visit to be sure that there are hearings scheduled. You can find the ICC’s schedule here and the ICTY’s schedule here.

The courts often run afternoon sessions that last until 6.30-7 p.m.

If this is happening on the day of your visit, it’s possible to visit both courts in one day.

However, even when court is in session, parts of a day’s hearing may be closed to the public. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but it most often relates to the security of the witness testifying.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know in advance which witnesses’ testimony this will apply to, though every effort is made to keep as much of the trials public as possible.

3. Hop a train

Both courts are easy to reach from Amsterdam Central Station. To get to either, first take a train to The Hague Central Station, listed on notice boards as Den Haag Centraal.

To get to the ICC from The Hague Central Station, take a three-minute ride on the local train (called a “Sprinter”) to Voorburg Station. From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the ICC’s visitor entrance on Regulusweg.

You can find a map on the ICC’s website here. (Note that the information on this page regarding Tram 10 is out of date.)

To get to the ICTY, take Tram 17 from The Hague Central Station in the direction of Statenkwartier. Get off at the World Forum stop and walk five minutes to the main entrance. Map here — note that the information on this page regarding both Tram 10 and Tram 17 is out of date.

4. Get in and get informed

The process for visiting both courts is similar: enter the building, show your ID (national ID cards or passports for Europeans, passports for everyone else), and go through the airport-style security.

Once through security, you’ll be asked to put your camera and mobile phone in a temporary locker.

In the lobby of each court, you can pick up case information sheets that tell you the basic facts and charges of the case you’ll be watching.

This is helpful information to have while watching the proceedings.

Once you have that, you’ll be shown into the public gallery of the courtroom.

5. Pick your channel

In the public gallery, the security guard will hand you a radio receiver for the simultaneous interpretation.

Choose from English, French or one of the other working languages — that is, the language spoken by the accused or the witness.

6. Know who’s who

The courtroom is divided roughly into thirds, and you can figure out who the participants are based on where they sit.

On your right, you’ll see the prosecution lawyers and staff. At the ICC, the victims’ representatives (lawyers who represent the interests of the victims) also sit on the right.

On the left, you’ll see defense counsel, and on the last row between guards, the accused.

Lawyers and their staff wear black robes with white bands at the neck; the accused usually wear dark, conservative suits.

In the middle of the courtroom, the judges sit facing the public gallery at a raised desk called the “bench.”

There will be three judges, each from a different country. The judges’ staff sit at a lower desk in front of the judges.

The witness sits facing the judges, immediately in front of the gallery, with his back to the public.

7. Know what you’re watching

The witness who is testifying on any given day could be a witness for the prosecution or the defense, or one called to testify by the judges.

The witness might be a “crime base witness” testifying about crimes he/she personally saw or suffered. He/she might be an “insider witness” who served in the same organization or institution as the accused, and may even have cooperated with the accused.

Or, he/she might be an “expert witness,” testifying about military structure, ballistics, autopsies of victims, the authenticity of a document or any other matter on which expert evidence is required.

Each party takes turns asking questions of, or examining, the witness.

This isn’t the rapid-fire question-and-answer you see on television dramas: interpretation slows the process down, and each case has its own vocabulary of institutional names and abbreviations.

But if you pay careful attention to the questions and answers, you should be able to figure out the issues in the case.

For example, is the prosecution lawyer trying to establish the existence of a particular chain of command? Or a relationship between the accused and a group of perpetrators?

Is defense counsel trying to establish that a particular crime may have been committed by opportunistic individuals rather than an organized military or police structure?

By following the dance of question and answer, you should be able to determine what each party is seeking from a particular witness and how that fits into the case as a whole.

Imagine that you are a judge. Do you find the witness honest and believable, or does he seem evasive? Does his evidence appear to relate to an important issue, or is it irrelevant?

These are the matters that the lawyers will be arguing about, and the judges will be deciding, at the end of the case.

8. Decide when you’ve seen enough

The hearings at both courts are broken into sessions of about an hour and a half in length interspersed with 20-minute breaks.

The entire testimony of some witnesses is taken in a single session, while other witnesses testify for multiple days, or, in rare instances, for a week or more.

If you have the opportunity to do so, it’s interesting to compare the way in which the prosecution and defense examine a particular witness.

Once you’ve seen enough to get a feel for the proceedings, feel free to get up and leave the public gallery — visitors are permitted to leave at any time.

9. Alternative: Visit as part of a group tour

An organization called ProDemos runs periodic day-long “Peace and Justice” guided tours to international institutions in The Hague, including the ICC and ICTY.

If your visit happens to overlap with one of the scheduled tours, this can be a good alternative to visiting on your own. For more information visit the ProDemos for House for Democracy and the Rule of Law website.