Leigh is Director of Programs in International Justice and Society,International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University. Read her full bio here

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Protected witness at the ICC. ©


Bringing Little Heard Voices to an International Platform

In June 2017, I sat in the public gallery of a courtroom at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, listening to the testimony of a prosecution witness in the trial of Dominic Ongwen. The accused is charged with directing attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army in May 2004 on an IDP camp in northern Uganda. The alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the insurgents under Ongwen's command include murder, enslavement, inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering, cruel treatment of civilians, and pillaging.

The witness testifying that day was a victim of the attacks. She recounted how her newborn child was thrown into the bush by the attackers, and how she was subsequently pursued and brutally beaten as she searched for her baby. As a protected witness, her face was purposely distorted so that she was unrecognizable to the public. But her background was nonetheless clear – she was a young woman from a rural area, dressed in traditional clothing and speaking Acholi.

How does such a person find herself in The Hague, addressing international judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers in a modern courtroom, outfitted with the latest technology? Who helps her arrange her travel to Europe? Meets her at the airport once she arrives? Finds her suitable clothing for the European weather and helps her settle into her accommodation? Who orients her to the courtroom procedures, the microphones she will speak into, and the images that will flash before her on a screen? And very importantly, who interprets her critical testimony about what she experienced from Acholi into the working languages of the Court, conveying the register of her speech along with her inevitable hesitation and emotion, so that it can become part of the official trial record?

The language services staff of the ICC carry out a wide array of necessary activities in a long list of languages, many of them languages of lesser diffusion (LLDs).  It is largely through their work that witnesses who speak LLDs are able to bring their stories to the Court and, through outreach programs, to victim communities at home as well as the wider world.

Providing Courtroom Interpretation in Languages of Lesser Diffusion at the International Criminal Court

International criminal justice and simultaneous interpretation were born of the same historical moment – after WWII when the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted alleged perpetrators of mass crimes and undertook to hold expeditious proceedings in four languages. Ever since, simultaneous interpretation has been the preferred mode for international criminal proceedings, whether at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Special Court for Sierra Leone, or the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The challenge facing the ICC is that no simultaneous interpreters exist for many so-called "situation languages," that is those relevant to crimes under investigation and affected communities. Yet some of these LLDs are key to specific trials: Acholi for Ugandan-related proceedings, Sango for the Central African Republic, Zaghawa for Sudan, and so on. The ICC must consequently train interpreters in-house, often using their own staff as trainers, and within a relatively short time-frame – usually six to eight months.

How does the ICC approach the task of training a simultaneous interpreter in an LLD, especially if there are few or no other speakers of the target language around to assist in the process? Several ICC courtroom interpreters from the English and French booths have gone through a specialized course at the University of Geneva to become in-house trainers of LLD simultaneous interpreters. This course is part of a larger project to ensure that speakers of LLDs in Europe will not be denied access to justice due to an absence of appropriately qualified legal interpreters.

One of the ICC trainers described a typical technique used to teach situation language courtroom interpreters. The trainer asks a trainee to interpret an English text into the target language.  A second person interprets it back from the target language into English. A comparison is then made of the original and "back interpretation" of the English text and the wrong turns are identified. All interpretation channels are recorded so they can be reviewed by trainees, and over time their skills are gradually built up. The training of simultaneous interpreters in an LLD requires a collaborative approach, whereby the trainees as a cohort check each other's work, offer constructive criticism, and use "booth-partnering strategies." 

To date, the ICC has held simultaneous interpreter training programs in Acholi, Lingala, Sango, Swahili and Zaghawa. Providing simultaneous interpreters in these situation languages has allowed trials to proceed expeditiously, guaranteed the language rights of accused persons, and demonstrated that LLDs can express complex legal notions and "take the world stage."

Perhaps most importantly, those who have been the victims of grave crimes can tell their stories to both judges and a global audience and, in the process, move toward justice. As one ICC courtroom interpreter declared: "What I'm proud to say is that I know we have given a voice to the voiceless. And I think that's worth something".