Could prosecutors use images by Darfur’s children showing civilians under attack as evidence in a future war crimes trial?
By Rebekah Heil in London and Katy Glassborow in The Hague (AR No. 126, 14-Aug-07)
Anna Schmitt was in eastern Chad interviewing Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region when the women at a displacement camp gave her some advice.
“If you want information, you should ask the children.” So she did just that. During her research for the non-government organisation Waging Peace, Schmitt sat in a classroom with the camp’s children, many of whom had been forced from their homes three or four years ago. Through interpreters who spoke Arabic and the languages of Darfur, she asked the children about their hopes and dreams. Many answered that they wanted to be doctors or teachers or join the civil service.
One 16-year-old boy said, “I don’t want to become a rebel. I want to be educated and continue school, so I can help my people.” When he was 14, his father had been killed in front of him in Darfur.
Schmitt asked the children to write down their memories when one of them asked, ‘Would we be allowed to draw instead?’ The children, between the ages of five and 18, drew pictures showing their villages full of tanks and armed men on horseback, houses ablaze and helicopters circling the skies. As Waging Peace gathered in the drawings, the translators got the children to tell them what was in their pictures, and wrote these explanations down on the back of each one.
In the pictures, the helicopters bear the markings of military aircraft, and men in camouflage are labeled by the children as Janjaweed militia. Villagers are shown under attack, women are led off in chains, and civilians are shot at and try to defend themselves with spears and arrows. These visual accounts contradict Khartoum’s insistence that most of the casualties involve combatants from Darfur’s rebel movements.
Waging Peace director Louise Roland-Gosselin says the pictures suggest that the Sudanese government is directly involved in the violence, working alongside the Janjaweed. “Civilians are being targeted, not rebels. Women and children are being shot at, not rebels. It’s not a civil war, and not rebels against government troops,” she said. Roland-Gosselin pointed out that the military are shown as having a lighter skin colour than those being attacked, and explained that the children are identifying themselves as black Africans and the attackers as Arabs.
Khartoum has long denied claims that it is supporting the militia. But this claim was recently contested by the International Criminal Court, ICC, which was tasked by the United Nations Security Council to look into events in Darfur.
Prosecutors began investigations in 2005, and announced this February that they believe Ahmad Harun, currently Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb, are responsible for coordinated violence against innocent civilians in Darfur.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said the men are suspected of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes during attacks on the villages of Kodoom, Bindisi, Mukjar and Arwala in western Darfur between 2003 and 2004. These include rape, murder, torture, destruction of property and forcible transfer. In April, ICC judges issued arrest warrants against the two men.
Waging Peace plans to submit the 500 drawings to the ICC as evidence of attacks carried out by Sudanese government forces. “We think that these pictures are evidence of genocide and show what has been happening for the past four years, and that they constitute evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Roland-Gosselin. She believes the fact that the drawings were produced by children make them even more valuable as evidence.
“Children basically speak the truth, and the truth coming out of them is much more credible than what’s coming from the Sudanese government,” she said. IWPR approached ICC prosecutors to ask whether such pictures might be admissible as evidence in a criminal investigation and subsequent trial, but they refused to comment.
Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo has consistently encouraged NGOs working in relevant countries to share evidence with his team of investigators. In September 2006, he called on NGOs to help raise awareness about the court across Africa, support witnesses and victims, and collect evidence from the field. “I want to increase your participation so that you help me to get gender-based evidence, as we cannot present a case without evidence,” he told NGOs at a conference. “To enlarge victim participation, we encourage your help.”
If the Darfur children’s pictures were to be brought as evidence, the possibility that the organisation that gathered the evidence exerted some influence on them would have to be dealt with. In general, the onus is on NGOs to prove that the verbal and other testimony they gather – in this case the drawings – were not affected by interviewers with an agenda.
Lawyer Jean Flamme told IWPR he was concerned about the power NGOs could exercise over victims, and questioned their legitimacy in the legal process. Flamme formerly represented Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a former militia leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo indicted for war crimes and now awaiting trial at the ICC. Flamme said that the prosecutor’s file against Lubanga contains many reports from NGOs, a fact which he finds “questionable”, since the court is required to be completely independent – from NGOs, the countries which support and fund it, and even from the UN Security Council. “This is a big problem,” he stressed.
The human rights group FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights) has recently collected its own drawings from children in refugee camps in Chad. These too seem to portray Janjaweed attacks. Karine Bonneau, director of international justice at FIDH, told IWPR that should ICC prosecutors decide to use such drawings in court, NGOs will have to describe the precise circumstances under which they were created.
Anton Nikiforov, advisor to the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which like the ICC is based in The Hague, said NGO evidence is used by prosecutors at the tribunal. He noted that prosecutors have to go back and re-interview any witnesses passed to them by human rights groups. “We would use the person who collected such evidence as the drawings as an expert witness to explain how they came about, but then we would need to bring corroborating evidence from the eyewitnesses, their relatives or other sources who could confirm the evidence.” He told IWPR that in general terms, using evidence provided by children is never easy. If an international criminal tribunal accepts evidence from NGOs and human rights groups – including drawings – it is obliged to verify its authenticity and corroborate it with other evidence and testimony.
If children are called to give evidence in court, they could be subjected to vigorous cross-examination by defence lawyers trying to disprove their testimony and attack their credibility. Nikiforov suggested that there was a possibility that “judges would be reluctant to have kids crucified in court”. In any event, the prosecution will be required to submit serious corroborating evidence for testimony of this kind.
Margriet Blaauw from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims adds a word of caution, stressing that “getting justice is hard”, and giving evidence could cause victims to be traumatised a second time.
She says witnesses need to be offered support before, during and after giving evidence. It would have to be made clear to the children why they are doing the drawings, and they would need to have proper support from the ICC or from the NGO which spoke to them.
“Their wounds cannot be reopened, and then left. It is up to the court to provide sufficient protection to the children’s rights,” said Blaauw.
Bonneau said that criminal evidence needs to relate to a specific person, so pictures showing men in uniform or military helicopters could be used as general evidence at the initial investigation stage. “It is not evidence against a particular accused, so the children would not have to appear or give their testimony before the court” said Bonneau, adding that “taken together with other documents, it could confirm the fact that the population is attacked by Janjaweed”.
Each drawing collected by Waging Peace has the name of the artist written on the back, together with their home village, and their age now and at the time of the attack. The children were certain that they what were drawing happened in 2003 and 2004. According to Roland-Gosselin, “We’re hoping to have exhibitions all over the place exhibiting these drawings and eventually having these permanently placed in a memorial or a museum.”
One picture, drawn by a boy who was 15 when his village was attacked and is now 18, left a short message on the back, written from his new home in a refugee camp. “Look at these pictures carefully and you will see what happened in Darfur. Thank you and see you later.”
Rebekah Heil is an IWPR contributor in London and Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
Source: Institute for war and peace reporting