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The Hague, Netherlands 01/20-02/25/09


It feels like an eternity since I last wrote and I suppose it really has been.  My last entry detailed the confirmation of charges against Jean-Pierre Bemba, yet this event seems almost a world away.  So much has happened since then.  So much, in fact, that it might be useful for me to number my paragraphs.  Otherwise, I won’t remember all that I have to share!

William of Orange (Avec Seagull)

The Hague, Netherlands

The Commencement of the Thomas Lubanga Dyilo Trial: During what will probably turn out to be the most historically important moment of my Fellowship year, I had the great fortune of being able to attend the very first day of the International Criminal Court’s very first trial, the Prosecution vs. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.  I had to sneak into the viewing gallery, as the majority of seats had been set aside for media and VIP, but I managed to claim a spot.

It was an inspiring experience.  Though I’ve heard that things have gotten significantly more glacial (in both pace and tone) as the case has moved forward, the first day was full of passionate opening statements by the Prosecution and the Victims Representatives –  full of calls to honesty and commitment to establishing the strongest possible norms for the meting out of international justice.  Indeed, this was to be the first case of war crimes to be tried by an independent tribunal in the history of mankind.  In spite of the dubious opinions I took into the trial (having written my undergraduate thesis on the ICC’s involvement in Northern Uganda, I’m familiar with the obstacles to peace that have unwittingly been established in that country), I couldn’t help but feel a tingle down my spine.

The Binnenhof

The Hague, Netherlands

I was also able to attend the third day of the trial, when the first witness took the stand.  A former child soldier who had allegedly been abducted into military service by Mr. Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), he spent the morning detailing the circumstances of his capture and the nature of his training under the UPC.  Then, in the afternoon, to everyone’s complete surprise, he retracted everything that he had said, claiming that a Western NGO operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo had coerced him into claiming status as a former child soldier.  Everyone was shocked at such an abrupt about-face, but Mr. Lubanga simply laughed.

The current assumption is that the witness felt so overwhelmingly intimidated by the physical presence of Mr. Lubanga – indeed, he was required to look his former “employer” in the eye during the entirety of his testimony – that he was unable to continue with his story.  In a strange way, I was reminded of the employment dispute mediated by Mrs. Elizabeth Marcus that I was invited to attend back in Boston, wherein the two parties were separated on account of a perceived potential for intimidation.  The Court was being challenged already: how would it proceed with the testimonial of a deathly frightened witness?

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Stupendous Graffiti in the Spui Quarter

Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Death of a Friend: The professional high of being able to attend the beginning of the Lubanga trial was followed by a profound and numbing personal low, when I received word that my friend Brian – the generous individual who hosted me (then a complete stranger) at his home in Addis Ababa, and cooked me my last pancake and bacon breakfast before moving on to my placement in Somaliland – had been found dead in his home.  Brian, an American diplomat who had just begun his very first foreign placement, and who was only two days shy of his 26th birthday, had apparently been stabbed to death by a thief (and alleged acquaintance) who proceeded to steal his laptop, cell phone and various diplomatic documents.  The supposed killer was tracked down by Ethiopian police to a small village 200km north of the capital only a few days later, while Brian’s body was flown back to the United States for a state funeral.  The sense of loss is truly unfathomable; I still don’t know what to think.

I’ve attempted to rationalize Brian’s death as a very possible and very real    outcome of his choosing to pursue this type of international work, but it’s been a difficult rationalization to make nonetheless.  Indeed, only a few months ago I was planning a work placement in Afghanistan.  While I was undergoing preparation, did I truly grasp the possible threat to my own life?  Did Brian truly grasp the threat to his?  Both of us, as indicated in the e-mails we sent back and forth after I departed for Hargeysa, were deeply passionate about our work, and believed strongly in the contributions we could make to the field of  peace building.  But have I been balancing passion and security as optimally as humanly possible?  Had Brian?  What kinds of risks are worth taking?  What kinds of causes are worth dying for?  These are the questions I and many others are left with.  Though it is my sincere hope that Brian’s essence will live on in our efforts to tackle these difficult questions, I still cannot help but feel a heavy anger and a burdensome sadness.  I will miss not being able to learn from Brian’s wise, old soul long into the future.


Amsterdam, Netherlands

A 23rd Birthday: In a somewhat perverse twist of fate that haunts me whenever I think of Brian, while he was spending his final day of life in Ethiopia, I was quietly celebrating my 23rd birthday in Portugal.  I had decided to buy myself a ticket to Lisbon, where I hoped to spend three days building muscle mass (seven hours of walking x seven very steep Lisboan hills x three days = strength) and breathing in the essence of the city.  It was a wonderful experience and the perfect way to usher in another year of life.

I spent most of my days exploring Lisbon’s five main neighbourhoods – Santa Catarina, Baixa, Chiado, Alfama and Belem – and because of the small size of the city, by the time I left for home I had seen most of what the capital has to offer.  I visited art museums, read passages from “The Odyssey” while eating olives at a chic outdoor café, made a pilgrimage to the dock from which Vasco da Gama set off on his round-the-world sailing adventure (as well as to his tomb in the Monastery of Jeronimo; an appropriate way for a Fellow such as myself to spend his birthday) and stopped at every pastry shop along the way to stuff my face with delicious natas(flaky Portuguese pastries filled with burnt custard).

Elevador da Bica

Lisbon, Portugal

By night, I would stalk the narrow Moorish streets of Alfama Quarter, which is currently home to most of Lisbon’s working class population and which simply oozes charm.  As the sun set and the stars come out, the whitewashed walls were cast in a reddish glow and I would follow my long shadow around one corner and then another.  It was wonderful to feel completely but carelessly lost once again.  It truly is one of the greatest joys of traveling.

When my feet were about to give out completely, I would a dingy local tavern in which I could sip “green wine” or chug Superbock beer with locals while discussing the meaning of the Portuguese word saudade (which roughly means “nostalgic longing”).  And when my stomach would start to complain for dinner, I would find a small fado bar – sometimes a converted chapel, other times an old woman’s living room – where I could munch on fish and cheese and listen to 70-year old men and women croon sad and familiar fado tunes.  Fado is perhaps the best thing that I experienced while I was in Portugal; it’s a quintessentially Lisboan genre of music, a cooperation between a 12-string Portuguese guitar and an anguished voice.  This is really where I came to understand the meaning of the word saudade.  I wouldn’t leave until two o’clock in the morning.  Happy birthday.

Alfama by Night

Lisbon, Portugal

From Portugal to Geneva: Only a day after I returned from Portugal, I set off for Geneva, where I had arranged two important meetings and where I hoped to help my younger brother (who is currently living in Switzerland) prepare for his first film school interview.  It was slightly disorienting to be in three cities over the course of a single week – Lisbon, The Hague and Geneva – but it really is par for the course in this Fellowship.

My first meeting was with Mr. Luc Chounet-Cambas, Project Manager for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue’s (CHD) Mediation Support Program.  Most of our conversation dealt with the mandate and various experiences of the CDH, as well as with Mr. Chounet-Cambas’ personal experiences working in the field, prior to his work with CHD.  From a professional perspective, the interview was fascinating, as it was full of unconventional wisdom that upon reflection has really inspired me.

With respect to the Centre itself, I learned about how it was founded to address the need for mediation efforts in the Indonesian district of Aceh, but that it has since expanded to suit the purposes of processes in Burundi, Myanmar, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Central African Republic, Kenya and Nepal.  Nepal   seemed to be the Centre’s most difficult placement, as it was where it faced the greatest amount of competition with other mediation firms that wanted to get a piece of the Maoist pie.  After several starts and stops, and with a learned humility befitting a good mediator, the Centre departed Nepal, leaving work to the various other organizations that were already in-country.  I thought this decision reflected very well upon the CHD.

At the (Incredibly Beautiful) Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Chounet-Cambas’ own life seemed to be full of romance and adventure.  After several years of working for a number of smaller NGOs, acquiring a the very natural and practical skill set that only field experience can provide, he was asked to be the Director of UNDP’s Disarmamant, Demobilization and Reintegration efforts in Western Afghanistan (swoon!).  It was here that he first started to garner his understanding of the mechanics of communication, having to negotiate with various warlords on a regular basis, with the aim of convincing them to surrender their much cherished weaponry.  It was this experience in Afghanistan, and the mastery of DDR processes and mediation that it entailed, that ended up guaranteeing Mr. Chounet-Cambas a spot at the CHD.

It’s also what motivated him to caution me (believe it or not!) against investing myself too deeply into a Master’s program, saying that unless an academic curriculum provides you with the explicit ability to structure your thoughts and information out in the field, there is simply no use pursuing it.  Just to be on the safe side, though, I’ve still spent the past month applying to three schools: King’s College London, the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva, and Uppsala University in Sweden.

In Front of the United Nations

Geneva, Switzerland

Unfortunately, my second meeting at the aforementioned Graduate Institute fell through.  But I did manage to pay a visit to the grounds, and they were beautiful!  I can easily picture myself sitting on the grass outside of the building, my textbooks scattered around me, gazing across Lake Geneva.

What this meant, however, was that I was able to devote more of my time to helping my younger brother Peter for his interview.  Though you wouldn’t immediately think it, it proved to be the perfect opportunity for me to test my communication skills.  Though an interview is very different in structure from a negotiation, I secretly led my brother through the Seven Elements, asking him to think very concretely about his alternatives, options, interests, legitimate strengths, etc.  Also, for the sake of making him feel at ease, I practiced the Three External Skills: inquiry, acknowledgement and advocacy (in that order).  Ultimately, I don’t know if I had anything to with it, but a week later he was offered a one-year program at the London University of the Arts!  Naturally, I’m extremely proud of him, and if I happen to get into King’s College myself, I can’t wait to be living with him in the UK come September.

Two other highlights of my time in Geneva were paying a visit to the haunting International Committee of the Red Cross museum (though we only had 45 minutes to explore before closing time) and passing by a man who I am almost certain was Mr. Kofi Annan while returning from my meeting at the CHD.  Best of all, the chance encounter took place on Quai de Wilson, squashed between the building where the League of Nations was founded and Lake Geneva.  Fate!

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The International Committee of the Red Cross Museum

Geneva, Switzerland

How to Survive a Hostage-Taking: The most exciting three days of the past month took place in Soesterberg, where I participated in a Basic Safety and Security course offered by the Centre for Safety and Development, based in the Netherlands.  Though I’ve always though it would be important and fun to participate in such a course, I’ve been especially keen to join one ever since I started planning my first placement to Afghanistan back in Boston.  The need was then highlighted when I heard of my friend Brian’s death.  In my opinion, this type of training should be de rigeur for all future Fellows.

The first two days of the training – which drew upon a wide community of Dutch NGO workers for its student body – focused on the effective design of personal and organization-level security assessments, how to deal with aggression, and basic field medicine.  It was here that I learned all of the right security questions that one should ask before starting work in a country, how to withstand a mugging, how to treat shock and pulsating arterial wounds (gross) and yes, how to survive a hostage-taking.

At the end of the second day of training, at around 7pm, six massive Dutch men wearing military fatigues and balaclavas and carrying very big, very real automatic weapons burst into our classroom and told us all to “get the f*** on the ground”.  What ensued was a two-hour hostage simulation, complete with blindfolds, physical and sexual intimidation, physical discomfort (i.e., we were made to stand with our arms held up above our heads for over an hour) and subtle negotiation.  We learned how to recognize the various stages of a hostage-taking, how to speak to our captors and how to remain calm by paying attention to our breaths.  For many, it was a truly terrifying experience and all of us felt so shaken afterwards that we stayed up an extra hour debriefing over beers.

Learning How to Placate a Wild Gunman

Soesterberg, Netherlands

The next day, we learned how to identify, navigate and report mine fields using two-way radios (with call signs!) and identification cards.  This ammunition awareness was followed up by a series of four simulations, each of which tested the skills that we’d acquired over the previous two and a half days.  I’d really like to go into what each of these simulations entailed, but in case any of you readers are interested in taking a similar course in the future (and if you’re a field worker, you really should), I don’t want to spoil the fun.

Suffice it to say, the biggest thing that I learned about myself is that in times of extreme stress, I am not afraid.  I am quiet and complacent, both being perfect qualities to have during a mugging or the opening stages of a hostage-taking.  But there does come a time where cunning and subtle negotiation come into play.  I am much less competent in this respect.  My voice becomes weak and unconvincing and I am uncertain as to what I should do and say.  God forbid I ever get more practice in the field on how to be assertive like that, but it is a very good thing to know about oneself.

The course also proved to be rewarding for the contacts that it afforded, too.  I befriended two women who may prove particularly helpful with my work here in The Hague, one of whom works at War Child Holland and the other of whom works at World Vision.  It was also a pleasure to be able to pick the brain of our aggression coach, who had studied crisis negotiation in Geneva and who had since made a career out of professional hostage negotiation.  All fascinating stuff.

Ammunition Awareness

Soesterberg, Netherlands

Life Continues in The Hague: Last, but not least, I should probably tell you a little bit about the work that I’ve been accomplishing here in The Hague.  My two main projects – the ICC Fellowship placement summary report and the Northern Uganda peace education needs assessment – have been developing slowly.  After having drafted feedback forms for both initiatives, and after having sent them out to a number of past Fellows and Ugandan NGOs, I’ve been receiving a trickle of returns for the past two weeks.  I have managed to establish tangible collaborations with several organizations, including the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, the Agoro Community Development Association, I-Network Uganda and the Charity Arts Rights Foundation.  Each of these bodies has provided me with excellent feedback, which I hope to integrate into a final needs assessment, to be provided to the Chief Prosecutor when I have my meeting with him on March 11th.

I’ve started making more of a point of getting to know my coworkers here at the ICC.  They really are a wonderful bunch.  Some are international lawyers who have a great passion for the New York-London-Geneva circuit, others are more adventurers (like myself, I hope) who do things like participate in week-long dune buggy rallies across the deserts of Southern Libya.  Needless to say, the stories have been phenomenal and very welcomed.

I’ve also started hitting the gym again.  I’ve managed to go on four 5km runs now, and although I hope to keep it up (especially because of all the stroopwafles I’ve been eating), I find it more of a psychological challenge to complete the full 30 minute run with every passing day.  If anyone out there happens to have any suggestions as to how one might distract oneself during long runs, let me know.  Even after my cycling trip across Asia, I still haven’t figured it out.

Neruda Graffiti

Lisbon, Portugal

As for the future, I’m supposed to submit a newspaper article to a weekly journal back in my hometown of Edmonton at the end of this week, detailing the proceedings here at the ICC and commenting on the whole peace vs. justice debate (one that I continue to struggle with, of course).  On March 4th, the ICC is expected to issue a decision on the potential indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir which promises to be very controversial (and exciting).  On March 20th, I’m hoping to host a group of 34 visiting Syrian international law students at the Court, taking them to see part of the Lubanga trial and giving them a short lecture on the kind of precedent the Court is hoping to set.  And on March 23rd, I’m on the road again, enjoying a seven day, 70km camel caravan across the dunes of Southern Algeria before beginning my final Fellowship placement with the Child Soldiers Initiative.  I’m getting really excited for it, because from the sounds of it, I may actually be splitting my final three months between West Africa and Nepal!  But I won’t tell you any more about it until I’ve got the facts straight.

More Spui Graffiti

Amsterdam, Netherlands

I need to also mention that I’m extremely grateful for all of the monetary donations that I’ve been receiving lately from friends and family.  If you happen to have kept up with my journal entries thus far, none of this work and none of these experiences would have been possible if it weren’t for your generous support.  I will try to keep you informed as to where your money is going, and I look forward to thanking you personally when I’m back in North America.

My Last Picture as a 22-Year Old

Lisbon, Portugal