To Support
and Protect

The Evolution of Witness Services at the International Criminal Tribunals

Witnesses who appear before international war crimes tribunals are the most critical stakeholders needed in the search for truth and justice.

(Echoes of Testimonies p.9)

Witness support and protection services facilitated witness testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). These services also ensured the safety and well-being of witnesses before, during and after their testimony. While the ICTY approach served as an initial model for the ICTR, the Tribunals' witness services evolved in different ways, shaped by the unique experiences of the witnesses they served.

This exhibition highlights the common roots of the ICTR and ICTY witness programmes and discusses the evolution of each programme to address the unique challenges it faced in supporting and protecting witnesses.

This exhibition is dedicated to those witnesses.

Establishment of witness support

Imagine yourself as a witness

You have spent many years enduring the sound of gunfire and the confusion of war and have seen or experienced severe physical and emotional trauma. But you have persevered and survived. In the aftermath, you are visited by United Nations investigators, who ask you to tell your story by testifying in a war crimes trial. You are nervous, both for yourself and your community. But despite the risks, you believe there must be accountability for what you and others have suffered.

So you agree to testify.

The ICTY Victims and Witnesses Section (VWS) was created in 1994 in response to Rule 34 of the ICTY Rules of Procedure and Evidence, which required it to be set up to “recommend protective measures for victims and witnesses” and to “provide counselling and support for them”.

ICTY VWS began work in April 1995 with six staff members.

The first ICTY witnesses arrived in The Hague, the Netherlands in October 1995. Preparations to get the witnesses there safely had started well before their arrival. However, as the conflict was ongoing in the former Yugoslavia, this process was made more challenging due to the logistical and security-related difficulties of assisting witnesses in an active conflict area.

A Protection Officer and Support Officer were added to the staff in 1996. By the end of that year, ICTY VWS was supporting and protecting more than 140 witnesses.

The ICTR Victims and Witnesses Support Unit was created in June 1996 in response to Rule 34 of the ICTR Rules of Procedure and Evidence, which was almost identical to the ICTY rule. The Unit began work in November 1996 and within two years had enabled the testimony of more than 100 witnesses. The Unit was renamed as the Witness and Victim’s Support Section (WVSS) in 2000.

360° view of the IRMCT Witness Waiting Room and the IRMCT Courtroom 1 from the witness's perspective. Pan and click to move around. You can click on the arrow to switch between rooms.

Preparing witnesses for testimony at the ICTY

When you arrive at the Tribunal to testify, you are guided to a room to wait until you are called. The room is designed to provide a space of rest, relief and (re)composure during court breaks.

The room is equipped with refreshments, puzzles, and magazines in your own mother tongue.

You are understandably nervous about the mission you are about to embark on, so you are grateful to receive a visit from an ICTR WVSS or ICTY VWS staff member who speaks your language and briefs you on what you can expect when you arrive to testify.

ICTY VWS gave each witness a briefing and an information leaflet to prepare them for their testimony. The leaflet contained information about preparing for their trip; traveling to, and staying in, The Hague; the entitlements s/he could expect, such as a daily allowance, funds for child care and compensation for lost wages; and a diagram of the courtroom identifying where each participant sat.

The leaflet also contained a “witness hotline” telephone number which witnesses could call 24 hours a day with questions or concerns.

Support based on individual needs

Victim and witness support personnel from the ICTR and ICTY met together for the first time in 1997 to discuss harmonizing their policies, strategies and activities. Cooperation between the two services made sense: although they were created in different contexts, their mandates to recommend and implement protective measures for victims and witnesses and to provide counselling and support for them were identical.

However, each service had to interpret and apply its mandate in its own context, according to the types of witnesses testifying and their specific social, psychological and cultural needs. The various witnesses included:

  • victim or survivor witnesses, who had experienced or witnessed crimes first- hand, or whose families were victims of crimes;
  • expert witnesses, who provided the court with opinions on different topics;
  • accused/detainee witnesses, who may have committed crimes themselves;
  • and “insider” witnesses who were close to those who were accused of committing crimes.

ICTR WVSS and ICTY VWS assessed every witness thoroughly and provided protection and support based on their individual needs.

Field offices were established in 1997 in Kigali, Rwanda for the ICTR, and in 2002 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for the ICTY. The field offices increased the accessibility of the services in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and facilitated the support and protection of witnesses testifying before the Tribunals.

Glasses provided to the witness

You are given glasses to wear by the court if you need them and do not have your own.

Services provided to witnesses

From the moment that ICTR WVSS or ICTY VWS first contacted a witness, their services were available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their services were neutral - Prosecution, Defence and Chambers witnesses were treated equally - and they communicated with witnesses in the witnesses' own languages.

Witness testimony was facilitated by four areas of work within the witness services:

  • psycho-social support services, including counselling and referral services;
  • protection services, including applying protective measures and working with authorities in the regions to ensure the witness' safety;
  • legal services, including drafting policy and legal documents to advocate on behalf of witnesses; and
  • logistical support services, including monitoring witness' movements and attending to their practical needs.

Ensuring that all of these elements were in place and working in harmony could literally be, in some cases, a matter of life or death.

Evaluation and continuous improvement of the services was essential to their success. Witnesses were asked to fill out evaluation forms once they had completed their testimony. Their feedback helped VWS and WVSS to ensure that witnesses received the services they needed. Witnesses were also given certificates acknowledging their testimony before they returned home.

Witness support developments at the ICTR

While VWS and WVSS had similar mandates and policies, the specific services provided to witnesses differed due to the nature of the conflicts and the cultural, infrastructural and logistical issues encountered in each region.

As displaced Rwandans returned to their homes following the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (Genocide), potential witnesses found themselves face-to-face with neighbours, friends and family members who may have taken part in crimes against them or who were now accusing them of crimes. Providing protection for witnesses in this context was a challenge, especially considering that more than 80% of ICTR witnesses were protected, as compared to 30% of ICTY witnesses. In addition, limited access to healthcare in Rwanda following the Genocide meant that the ICTR had to take additional measures to ensure the well-being of witnesses.

In June 1997, Rule 34 of the ICTR Rules was amended to include the development of “short and long term plans for the protection of witnesses who have testified before the Tribunal and who fear a threat to their life, property or family”. In 1998, it was amended again to include mention of the physical and psychological rehabilitation of witnesses, implying long-term care. The emphasis on long-term support and care reflected the nature of the situation in Rwanda at the time.

Safe house waiver

ICTR witnesses who refused to stay in a safe house were required to sign a form waiving protection by WVSS and stating that they would not hold ICTR accountable for “any moral and material prejudice” they might experience.

Ensuring safety and providing accommodation

You are checked into a hotel booked under a code name to protect your anonymity. It is likely that none of the hotel staff speak your language.

You have been given an assistance card to show hotel staff if you need them to call the Tribunal for help.

Ensuring safe journeys for witnesses and providing secure accommodation for them near the Tribunals were key activities for both VWS and WVSS, but the two services had different approaches.

ICTY VWS worked with local hotels to accommodate witnesses traveling to The Hague. Rooms were reserved using code numbers rather than witness names. Witnesses were briefed on safety in the area and on precautions to take while staying in hotels. They were given cards printed in English and Dutch to show hotel staff to contact the Tribunal when they needed assistance. Witness Assistants could be reached 24 hours a day.

The infrastructure in Rwanda and Arusha, Tanzania, required ICTR WVSS to use safe houses instead of hotels. The safe houses were monitored by security personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week and movement in and out of the houses was tightly controlled. ICTR witnesses who refused to stay in a safe house were required to sign a form waiving protection by WVSS and stating that they would not hold ICTR accountable for “any moral and material prejudice” they might experience.

Kigali Clinic Kigali Clinic

In 2004, a clinic was set up in Kigali to support the long-term medical and psychological needs of witnesses in Rwanda before, during and after their testimony.

Looking after the long-term needs of witnesses

Your experience of testifying does not end when the trial is over. You may continue to experience consequences: health, financial losses, loss of reputation and even threats to safety long after your testimony.

In 2004, a clinic was set up in Kigali to support the long-term medical and psychological needs of witnesses in Rwanda before, during and after their testimony. The clinic was largely funded by voluntary donations through the ICTR Trust Fund, which was created to support activities directly related to the mandate of the ICTR. Today, the clinic continues to provide support for nearly 1,000 witnesses, including hundreds who are living with HIV/AIDS as a result of being victims of sexual and gender-based violence during the Genocide.

The ICTY did not provide direct long-term care for witnesses. Instead, the VWS identified and liaised with (inter)national organizations, NGOs, institutions and local authorities in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, creating a referral network, to address the long-term physical and mental well-being needs of witnesses. Between 2003 and 2005, the ICTY held five Network Development Conferences to build stronger referral networks with health and welfare professionals in the region.

Training Certificate

Certificate given to participants of the Training on Witness Protection course, which was provided, in part, by the ICTR.

Sharing expertise outside the Tribunals

Your experience - as well as the experiences of the approximately 7,000 other witnesses who told their stories in cases before the Tribunals - has played a vital role in contributing to justice and helping to establish the truth. One legacy of the Tribunals is the knowledge that was obtained on how to better serve witnesses and to work to ensure that witness protection programmes were managed with the highest amount of support and security for anyone who steps forward to help combat impunity.

As ICTR WVSS and ICTY VWS gained knowledge and experience in supporting and protecting witnesses, capacity-building became an important activity for both Tribunals. As part of the ICTR's broader capacity-building programme, WVSS provided training for professionals in Rwanda and neighbouring countries, including a three-day workshop in 2009 for Rwandan Witness Protection Officers and a four-day training programme on various aspects of witness protection programmes in 2010 for Tanzanian judiciary and law enforcement officers.

This training had a significant impact on the development of witness protection programmes in these countries. WVSS also participated in international conferences where its expertise in witness support and protection was shared.

Likewise, VWS assisted in the creation of witness and victim support systems in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and was involved in study visits, conferences and training both there and in The Hague.

In 2016, ICTY VWS, in partnership with the University of North Texas, published Echoes of Testimonies, a study on the witness experience at the Tribunal. The raw data from the study was later shared publicly by the IRMCT to “promote scientific integrity” and to “increase recognition of and encourage further research and development in the area of witness support”. The study and the raw data can be found on the respective ICTY and IRMCT websites.

Witness Support at the IRMCT

ICTR WVSS and ICTY VWS transferred their functions to the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Staff from the IRMCT performed these functions - as well as the IRMCT's own witness protection and support functions - until the closure of the ICTR in 2015 and the ICTY in 2017.

The IRMCT is now responsible for providing continued protection and support to witnesses who have appeared before the ICTR, the ICTY or the IRMCT.

The IRMCT Witness Support and Protection Unit (WISP) was created in 2012 in response to Rule 32 of the IRMCT Rules of Procedure and Evidence. WISP has staff in Arusha and The Hague, as well as in the Kigali and Sarajevo field offices, and continues to carry out the work started by the ICTR WVSS and the ICTY VWS.

The IRMCT's Practice Direction on the Provision of Support and Protection Services to Victims and Witnesses guides the work of WISP. It sets out principles for the provision of witness-related services “taking into account the specific elements such as the nature of the conflict, geographical location, and cultural setting in which the respective WISP will be operating.”