Patricia Viseur Sellers

Patricia Viseur Sellers is the Special Advisor for Gender for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Ms. Sellers is a Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, where she teaches international criminal law and human rights law.  She was the Legal Advisor for Gender, Acting Head of the Legal Advisory Section, and a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) from 1994 until February 2007. There, she developed landmark legal strategies concerning sexual violence, and was a member of the prosecutorial trial teams in the cases of Akayesu, Furundžija, and Kunarac.  

Ms. Sellers has been a Special Legal Consultant to UN Women, the Gender and Women’s Rights Division of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Children in Armed Conflict. Ms. Sellers is the recipient of the prestigious Prominent Women in International Law Award by the American Society of International Law, and is an Honorary Fellow for Lifetime Achievement from the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater.  


What first drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?

I'm the daughter of the US Army Officer and an elementary school teacher. As a child, I lived out of the United States. As a result, I was keenly conscious of the world beyond America's borders and had developed an interest in learning foreign languages. By the time I entered college, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. My heroes were Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson, two African-American activists and lawyers. Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued Brown v.  Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court case that demolished the legal basis for segregation in America, used the law to lead a civil rights revolution. In 1967, he became the first African-American to be elevated to the US Supreme Court.

My interest in law and in international affairs stayed with me. As an undergraduate, I studied for a year in Mexico City - in part because I had a strong desire to learn Spanish. At law school, I studied international law and developed an abiding interest in criminal law. While there, I volunteered at the American Friends Service Committee, more readily known as the Quakers. They sent me on human rights missions to Central America and the Caribbean.

When I graduated from law school, I became a public defender in Philadelphia, serving defendants who mainly came from the black, Latino, and low-income communities in the city. It was incredibly rewarding. After I left the Public Defender's Office, I moved to Brazil where I worked as a human rights programmer at the Ford Foundation. I had a particular (but not sole) focus on issues affecting the Afro-Brazilian community, and oversaw support to feminist projects, as well as projects that focussed on urban and rural poverty. I worked there just as Brazil was emerging from a dictatorship. People - particularly the more marginalised groups - were speaking out about their experiences. This is when I began to identify as a feminist, and become concerned with the inclusion and exclusion of women from systems of power.

When I left Brazil, I moved to Belgium and worked more traditional jobs, first in an accounting firm and then in the European Union on the Thailand and Burma desk. This was around the time that discussions about establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) were taking place. I saw it as a chance to return to criminal law, and joined the ICTY prosecution in July 1994. With a couple of months, the Chief Prosecutor Richard Goldstone, aware of my work in Brazil and my experience as a public defender, asked me to handle the case dossier as it related to sexual violence. That was the start of my international criminal law career.

My path was far from straightforward. Yet my zigzag approach was tremendously beneficial. Being African American woman coming from southern New Jersey and living in the US, I already had insights into how society reacts, treats, and socialises different people differently. But my indirect path to the tribunals allowed me to pick up useful skills and knowledge. On a practical level, working as a public defender allowed me to develop invaluable courtroom skills. In the rough and tumble of the lower domestic courts, you can do 300 trials in a year. You can't get that experience if you go straight to the tribunals, where the cases are long and slow. Working with marginalised communities, both as a public defender and during my work in Latin America, allowed me to see how human violations impacted in intersecting ways - to see the human context as it relates to the legal issues. 

Also, to be honest, the only path for me was a zigzag, as when I graduated no international criminal tribunals existed, and practice of international criminal law - whether at the level of policy, academia, and litigation - did not exist as it does today.


What have been the high points of your career thus far?

I'm fortunate to say that there have been many high points. I loved my time as a public defender; and there were moments during my human rights missions in Latin America that were almost transcendental. When I was at the ICTY in 1994, there was a feeling that we were making history - good, bad, and indifferent - every day. Every issue was de novo. Being able to work on so many landmark cases is such a rare and wonderful thing in a lawyer's life. I am particularly proud of my prosecutorial work concerning genocide in Akayesu and in my successfully advancing, in Kunarac, a theory of sexualised enslavement as a crime against humanity, the first such findings in international criminal law. 

As the Special Advisor for Gender for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, I work to support the implementation of the gender policy, and to empower and recruit a diverse group of people in the Office who will carry forward the developing gendered analysis of international crimes, and offer their knowledge to current and future investigative and prosecutorial teams.

The other main highlight has been to get to know the other people working in this field. I have come into contact with a community of remarkably humane people –particularly survivors - who are in the midst of confronting the most inhumane things. The friendships that I've formed continue to be a source of meaning in my professional life.


What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?

One of the challenges, particularly in the early years of my work in the tribunals, was having senior figures - almost entirely male - taken gendered analysis of international criminal law seriously. They didn't see feminist and broadly intersectional approaches as significant - and because it wasn't individually important to them, they felt free to ignore it, and to resist its encroachment on their analysis and understanding of the law. As the person trying to bring to the fore an intersectional understanding of the law, you also found yourself being systematically undervalued. Doubt was cast on whether such an analysis was a genuine intellectual contribution and there were concerted efforts to dismiss gendered analyses as a facile, tree-hugging, complaining effort. In turn, they necessarily viewed as diminished the intellectual capacity of the person pushing forward this analysis.

It was also clear that many of my predominantly white male colleagues struggled to work with women and people of colour from various geographies, including Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.Coming in as a black woman, I could see that they weren't sure how to respond to me. This was amplified in instances where I was relatively more senior to them. Many found it easier to say the challenge revolved around gender rather than race, but it was apparent (and commonly felt within the small community of people of colour) that many of our white male colleagues didn't know how to categorise smart, capable people of colour, and so ended up undervaluing our contributions and intellectual capacity. Part of what I faced was due to reactions to my gender, my race, and the subject matter on which I worked. For many of the senior men, it was seemingly a struggle to listen to and value the intellectual contributions of black women. Fortunately there were stunning exceptions such as Justice Goldstone and Deputy Prosecutor Blewitt at the Tribunals, and Dr. Shacknove at Oxford University.

This had serious consequences for professional advancement, a follow-on challenge. The predominantly white, male senior staff tended to mentor those who looked like them. When it came to after-work drinks, where networking was done and professional opportunities arose, I and other people of colour often weren't invited. White men were being promoted much more quickly than people of colour, and women more generally. It is damaging to exist in a situation where you are routinely undervalued; in the end, I decided to leave the ICTY after repeatedly not being selected to be a Senior Trial Attorney. It proved to be a very good decision that allowed me to expand my professional horizons and accomplishments.

Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?

Learn the law. Take this seriously - to work in this field you need to dedicate yourself to mastering the law. This is a continual process. As you become more senior and start to specialise, you need to master the specialisation as well.

Have mentors and buddies. Find people who are willing to mentor you as you progress in your public international legal career. Gratefully, Judge Gabrielle Kirk-McDonald and Judge Elizabeth Odio-Benito offered guidance as mentors.  Often, I recalled and understood what film director Julie Nash meant when she said, “Just chanting their names kept me sane”.   Also find your buddies - people with whom you can discuss complex questions and who will push you to grow intellectually. Create a safe space where you can look back on your wrong turns, discuss what happened, and work out how to do better next time. Equally, be generous with others. You can always be a mentor to someone more junior than you - and you can definitely always be a supportive buddy.

Find ways to be visible. Think about ways to contribute positively to the field, to connect with others, and to become more visible. Write blog posts. If you are too nervous, co-author a post with a buddy, and ask a mentor to review it before it's published. Go to conferences and commit to asking at least one question while there. Read up on the work of those in the field who you admire - and when you meet them, reference their work, That you've read it will often have a big impact. Don't only volunteer to do faceless organisational tasks. If you are helping to organise a panel, see if you can be the contact point for the speakers, or the rapporteur. Consider becoming involved in the drafting of amicus briefs, as it's a way to participate in litigation without being employed by the court. 

Don't be afraid to bring yourself to the table. It is often hard to assert yourself in environments where there are few people who look like you. I can count on less than two hands the number of African-American women working at mid to senior levels in international criminal law. When I attend conferences on international criminal justice, I don't expect to see many women of colour there, even though there should be. And the view that it shouldn't matter is something that I find curious - for if race and gender don't matter, then why does a system that is overwhelming white and male continually regenerate itself? The truth is that everyone brings a background to their understanding of the law and the facts. There is no impartial perspective. The black feminist perspective, for example, is neither an anomaly nor a deviation from a "neutral" or “reasonable” understanding of international criminal law. Don't be apologetic about who you are. Value your experiences and how they inform your understanding of the world and of your work.

You're allowed to get things wrong. When you write and speak, don't be so concerned about getting something wrong that it stops you from even trying. No one gets everything completely right all the time. Even judges are overruled. Be prepared but don't beat yourself up if you get something wrong. Every situation is an opportunity to learn.

 Take care of yourself. Make sure you are not harming yourself via the practice of law. Be aware of impact of working on atrocities, and of doing so in high-pressure environments. Don't allow yourself to become disassociated. It's harmful to yourself, survivors, colleagues, the institution, and to your personal relationships. Commit to practicing self-care.


Sareta Ashraph