Cécile Aptel

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Cécile Aptel is the Director of Policy, Strategy and Knowledge at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, with over 14 million volunteers working in 191 countries around the globe. Prior to this, she was the Senior Legal Policy Adviser to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and headed the initial team which established the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM). Cécile is also a professor at Fletcher (Tufts University) and the Centre for Human Rights of Pretoria University, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard University. 

An expert in international criminal justice, transitional justice and child rights, Cécile has over 20 years of experience in international affairs, notably at OHCHR, International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR, respectively) and the International Independent Investigation Commission. She has worked for the European Union, think-tanks and NGOs, including the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), where she established and directed the Program on Children and Transitional Justice. 

Follow her on @cecile_aptel

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

From a young age - and certainly by the time I was contemplating my career - I had a strong urge to do my part to change the world for the better. I started my career in the early 1990s as the war in the former Yugoslavia raged on. I took my first steps in the humanitarian field working in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. While there, I became aware of aid being diverted from its intended purpose and started to document what was happening. So my humanitarian work led me quickly to the world of international investigations in the context of armed conflicts.

That I made the jump into international criminal law was equal parts luck, working hard, and making the most of opportunities that came my way. I met Antonio Cassese, the first President of the ICTY, who would become a great mentor to me. Cassese appreciated my increasing grasp of international humanitarian law and saw the value of my experience on the ground in the former Yugoslavia. He opened the door for me to join the ICTY in 1994. I was extremely fortunate to join the field of international criminal justice just as it was being reinvigorated through the establishment of the ad hoctribunals. I worked on the research that led to the ICTY's first Decision: the 1995 Decision on the Defence Motion for the Interlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction, which is perhaps best known for establishing the test for conflict classification.

I went on to work at the ICTR, ICTJ, in academia, and in a variety of roles within the United Nations - all of which have led me to my current position as the Director of Policy, Strategy and Knowledge at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

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

My career has - largely by design - been quite varied and I'm lucky enough to have several moments that mean much to me. These include my assisting in drafting the ICTR Statute; drafting substantial portions of the 1998 Akayesu Trial Judgment including its findings on genocide; assisting  in drafting the Statute of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; creating the ICTJ's Program on Children and Transitional Justice and helping ensure that international criminal tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, seriously consider crimes against children; drafting the terms of reference of the IIIM which defined its mandate; and heading the start-up team to lay the groundwork for establishing the IIIM. I'm looking forward to the high points still to come!


The Akayesu Trial Judgement has become the basis for much scholarship and activism on the intersection of gender and international crime. Did you have a sense of its landmark status at the time it was being drafted?

The gendered analysis which forms a thread throughout Akayesu was the result of conscious decisions by the Judges and their Legal Officers, driven by the extensive testimonies bringing to light the magnitude of  the gendered violence committed in Rwanda in 1994. This was specifically (but not only) in regards to the use of sexual violence which was overtly being used as a process of destruction - to destroy the Tutsis, and more particularly, Tutsi women. There was a strong intersectionality to the animus which drove the genocidal intent in Rwanda: hatred towards the Tutsis, but layered into that, a violent misogyny directed towards Tutsi women.  

As for the gendered approach taken in the Judgment, credit goes to the three Trial Judges: Navi Pillay, Lennart Aspegren, and the late Laïty Kama. All three were sensitive to the gendered nature of the crimes, and gave the three Legal Officers latitude during the drafting, stepping in with guidance as needed. In 1997 and 1998, there was very little relevant jurisprudence we could use: it was the first international judgement ever on the crime of genocide and also on war crimes committed specifically in non-international armed conflicts. In Arusha, there was no ready access to the internet, unlike today. So we had to be creative, having duly considered the facts of the case, witness testimonies, and submissions of the parties. As a result, we were able to analyse and draft in ways that, at the time, were quite innovative.


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

In the late 1990s, in the area of international criminal law, we were very few women and the objectification of women was still a serious issue, especially for young women. It was challenging to gain a seat at the table in an environment which was mostly made up of older men. Like other women, I had to learn how to navigate such an environment, and it was not always easy. I vividly remember that, when I first arrived at the ICTR, I was greeted by a male international staff member who looked me up and down and said “you’re not what I expected a legal officer to look like." I hope that things have improved today, but I am not sure that is always the case. 

A personal challenge remains that I do not systematically seek recognition for the work I have done. Like many women, I have the sense that if one does good - or great - work, that alone is sufficient to call attention to the time and effort one has dedicated to a particular project. Unfortunately this is not often the case. Of course, in some roles - such as working with Judges or within the UN - it is right that one's name not appear in the resulting work. However, in other roles, the fact is that having more visibility often leads to more recognition and then receiving more opportunities. Simply doing great work is often not enough to be noticed.

You've asked about the balance of having children and working, as it's an issue some young women in our profession are concerned about. Tellingly, it appears to be a less active concern of young men. There is no 'right' way to approach motherhood, if one decides to have children. Some women (and a few men) decide to take some time off in their child's early years; others, like myself, seek to find a path to raising their child while continuing working in demanding positions that involve frequent travel. This is the model I grew up with: both my mother and grandmother did the same. It is key to know what you expect from yourself, and not allow yourself to be flattened by the expectations of others. For me, having a partner who also seeks to balance a thriving career with raising our daughter is integral. Finally, you need a supportive network - that often includes nannies, grandparents, extended families, and close friends. 

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

Grasp opportunities to move around. Move geographically, move thematically, move from one position to another. This is public international law so prioritise getting a deeper understanding of what is international about it. Cultivate a diverse understanding of the world, and of the varied voices in our field. This will aid you in grasping the complexity of the issues we face in international law.

Let yourself be known. Make sure that what you have to say is interesting, and then say it. Write, ask the first question in conferences, speak about your work. There is a strong gendered aspect to this. Women and girls, living in a society that often undervalues their voices and which views ambitious women suspiciously, are likely to be less assertive about ensuring we get appropriate recognition and equal payment for the work we do. And there is no end to people who will take advantage of that reticence. Be confident that the work you do is valuable and that you deserve to be recognised and paid properly for it.

Let go of the idea that being liked is the most important outcome. Women are often conditioned to seek positive feedback, to do the most socially appropriate things. Consider how those norms function to hold you back, and to allow others to step forward in your place. Welcome constructive criticism as one of the things that will make you better.

Invest in your networks. Mentors are great - and I have been lucky to have several - but mentors come with one set of experiences, and one way of looking at things. Networks will give you diverse viewpoints, and will help us to support each other in multi-faceted ways.

Finally, for women at all levels of the international legal profession, we need to be more transparent about the challenges we face, and think about how to collectively address them. This would include more openness about pay scales. And with groups such as ATLAS, we need to actively foster a supportive community within our profession, especially among those who face significant and frequently intersecting institutional biases.

Cécile Aptel was interviewed by Sareta Ashraph.

Sareta Ashraph