Lorraine Smith van Lin
Lorraine Smith van Lin is a passionate human rights advocate who currently works with Redress as a post-conflict justice adviser. She has worked for over a decade at the international level focusing on the effectiveness of the ICC, victims’ rights, reparations and transitional justice for post-conflict victims. Since 2017, her work with Redress has taken her to Uganda and Kenya to implement projects on behalf of post-conflict victims and to international platforms to advocate on their behalf.
For seven years, Lorraine worked as the Director of the International Bar Association’s International Criminal Court (ICC) Programme, monitoring the fairness of legal proceedings and policy at the ICC and providing important commentary through reports and presentations on the jurisprudential developments at the Court. Lorraine also tutored criminal practice and procedure at the Norman Manley Law School in Jamaica and taught international criminal law at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.
A native of Jamaica, Lorraine gained extensive experience working directly with victims of crime for more than 12 years as a Prosecutor and Parish Court judge in her country. She was appointed in 2007 to the national Justice Reform Taskforce responsible for the review of the Jamaican justice system. An outstanding oral and written communicator with experience in media, public speaking, and collaboration with diverse stakeholder groups, Lorraine has authored several reports and contributed to important publications on international criminal law and human rights.
What pulled you towards international law as a career and what were your first steps?
I became interested in international criminal law because of my experience as a prosecutor in Jamaica. I had dealt for over 10 years with rape and sexual violence cases all around the country. I grew increasingly frustrated with the low conviction rates for such cases, the long and painfully slow path to justice, and the absence of reparations for the victims even if there was a conviction. I became curious about the rights and remedies available to victims at the international level which could be applied to the Jamaican legal system. This curiosity lead me to do a Masters in International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom in 2002.
At Essex, one of the foremost institutions in international human rights law, I was exposed to the leading minds in international human rights law including Sir Nigel Rodney, Former Special Rapporteur on Torture (now deceased); Professor Paul Hunt, former Special Rapporteur on the right to health and Professor Clara Sandoval-Villalba who were my lecturers. Clara Sandoval was particularly inspiring because of her unwavering passion for human rights.
In fact, one fateful day, a seemingly simple question from Clara Sandoval, opened the door to my current career and forever changed the trajectory of my life. While at a restaurant during a class dinner, I responded in Spanish to something Clara said. Surprised, she asked me if I spoke Spanish. I said yes. A brief response to a simple question turned out to be one of the most important responses of my life! A few months later an opportunity arose to do trial monitoring in Equatorial Guinea, a Spanish-speaking African country, and Clara asked if I was interested in going there with her to monitor a trial on behalf of the International Bar Association (IBA). Of course, I jumped at the idea, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the country. The case concerned an attempted coup against the government of President Obiang by a group of mercenaries including former British Army Officer and mercenary, Simon Mann. It attracted a lot of international attention because of the involvement of Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister, who pleaded guilty in South Africa for his role in funding the foiled coup attempt.
Much to my surprise, I found myself embarking on this journey alone, as the government of Equatorial Guinea decided to allow only one person from the delegation to attend and they had chosen me. In fact, we only learnt about this while at the airport about to board the flight to the capital Malabo! My decision to say yes at that moment even when the plans changed, and while shaking in my shoes as I boarded that flight alone, turned out to be the launch pad for my career in international law.
I returned to Jamaica afterwards and continued working as a prosecutor and then became a Magistrate. A few years later, the IBA again asked me to go to Equatorial Guinea on a fact-finding mission. In 2007, I became the Director of the IBA’s ICC Programme tasked with monitoring the fairness of proceedings at the ICC.
What would you say are the high points of your career to date?
Monitoring the trial of the alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea was definitely one of the high points in my career and it opened many doors for me. What appeared to be a simple trial observation exercise for a student mushroomed into a case that attracted international attention. The interesting part of the experience was that I had to monitor the trial, interview defence counsel and other relevant persons including the Attorney-General at the time, all in Spanish. Thankfully I had had years of experience as a prosecutor so it was not difficult to follow the interesting and sometimes complex legal issues that arose during the trial.
Another amazing highlight of my career was participating in a victims’ forum in Gulu, Northern Uganda, which I organised in 2018 with Ugandan partners on behalf of Redress. I joined Redress, an international human rights organisation that works to obtain justice for victims of torture and gross human rights violations, in 2017 and I am currently implementing a transitional justice project for victims in Uganda. The opportunity to interact directly with victims of some of the most horrible human rights atrocities and to listen to their experience has really impacted me and reignited my passion to assist victims of crime. Witnessing the courage of these victims, many of whom have lifelong medical and psychological problems, have been traumatised, raped, subjected to sexual slavery, and who are yet to receive justice and reparations, moved me to a level that I could never have imagined. These victims reaffirmed that this is precisely the kind of work I am meant to be doing.
What are some of the challenges that you've had to face as a black woman in this field?
Indeed, there have been challenges but I prefer to call them opportunities for growth. As I mentioned before, my job at the IBA required me to assess fair trial standards at the ICC which involved interacting with senior Court staff. As a black woman in a senior position having to deal at that time with mainly male principals at the helm of the ICC, I was received with scepticism by some as well as outright antagonism once reports were published. To be honest, I don’t believe that the push back was because I was a black woman. I think that it was more because I was unknown in the field at that time with an important but very sensitive job of scrutinising an institution that does not easily welcome scrutiny. The truth is that as a newbie in the field, despite many years of experience at the national level, I had to go the extra mile to prove myself. It wasn’t easy but with consistent, systematic engagement, closed doors became more open to me. Today, I am happy that I took the time to build relationships along the way because it has made a difference in the way I am able to interact with the Court and its staff.
On the other side, there were also more peer-related challenges. At that time, there were few civil society organisations working on fair trial issues so at times I felt incredibly alone, like a lone voice in the wilderness. Indeed, in some ways I also felt like I was betraying victims by advocating for the rights of accused persons rather than victims’ rights. I really had to push back against misperceptions and misinformation on this issue and work hard to convince stakeholders that unfair trials also undermine the rights of victims. My previous experience as a Magistrate in Jamaica really came in handy during this time because in that role I also had to find the right balance between the rights of victims and accused.
On a personal level, a broader challenge has been to adjust to the somewhat transient nature of this field. You do not quite know where you fit because you are part of a diverse group of people who rapidly come and go with short-term contracts. I started this career at a relatively mature phase in my life and the experience of picking up and coming to the Netherlands, where most of the international institutions are based, plunged me into culture shock. I was separated from my family and my roots and required to adapt to multiple cultures in a global ‘Hague’ world. Living in Europe and travelling to different countries including in Africa is certainly never boring but it is also not easy. I am so thankful for the ‘gatherings’ organised by Judge Patrick Robinson, judge at the International Court of Justice and formerly at the ICTY, which brought Jamaicans and the wider Caribbean community in the Hague together to relax and share Jamaican food, common experiences and memories.
Of course, for moms like myself, the biggest challenge is finding an appropriate work/life balance particularly when travelling is a big part of the job. For me this is an ongoing struggle. I commute weekly between Germany and Holland and then travel to Africa periodically for work. The mom-guilt is real, leading to efforts to over-compensate for the time away. A friend asked me recently about self-care and I realised that finding the balance means also making time for care for myself. That could be as simple as taking time to get enough sleep, which I am still working on.
Are there areas of field of international criminal law that you feel warrant more attention?
I have a real concern that there is still not enough momentum at the international level to address crimes against women and girls. Despite elaborate and progressive provisions in the Rome Statute on sexual- and gender-based violence, the Court has had little success in securing convictions for such crimes. We only need to look at the many post-conflict victims of SGBV in Uganda, Kenya and other countries who are still waiting to obtain justice and reparations. I fully support initiatives such as the global survivor’s network launched by the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation which provides a platform for SGBV victims in different countries to support each other and to directly advocate for justice and reparations.
I also think that it is important to bridge the gender gap at the international level particularly in relation to the positioning of women from the global south and other under-represented regions in seats of power, whether as judges, senior and middle managers. Even at the ICC where there is a specific gender balance policy, not enough women are represented in senior positions in all sections of the Court. Within NGO organisations, we also see this gap. Space needs to be created for women from the global south to get into the field. NGO employers need to ensure gender and regional balance in their organisations and give opportunities to young ladies from countries that are underrepresented at the international level who have a much harder time breaking into the international arena. Often, these women are from post-conflict countries who do not get the chance to be active participants in international justice decisions that impact them. There are simply not enough of these capable, talented, motivated women from these countries sitting at the international justice table and that has got to change.
In my country, Jamaica, women play a strong and powerful role in driving and shaping the criminal justice process. Most of our lawyers are women, a trend that is clearly continuing given the number of females graduating from the Law School. Our Attorney-General is a woman and so is our former Chief Justice and several judges at the High Court and Court of Appeal. Ironically, we still have unacceptably high rates of sexual and gender-based violence but it is significant that we have women in positions of power who can influence policy and shape the law. At the international level we need to harness the female power and expertise from the South!
Do you have any advice for those who embarking on a career in public international law?
I have a lot of advice for persons starting in this field, perhaps too much to share here so I will limit it to three.
Be bold! Do not be afraid of the obstacles and challenges and even if you are afraid, do it anyway, because you can learn along the way. You will make mistakes- it happens to all of us. Later, when you look back through the lens of more experience and greater knowledge, you will wish you did things differently, but its fine. The most important thing is to keep learning. Every single day is a learning opportunity in this field. After seven years with the IBA I felt fairly confident that I knew a significant amount about how the ICC functions and about its procedures etc. Then I moved to Redress and I am now working with victims and victims’ networks, conducting field work, establishing victims’ forums, and doing community outreach. I had worked with victims before but never in that way. I had to learn, and it has been a great experience.
Be strategic. If you are a student who has finished your studies in international criminal law and you are wondering “where do I start”, don’t always look immediately at the ICC or large non-governmental organisations. The process for getting a job at these organisations may be complicated and take significant time but it does not always happen immediately, and the temptation is to get frustrated. Don’t be afraid to start at a lower level, for example as an intern or as a visiting professional if you have a lot of experience, to get your foot in the door. If you cannot get into those organisations, do an internship or voluntary research for a smaller NGO which could potentially open doors for you later. Of course, employers in this field also need to recognise and value interns and create a space for them to make a real contribution to the organisation. Interns should be reimbursed for the time they devote to an organisation! It is also important that visa policies are flexible to ensure that interns from global south countries are given the same opportunities in the field of international justice as others from more privileged countries.
Maximise your time outside of the international legal sphere. A career at the international level is most effective when it is the amalgamation of your life experience. Thus, your job at the national level in a local NGO or a court or government institution is preparing you to be able to effectively handle an international job. The sometimes tedious research assignments, difficult cases and drafting of documents in your country may give you an advantage over colleagues who may have degrees but minimal work experience. Sharpen other skills like IT, language and project management. Importantly, keep yourself abreast of what is going on in the field, go to conferences, lectures and seminars when you can, because you never know who you might meet at these events that could potentially play a pivotal role in your career.
Lorraine was profiled for ATLAS by Angela Mudukuti. Angela is a Zimbabwean lawyer currently with the Wayamo Foundation, where she focuses on capacity building for African prosecutors and investigators to further enhance domestic capacity to investigate and prosecute core international crimes. Formerly with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), Angela worked on precedent-setting cases on crimes against humanity and universal jurisdiction brought before the South African Constitutional Court, and was deeply involved in advocacy and strategic litigation, including seeking the arrest of President Bashir (Sudan) during his visit to South Africa. Prior to joining SALC, Angela worked for the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, and under the supervision of Prof Cheriff Bassiouni at the International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in Siracusa, Italy. Prior to that, Angela was in private practice in Zimbabwe working on civil and criminal matters. Angela has an LLM in international criminal law and transitional justice and an undergraduate law degree. Angela has written and published on international criminal law issues in books and newspapers. @AngelaMudukuti