Catherine Marchi-Uhel is the Head of the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011. The IIIM was established by the United Nations General Assembly on 21 December 2016. Prior to joining the IIIM, she was the Ombudsperson for the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities. Previously a judge in France, Catherine served in the same capacity with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. She was Senior Legal Officer and Head of Chambers at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and also held legal positions in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with United Nations peacekeeping missions. Catherine holds a Master’s degree in law from the University of Caen, France.
Catherine was interviewed for ATLAS by Nolwenn Guibert, a French lawyer who serves as a legal officer in the Pre-Trial Section of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. She is also passionate about ballet and blogs about the interactions between art and human rights.
What drew you towards international law as a career and what were your first steps?
My interest for international law originated from my family history. My family was close to a man who had been detained at Dachau. I had heard stories of him being subjected to medical experimentation there and from a young age I knew that there had been post world war trials so this sparked my curiosity for the field. However, when I graduated from law school and I was deciding which career path to take, there was no indication I would go in the international direction.
My first professional steps were in the judiciary in France. I had hesitated between becoming a defense attorney (avocate) and a judge (magistrate) but I was attracted to the position of arbiter and I wanted to contribute to the fairness of the process so I underwent my training at the Judge school in Bordeaux. When I graduated in my twenties—in France, judges start practicing early—I served as a single judge in charge of juvenile offenders and children victims but because I was assigned to a small court I got to deal with every aspect of the law. I stayed there for seven years.
As I was interested in human rights, I decided to attend a training at the ECHR in Strasburg. This led to my secondment to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs for three years. There, I would represent France in litigation before the ECHR. At the end of my three-year term, I had to make a decision whether to ask for an extension or return to a court but I had an opportunity to join UNMIB (the UN peace-keeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and decided to take it. In that position, I started by monitoring the state and activities of the judiciary there. That’s how I started my international career.
What have been the high points of your career to date?
There have been many but the first one that comes to mind is definitely my ICTY adventure. When I started in 2002, things were still very much in the making. The ad hoc tribunals were the model and the ICC was not yet fully functioning. I held several positions in the Chambers, where one could have a real influence on the process and the law. The strides we made then at the ICTY are still of great relevance today when we try to bring international criminal law back to the domestic level.
Certainly, my various positions in peacekeeping missions have also shaped who I am today. In Kosovo where I worked on an UNMIK system to investigate and evaluate misconduct within the domestic judiciary prior to serving as an international judge I had a fantastic experience. It was very judicially oriented, which I loved. Then, of course, I served as rule of law director at UNMIL just when the Ebola crisis struck. The challenge of devising and implementing a rule of law program in the context of a fully-fledged Ebola epidemic is something that will remain with me.
Moving on to my position as Ombudsperson for the Al-Qaida sanctions committee, which remains an important highlight of my career. I followed Kimberly Prost who held the position before me. While this was not a judicial position, I tried to build a review regime that would ensure fairness and efficiency.
And finally, of course, my current position has to be a highlight. The mandate and the novelty of the IIIM in itself is fascinating in that we are trying to establish and function this new type of entity to service domestic or international jurisdictions, either current or future, in their prosecution and adjudication of the most serious crimes committed during the Syria conflict. We are supporting every opportunity for the victims of core crimes in Syria to access justice.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced and how have you tackled them?
I think I’ve been lucky that I have never felt that being a woman was an impediment to my career progression. When I was serving as a Judge in France, most of my peers and the court’s senior management were women. When I joined the UN, I did not have the feeling that being a woman was a challenge either. In my current position, it is the first time that at times I feel challenged as a woman. On the other hand, these challenges have contributing to my seeking to proactively integrate gender as part of our core work but also to be gender conscious in the way we work in the office.
I have to add that I faced many hurdles in my role as ombudsperson. While this is an independent role, States have a lot at stake. Clearly, States did not want the Sanctions Committee to become a quasi-judicial organ. Even things such as the possibility of sharing reasons for a determination with the relevant individual was a fight. This was a very important role but with many external limitations imposed. I had to fight every single step to make the process fairer and to strike the right balance between fairness and security.
Do you have any advice for those, especially women, who are embarking in international law?
My first piece of advice would be for young lawyers to build a strong foundation in their national system. This really pays off in my view because once you’re able to demonstrate that you know one particular system well, whatever that system may be, it is easier for a recruiter to envision what you may bring to a position. In my case, practising as a judge in France was really a stepping stone in my international career later on.
My second piece of advice is never to give up. Here, I would like to share a story from my personal experience that I hope will encourage young lawyers who may be facing rejection. When I was seconded to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the mid-1990s, the conflict in the Balkans was still raging. There was so much discussion about it that I thought it would be interesting to join the ICTY. I sent an application for what must have been a P3 post. Keep in my mind that at that time, I had been a Judge in France for seven years and working on human rights cases at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for about two. Well, I never heard back from this application. I was disappointed but thought that to increase my chances to join later, I should get relevant field experience. So I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina with UNMIB and only four years later, when I applied for a P5 position that time, and I was able to show my interest and commitment to the region, I got the job. I faced a few other situations where I was unsuccessful. In these situations, while it is of course entirely normal to be disappointed, one needs to keep in mind that there is usually another opportunity around the corner, for which you are better suited, which awaits.
Nolwenn Guibert is a French lawyer. She received her law degree from the University of Paris-X Nanterre, an LLM in International Law from Washington College of Law, and another LLM in Humanitarian Law and Human Rights from the University of Paris II. She started her career as Human Rights Officer with the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She then worked as a legal adviser to trial judges and coordinator of Chambers staff at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for 12 years. She has also served at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Chambers, the International Criminal Court for the Defence, and more recently as a disciplinary Officer for the United Nations Department of Field Support. Since May 2017, she serves as a legal officer in the Pre-Trial Section of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. She is also passionate about ballet and blogs about the interactions between art and human rights.