International Criminal Court: Protection of Witnesses

The International Criminal Court’s Trial Chamber recently confronted two interesting issues regarding protection of witnesses in its proceedings:

What should the Court do with a witness’ request not to be returned to his home country because of alleged fear of persecution due to his testimony?

What should the Court do with that witness’ claim for asylum due to an alleged well founded fear of persecution in his home country due to his                                                          political opinions as expressed in his testimony?[1]

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo

These issues arose in the ICC prosecution of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), who is charged with two war crimes. One is his allegedly enlisting and conscripting of children under the age of 15 years into a Congolese rebel group (Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC)) and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the context of an international armed conflict. The other is doing the same thing in the context of an armed conflict not of an international character.[2]

The unnamed witness (Defense Witness 19) had been in detention in the DRC pending determination of criminal charges against him. Upon the application of defense counsel, the Court requested the DRC to transfer him to the Court to testify voluntarily at the trial. The DRC agreed to this request, pursuant to Article 93(7) of the Rome Statute that requires the individual to be returned to [the DRC] after testifying.

The witness was called to testify by defense counsel, who said the witness wished to testify in public without protective measures. At the start of his testimony, however, the witness expressed concerns about his safety and that of his family in the DRC, but he did not formally request protection from the Court at that time or during the course of his testimony.

The witness testified on a broad range of subjects, including his role in the rebel group, Lubanga’s position in the group, and the group’s conduct during the conflicts. The witness seriously challenged three named individuals in the DRC government.

After his testimony was finished and after the Court’s Registry had advised the Trial Chamber that the witness needed to be returned to the DRC as soon as possible, the witness filed a formal request for protection, i.e., a stay, and eventual cancellation, of his removal to the DRC and facilitation of his asylum application to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Trial Chamber ordered the stay of his removal while his application for protection was considered.

Witness’ Request for Cancellation of Removal to DRC

Under Article 68(1) of the Rome Statute, the “Court shall take appropriate measures to protect the safety, physical and psychological well-being, dignity and privacy of victims and witnesses.” To assist the Court in ruling on an application for such measures, it may request its Victims and Witness Unit (VWU), pursuant to Article 68(4), to provide advice.

That was done, and the VWU told the Trial Chamber that if returned to the DRC the witness “would not be exposed to any additional risk to his security or psychological or physical well-being as a result of his testimony;” that his testimony did not provide any new information to the DRC; that the DRC had provided assurances that the witness would receive adequate protection upon return; and the VWU would monitor his treatment after return.

The Chamber concluded that the VWU was the body within the ICC with the necessary qualified staff and expertise to evaluate the risks posed to a witness, that the Court had complied with its obligations under Article 68 of the Statute to consider the application for protection, that the request for cancellation of his removal to the DRC should be denied and that the witness should be returned to the DRC. However, the Court’s Registry was instructed to contact the DRC authorities to determine what, if any, additional security measures should be implemented upon return, and the VWU was instructed to monitor the witness’ well-being.

Witness’ Application for Asylum

The ICC is not a state and is not a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.[3] Therefore, the Trial Chamber concluded it had no jurisdiction to address the merits of the witness’ asylum application.

Instead, it was exclusively for the Kingdom of the Netherlands to consider and make a determination on that application. However, the Trial Chamber instructed the ICC’s Registry to afford the witness reasonable access to his lawyers on the asylum application and to work out procedures for the witness’ asylum application to be determined by the Netherlands before his return to the DRC.

[1] Redacted Decision on the request of [Defense Witness 19] for special protective measurs relating to his asylum application, Prosecutor v. Lubanga Dyilo(ICC Trial Chamber Aug. 5, 2011),; Ramji-Nogales, International criminal law meets non-refoulement (July 8, 2011),

[2]  ICC, Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo,

[3] See Post: Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011).

Published by


As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

One thought on “International Criminal Court: Protection of Witnesses”

Leave a Reply