Q&A: International Law and Justice – Legal Issues – Stanford Lawyer Magazine

Q&A: International Law and Justice – Legal Issues – Stanford Lawyer Magazine

War is hell, as Sam Sasan Shoamanesh knows all too well.

The turbulence of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War were touchstones of his youth.

Born in Iran in 1976, he remembers war sirens announcing imminent rocket attacks, bombs exploding across entire neighborhoods, chemical attacks, killings and maimings. Later, he and his family joined one of history’s many battle-weary diasporas, emigrants who eventually settled in Canada, where he has lived ever since.

“These experiences remain etched in our memory. Even today, when my wife and I hear an alarm that sounds like those air raid sirens we heard when we were children, the memories come flooding back and we react instinctively,” he explains in the following interview.

These early experiences gave birth to a deep desire to contribute to positive change, as well as a passion for the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Questions and Answers: International Law and Justice

He chose a career in international law, turning down an offer from a prestigious law firm to work at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and then at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, established in 2002 as the first and only permanent international court dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. He began his career at the ICC in 2005 and, while serving in various capacities, including as Chief of Staff to the Prosecutor (2013-2021), he helped influence its development and leave his mark on it – and on international justice. Dubbed the “chief of all chiefs of staff” and her “right-hand man” by former ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, he steadfastly resisted unprecedented pressure and threats aimed at undermining the independence of the prosecution and played a key role in the successes achieved during his tenure, including in some of the Court’s most politically sensitive cases. He currently provides general legal services to the Office of the Prosecutor, where he has notably negotiated over €30 million in voluntary contributions from ICC Member States to support the work of the Office.

Alongside his work with the ICC, Shoamanesh, a JSM ’12 graduate, has established a reputation as a thought leader in the field, writing academic articles and policy analyses on topics such as the need for an inclusive, indigenous-led regional security framework in the Middle East. He is the founding vice president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, a vision and strategy think tank, and co-founder and editor of Global Brief, an influential international affairs magazine.

In the following interview, Shoamanesh discusses (in a personal capacity) the ICC’s many challenges and achievements, including its innovative support for victims’ participation in judicial proceedings and its successes in prosecuting traditionally underreported crimes, such as sexual and gender-based crimes and the willful destruction of cultural heritage sites. The interview was conducted by Gulika Reddy, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School and director of its International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. Reddy has led human rights advocacy around the world and focuses on inequality, discrimination, armed conflict, peacebuilding, and the role of education in unlearning bias and fostering inclusion.
— by Sharon Driscoll


Gulika Reddy: You have held many positions at the ICC and elsewhere. What brought you to this job?

Sam Sasan Shoamanesh: Looking back, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I can say that I have always had an innate sense of justice, even as a child. It is something intrinsic to me, a strong sense of right and wrong and the need to right wrongs, especially when they are perpetrated against the most vulnerable.

Two major historical events from my youth had a profound impact on my life. The first was the 1979 revolution in my home country, which caused tectonic social and political changes in the country. The rest is history.

And of course, the Iran-Iraq War, which broke out in 1980.

There was a phase of the war, infamously called the “War of the Cities,” that particularly traumatized me as a child. It involved indiscriminate Scud missile strikes on Iran’s major cities and regular aerial bombardments. These experiences remain etched in my memory. Even today, when my wife and I hear an alarm that sounds like the air raid sirens we heard as children, the memories come flooding back and we react instinctively. These experiences also instilled in me the importance of finding alternative ways to resolve international disputes through peaceful means, and the importance of international law, human rights protections, diplomacy, and multilateralism in resolving conflicts and preventing destructive hot wars. War is often the result of the failure of leaders and human imagination to do better.

Reddy: What was your journey to the ICC?

Shoamanesh: I worked at the ICTY, which was established by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council. The ICC, by contrast, is a treaty-based court. I chose to join the ICC in 2005 because of its immense potential to address and prevent heinous crimes within its jurisdiction around the world as a permanent international court of last resort. The opportunity to contribute to the strengthening of the institution and the evolution of the Court was an exciting prospect.

The position I was offered at the time was to contribute to the work of the ICC Counsel Support Section and to strengthen this section, which is primarily concerned with the provision of legal aid to indigent persons and helps facilitate legal representation of the defence, guided by the principle of equality of arms and due process rights of the accused, as well as the participation of victims. Enabling victims to participate actively in ICC proceedings is an important and essential innovation to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.

As part of our work, we have also developed and conducted training for external lawyers and their team members, for a variety of reasons. First, we wanted to provide legal professionals admitted to practice before the Court with better training opportunities on the law, procedure and practice of the ICC. Second, the Court has a mission to cultivate a culture of understanding and awareness of the ICC, to draw on different systems and exchanges of expertise, whether in India, Africa or elsewhere. We have therefore participated in numerous outreach and training missions for members of the legal profession, particularly women, to engage in various capacities before the ICC. I have been honoured to be actively involved in these efforts, encouraging more women lawyers, particularly from the African continent, to join the growing list of lawyers admitted to practice before the ICC.

Reddy: Can you tell us about some of the ways the ICC evolved during your time there?

Questions and Answers: International Law and Justice 2
Dr. Fatou Bensouda and Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, JSM ’12, brief the Security Council on the situation in Darfur, Sudan, in 2019. (Photo by UN PHOTO/LOEY FELIPE)

Shoamanesh: Well, from an international court that had just been created with no cases before it, the ICC has grown into a fully functioning international court with a growing number of member states, active cases on the court’s docket, over 1,000 employees, with teething troubles and many ups and downs along the way.

I returned to the ICC after taking a leave of absence to pursue graduate studies at Stanford, and applied to work with the newly elected Chief Prosecutor, Dr. Fatou Bensouda, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of The Gambia, and joined her team as Chief of Staff.

The first Prosecutor had attempted to establish the Office and its first cases, all of which concerned situations in Africa. The mandate of the Office of the Prosecutor is multifaceted and difficult. Criticism, justified or not, is part and parcel of the equation. At the time Prosecutor Bensouda took office, there was a perception of African bias, that the Court was only “pursuing” perpetrators of crimes in Africa. Of course, this simple narrative was not based on the facts, and the Office has worked and continues to work on all situations that fall within its jurisdiction, whether in Africa or elsewhere. With limited resources, we had the weight of great expectations on our shoulders, with countless cases in the preliminary examination, investigation or trial phase, many of which presented their own challenges and difficult operational contexts.

During Prosecutor Bensouda’s tenure, the Office implemented major reforms, policy innovations and management initiatives. The Office’s activities expanded to cover 14 investigations and preliminary examinations in conflicts around the world to advance accountability for atrocity crimes, including successes in court on charges of sexual and gender-based crimes, crimes against children and the wilful destruction of cultural heritage. A number of preliminary examination cases saw significant progress and reached conclusion, with many resulting in a decision whether to open an investigation, including in Mali, Georgia, Ukraine, Myanmar-Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Palestine.

The important work of the Office of the Prosecutor has since progressed with major developments under the leadership of Prosecutor Karim AA Khan.