War is hell, Sam Sasan Shoamanesh knows that only too well.

The turbulence of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War that soon followed shaped his early life.

Born in Iran in 1976, he remembers the wartime sirens warning of missile attacks, bombs blowing up entire neighborhoods, chemical attacks – the killing and maiming. Later, he and his family became part of one of history's many war-weary diasporas, emigrants who eventually settled in Canada, where he has lived ever since.

“These experiences stay in your memory. Even today, when my wife and I hear an alarm that sounds a bit like the air raid sirens we experienced as children, the memories come back and we react instinctively,” he says in the following interview.

From these early experiences developed a deep-rooted drive to contribute to positive change – and a passion for the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Aspiring to a career in international law, he turned down an offer from a prestigious law firm to work first at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and then at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The ICC was established in 2002 as the first and only permanent international court dedicated to investigating and prosecuting those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. He began his career at the ICC in 2005 and, in various positions, including that of Chief of Cabinet of the Prosecutor (2013-2021), has influenced its development and shaped it – and international justice. As the “chief of all chiefs of cabinets” and “right arm” of the former ICC Chief Prosecutor, Dr. Fatou Bensouda, he withstood unprecedented pressure and threats aimed at undermining the independence of the Prosecutor’s Office. He played a key role in the successes achieved during her tenure, including in some of the Court's most politically sensitive cases. He currently serves as Legal Counsel to the Office of the Prosecutor, where, among other things, he negotiated more than €30 million in voluntary contributions from ICC member states to support the Office's work.

In parallel with his work at the ICC, Shoamanesh, JSM '12, has built a reputation as a thought leader in the field, producing academic papers and policy analyses on issues such as the need for an indigenously-driven, comprehensive 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 executive editor of Global Brief, an influential international affairs magazine.

In the following interview, Shoamanesh (in his personal capacity) discusses the ICC's many challenges and successes, including its novel support for victim participation in judicial processes and successes in prosecuting traditionally underreported crimes such as sexual and gender-based crimes and the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites. The interview was conducted by Gulika Reddy, Assistant Professor at Stanford Law School and Director of its International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. Reddy is a global human rights advocate, focusing on inequality, discrimination, armed conflict, peacemaking, and the role of education in eliminating prejudice and promoting inclusion.
— by Sharon Driscoll

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

Sam Sasan Shoamanesh: Looking back, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, I can say that even as a child I had a strong innate sense of justice. It's something that's innate in me: a strong sense of right and wrong and a need to right wrongs, especially when they're committed against the weak.

Two major historical events in my formative years had a profound impact on my life. The first was the 1979 revolution in my birth country, which brought tectonic social and political changes to the country. The rest is history.

And of course the Iran-Iraq war that broke out in 1980.

There was a period of the war, infamously called the 'War of the Cities', which I remember as being particularly traumatic for my childhood. It was a time when Scud missiles were being fired indiscriminately at major cities in Iran and there were regular air strikes. These experiences stay with you. Even today, when my wife and I hear an alarm that sounds similar to the air raid sirens we experienced as children, the memories come flooding back and we react instinctively. These experiences also taught me the importance of finding other ways to resolve international conflicts by peaceful means, and the importance of international law, the protection of human rights, and diplomacy and multilateralism in resolving conflicts and preventing destructive hot wars. War is often the failure of leadership and human imagination to do better.

Reddy: How did you get to the ICC?

Shoamanesh: I was at the UN ICTY, which was established by a UN Security Council resolution, whereas the ICC is treaty-based. I decided to move to the ICC in 2005 because of its enormous potential as a permanent international court of last resort to prosecute and prevent atrocities within its jurisdiction worldwide. The opportunity to contribute to the institution-building and development of the Court was an exciting prospect.

The position I was offered at that time was to support the work of the Counsel Support Section at the ICC and to establish this section, which is mainly concerned with providing legal assistance to indigent persons and helping to facilitate legal representation for the defence, with a focus on the principle of equality of arms and the rights of the accused to a fair trial, as well as the participation of victims. Empowering victims to actively participate in ICC proceedings is an important innovation and crucial to ensuring that justice is done and perceived as such.

As part of the work of the Division, we have also developed and organised training for external legal counsel and their team members for a number of reasons. First, to provide better training opportunities on ICC law, procedure and practice for legal professionals who are permitted to practice before the Court. Second, part of the Court's mission is to foster a culture of understanding and awareness of the ICC and to benefit from different systems and exchange of expertise, be it from India to Africa or elsewhere. We have therefore engaged in many awareness-raising missions and training for members of the legal profession, particularly women, to enable them to engage in various capacities before the ICC. I have had the honour of actively participating in such efforts and encouraging more women lawyers, particularly from the African continent, to join the growing list of women lawyers permitted to practice before the ICC.

Reddy: Can you tell us something about the development of the ICC during your time there?

Q&A: 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: The ICC evolved from a newly established international court with no cases before it to a fully functioning international jurisdiction with a growing number of member states, active cases on the Court's agenda, and over 1,000 staff. Despite initial difficulties and many ups and downs along the way, the Court evolved from a newly established international court with a growing number of member states, active cases on the Court's agenda, and over 1,000 staff.

I returned to the ICC after taking a break to do my graduate studies at Stanford. I applied for a position with the then newly elected Prosecutor General, Dr. Fatou Bensouda, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Gambia, and joined her team as Chief of Cabinet.

The first prosecutor had tried to build up the Prosecutor's Office and handle its first cases, all of which related to situations in Africa. The Prosecutor's mandate is complex and demanding. Criticism, whether justified or not, is an essential part of this equation. When Prosecutor Bensouda took office, there was a perception of African bias and that the Court would only “prosecute” offenders in Africa. Of course, this simple narrative was not based on facts and the Prosecutor's Office has been and continues to be active in all situations for which it has jurisdiction, whether in Africa or elsewhere. With limited resources, we carried the weight of great expectations on our shoulders, with countless files in the pre-investigation, investigation or court phase, many with their own unique challenges and difficult operational contexts.

During Prosecutor Bensouda's tenure, the Office implemented comprehensive reforms, policy innovations, and management initiatives. The Office's activities expanded to 14 investigations and preliminary investigations in conflicts around the world to improve accountability for atrocities, including successes in court on charges of sexual and gender-based crimes, crimes against children, and intentional destruction of cultural heritage. Important progress was made and concluded in a number of preliminary investigations, many of which resulted in decisions whether to open an investigation, including in Mali, Georgia, Ukraine, Myanmar-Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Palestine.

The important work of the Public Prosecution Service has since been further developed under Public Prosecutor Karim AA Khan and important developments have taken place.

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