Lawyer Limelight: Karen Corrie

Karen Corrie admits to throwing caution to the wind in 2008 when she left her position as an assistant district attorney in New York to become an intern at the International Criminal Court, the ICC, in The Hague. In terms of job titles, the move was a downgrade, but it also positioned her to fulfill her goal of prosecuting the world’s worst atrocities. Corrie rose from an intern to become special assistant to the chief prosecutor - at the time, Luis Moreno Ocampo - and then on to being an analyst within the Office of the Prosecutor and eventually a trial lawyer. In the latter role, she worked on Prosecutor vs. Ruto and Sang, the case against Kenya’s Deputy President (William Ruto) and a former radio personality (Joshua Sang) accused of crimes against humanity tied to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-2008. The case is currently in trial. [View Lawdragon's International Justice page for more features.]

The ICC was established by the 1998 Rome Statute treaty, which entered into force in 2002 after 60 states had ratified the treaty and become “states parties” to the statute. The Assembly of States Parties, or ASP, the court’s oversight body, now includes 122 nations, though noticeably absent are some of the world’s biggest powers, such as the United States. Corrie, who returned to New York in 2012, recently concluded her work as a consultant to the ASP's president while also teaching undergraduate courses at Fordham University. Before her work for the ASP, Corrie served a stint as a litigation fellow at the Open Society Institute's Justice Initiative. She is now taking her experience to American Express as a consultant to the company’s financial intelligence unit. Corrie received her law degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2005 and did her undergraduate work at Columbia.

Lawdragon: Please tell us about the job you recently finished. What did you do in your role as a consultant to the President of the Assembly of States Parties?

Karen Corrie: As a consultant to the ASP President, I advised the President on how to use her position to encourage states to enhance their capacity to prosecute atrocity crimes in their national courts. The ICC is meant only to complement national systems, stepping in when they are unwilling or unable to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute. States should be the first line of defense against impunity.

At a practical level, I was based primarily out of the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations in New York because the President of the ASP is an Estonian Ambassador-at-Large. I worked within the UN system, with representatives from states’ delegations to the UN, and looked for opportunities in the UN system to promote domestic accountability. For example, three times per year the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva holds its Universal Periodic Review, which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The President has engaged in a letter writing campaign to encourage states under review to accept recommendations to, among other things, implement the Rome Statute crimes in their domestic legislation so that they can prosecute the crimes as such.

Additionally, I worked with NGOs to find opportunities where the President can augment their efforts to help states build domestic capacity to address atrocity crimes, and with UN entities to see where their Rule of Law work may overlap with the President’s efforts. I also organized speaking events at the UN and abroad where experts can discuss how to enhance domestic ability to prosecute atrocity crimes, and helped the President prepare her remarks for a variety of events.

LD: Backing up, how did you become interested in a career in international justice?

KC: It was in college. When I started college, I was already interested in a career in law – I enjoyed competing in debate and mock trial in high school, and loved history and government classes, so thought I would work as a domestic prosecutor or in U.S. government. But until college, the only atrocity crimes I’d ever learned of were committed during the Holocaust. In college, I learned about other horrific atrocities, including the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans and the vicious Latin American juntas during the Cold War, and I felt compelled to do something to stop it. Around that time, I took a course called “Justice” that included a segment on the International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court.

I was hooked – this combined my love of the courtroom with my hope of doing something to fight atrocity crimes. I knew then that I wanted to work for the ICC. I wrote my senior honors thesis on the ICC and, to learn more, I took an internship during the fall semester of my senior year of college with an NGO that works to promote the ICC in the U.S., called the American NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (AMICC). It was through AMICC that I met two people who helped me figure out my way to the ICC – John Washburn, the head of AMICC, and his colleague Matthew Heaphy.

LD: Your first job was not in that area, but as an assistant DA in Manhattan. What was your motivation in taking that job? Looking back, how do you view that experience?

KC: John and Matthew advised me that, if I wanted to work at the ICC, I would need to find a way to stand out as a candidate. They told me that there were a lot of people at the ICC who had legal expertise, but fewer with practical courtroom experience, and suggested that I could set myself apart by working as a U.S. prosecutor before applying for ICC work. So that’s what I did – I spent my law school summers interning for the Brooklyn and Manhattan DA’s Offices, and was then selected to serve as an ADA in Manhattan when I finished law school.

I cannot recommend working for a prosecutor’s office strongly enough. The experience was incredible – from the beginning young ADAs are in the courtroom, trying their own cases. There is no better way to learn to litigate than by doing – by developing the muscle memory necessary to adeptly examine witnesses, to speak in public high-pressure settings, to vet evidence, and to manage large numbers of witnesses and keep them on board through trial. I also started working on some smaller investigations before I left, which I found valuable when I got to the ICC

LD: If you can, describe your transition to the ICC – what position did you first land there?

KC: To get my foot in the door at the ICC, I did a slightly reckless thing – I quit my job at the DA’s Office and moved to the Netherlands to take an unpaid internship at the ICC in the Office of the Prosecutor. I took an internship at the recommendation of John and Matthew – I was only three years out of law school, so I was still quite junior professionally, and they advised that if I took an internship and showed the OTP what I was made of, I could probably work my way into a job. In retrospect, it would have been much smarter to take a leave of absence from the DA’s Office than to resign …

Fortunately, my plan worked. I was assigned to work on a case that was headed for a key hearing, and, because of my work experience, was given a decent amount of responsibility in preparation for it. I was able to show the team what I could do, helping with oral arguments and preparing my own mock Defense argument to help identify the weaknesses in the case. Because the heads of my team wanted to keep me on, they gave me an opportunity to deliver my mock argument orally before the chief Prosecutor, who was then Luis Moreno Ocampo.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think this was a sort of audition. The next day Ocampo came to my office and asked me “Do you want to be my clerk?” I didn’t understand what that meant, but learned that one of his two special assistants was leaving and that he was asking me to fill in before the new assistant arrived. At first I was slightly put off – I was a trial lawyer, not someone’s assistant! But I quickly came to realize that this was a wonderful opportunity to understand how the OTP worked, to meet a lot of the OTP’s staff, to learn about all of the ICC’s ongoing investigations and cases, and to develop a relationship with Ocampo. So I gratefully accepted, and spent about ten weeks as his special assistant.

LD: How did you transition to becoming a prosecutor?

KC: While in that role, I competed for a job as an OTP trial lawyer. That position went to another candidate, but I was offered a position as an analyst, which entails synthesizing evidence collected in an investigation to help determine who to prosecute and for what crimes. I worked on several ICC cases, including Prosecutor v. Lubanga, Prosecutor v. Katanga and Ngudjolo (both from the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Prosecutor v. Bemba (from the situation in the Central African Republic), and Prosecutor v. Ruto and Sang. I spent my last year as an analyst working exclusively on this last case. My colleagues were exceptional, and, though I worked hard, I had a lot of fun.

After being in that position for about two years, I was moved to work as a trial lawyer on the Ruto and Sang case, where my biggest responsibility was preparing for the confirmation of charges hearing. At this hearing, judges determine whether there is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that the person committed the crimes of which he is accused, and thus whether the case can go to trial. I was in charge of our massive redaction and disclosure of evidence leading up to that hearing, as well as presenting some of our oral arguments and examining Defense witnesses at the hearing. It was a highly stressful period, not the least because the litigious defense lawyers outnumbered our small team three to one. But we still won the hearing, and the case is currently on trial.

LD: There must have been a high degree of stress as the court was confronted with a wide array of horrible conflicts and potential cases in a relatively short period of time, including cases it ended up taking on. What was it like to work there during this period? Can you discuss some of the challenges of working in this environment?

KC: I arrived at the court as its pace and profile of work accelerated exponentially. When I joined the court as an intern in November 2008, the court had only four active situations, and only four persons appearing in cases against them. Only two confirmation hearings had been held, and none of the trials had started. Within months of my arrival, the court started its first trial, and, by the time I left, two additional trials were underway. Now, the court has 21 cases arising from eight situations; three trial judgments have been rendered; two trials are ongoing; four cases are confirmed and waiting for trial to begin; and several more cases are in the pre-confirmation stage.

As the court’s volume of work rose, the profile of the suspects before the court also heightened. Within months of my arrival, the court issued the first arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and, a few years later, the OTP brought cases against two Kenyan politicians who are now the country’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Deputy President, William Ruto. And former President of Cote d’Ivoire Laurent Gbagbo is currently in the ICC dock.

Of course, with the increased volume and profile of work came a lot of public attention, and a lot of pressure to perform. We were often faced with tight deadlines mandates by our judges, which meant working long nights and weekends. At the same time, we had to manage some difficult issues with witnesses in the Ruto and Sang case. What made it all easier was the duty I felt to prosecute the case – I really believed in the court’s mission to bring accountability for the worst crimes of concern to the international community, and that made the work feel like a privilege and not a burden.

The court also faces some unique problems based on its position outside of the infrastructure of any state. For example, the court has no independent police force, and is dependent on countries to make arrests, which they are not always eager to do. Witness security is another major concern, especially when the persons pursued by the court are the heads of the countries in which the witnesses live. As the court grew in stature, state support seems to have faded a bit – I think most countries want a court that is powerful, but only to a point.

LD: What was involved in your decision to leave the court and come back to New York?

KC: I came back largely for family reasons. I was living in The Hague with my husband, who is a software developer and works on start-ups. While I was at the ICC, he looked for local opportunities, but the start-up scene isn’t as robust as in New York, and he focused more on starting his own company and then took a job with the New York-based company that bought his. If he wanted to stay with them long-term, we had to move back to New York.

At the same time, I knew that if I wanted to return to have a career in the U.S., I couldn’t stay at the court for too long. Since my husband and I could both do some version of the kind of work we wanted to do in New York, but only I could build a career in the Netherlands, we decided to move back to New York. It was a tough decision. I’d spent so long working towards working at the court, and once I got there I felt lucky to work with outstanding colleagues on cases I cared about. But it was the right decision for us.

LD: The court has faced a number of criticisms over the years, including that it is biased against Africans; that it will be ineffective due to the prominence and influence of non-member states; as well the a lack of enforcement powers you mentioned; and concerns of the ability and or willingness of many nations to handle their own cases. Can you shed some thoughts on what stands out to you in terms of the key challenge or challenges facing the court in the years to come? Are there criticisms that you feel are unfair?

KC: I think the court’s biggest current challenge is that it lacks the political support it needs. The court has existed for 12 years, and in that time it has become fully operational. It should operate independently and outside the realm of politics, following the evidence where it leads – even if that destination is politically unpopular. But the problem is that this pushes state support away. States are simply not willing to jeopardize diplomatic relations to support ICC cases.

This has been most evident in the case of the court’s arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The court issued two arrest warrants for him, in 2009 and 2010, the latter adding genocide charges, but al-Bashir has been able to continue as Sudan’s Head of State since then, and to travel somewhat freely despite the obligation on ICC States Parties to arrest him. Al-Bashir has been to ICC States Parties including Chad, Malawi, DRC, and even Kenya – Kenya invited al-Bashir as a fully-respected state leader for the signing of Kenya’s new constitution in 2010. And al-Bashir even traveled to China in 2011 for meetings with government leaders. So the political climate is not disposed towards high-level arrests.

This problem is not unique to the ICC – it infects other avenues for legal enforcement of human rights. For example, some states have succumbed to pressure to narrow the scope of their universal jurisdiction laws, after those laws caused diplomatic grievances when they were used to go after senior state officials from major powers. And now, in response to the ICC’s prosecution of senior African officials, including al-Bashir and Kenya’s President and Deputy President, the African Union is in the preliminary stages of creating a regional atrocity crimes court that would grant immunity from prosecution to heads of state.

The key challenge for the court will be to rally enough political support to continue to work as a court as such. My biggest fear is that it will become a duplicate of the UN Human Rights Council – able to make strong public declarations about atrocities happening throughout the world, and to point the finger at those responsible, but without the power to secure arrests and to prosecute those responsible. The UNHRC is crucially important in the defense of human rights, but we do not need to pour millions of euros into the ICC for it to simply duplicate their work – it needs the teeth to prosecute.

LD: Do you ever think the U.S. will become a member of the court, even decades from now?

KC: At this point, no. The U.S. government has no incentive to join – it is too powerful to need the court, and it doesn’t want to be bound by the constraints or obligations of being an ICC State Party. This is not to say that the U.S. doesn’t support the fight against atrocity crimes. The U.S. has a lot of positive initiatives, like the War Crimes Rewards Program, and it has helped the court – for example, it transferred Congolese warlord Bosco Ntanganda to the ICC after Ntaganda surrendered to the U.S. embassy in Kigali in 2013. But I think the U.S. would rather have the freedom to address international crimes on its own terms rather than join the ICC.

Even if the U.S. doesn’t join the court, there is a lot it could do to support it. For example, there are still federal laws in force which prevent the U.S. government from giving money to the court. If this law were repealed, the U.S. could contribute to the court’s budget, which would be of great help to the court. There is also a federal law in force that prevents the ICC from conducting any investigative activities in the U.S., even if the investigation has nothing to do with American conduct. This can create problems for the ICC; for example there are significant diaspora communities in the U.S. from ICC situation countries, which might include some valuable witnesses for the ICC, but the ICC can’t access them directly. It would be fantastic if the U.S. repealed or amended this law.

LD: How do you see your career evolving from here? Would you want to return to an international tribunal?

KC: That’s really an excellent question. I’m excited to start my new position as a consultant to the financial intelligence unit of American Express, because I came back from The Hague wanting to work on financial crimes. I’m a bit discouraged with the international community’s waning commitment to end impunity for atrocity crimes, and I fear that those who are most responsible often have the political and financial resources to avoid accountability. But I figure that if you can take their money and toys away, you can at least slow down or temporarily stop the commission of crimes, and you can tick off the people committing them – and for now, I’ll settle for that. Financial crimes will be a bit of a new world for me, and one I’m truly excited to enter. I could see myself returning to international prosecution at some point, but for the moment I’m focused on this new challenge.

LD: What advice would you give law students who are interested in having a career similar to yours?

KC: The most important piece of advice I can give anyone interested in this field is – be persistent. Many, many people from all over the world want to work in this field, so it’s a competitive field. If you want in, you really have to work for it. Think about the job you want, and the skills you’ll need for it, and then figure out how to build a resume that makes you look like the ideal candidate.

Also, I recommend being flexible about the kind of work you do and where you do it. The ICC is not the only game in town: the ad hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda will take at least a few more years to wrap up their work; the Extraordinary Chambers in the court of Cambodia seem to be continuing its efforts for a bit longer; you could work on truth commissions; you could work for NGOs in the field who deal with local or international atrocity crimes issues; and so on. Those willing to travel and to take short-term and irregular contracts will have some of the most interesting opportunities, but you have to be ok with being a little nomadic. Also, there’s no reason to think that, just because you went to law school, you have to work as a “lawyer” as such. Work as an analyst, work as an investigator – be open to jobs you didn’t initially consider, because they’re a key part of the process, and they could lead to something more “traditional” if that’s what you want.

Learning a second language is also a plus. I only speak English fluently, but nearly everyone I worked with at the court spoke both English and French (as well as often many more languages). French is an asset, as the ICC operates in English and French, but other languages can also be helpful for working in the field of international criminal law, including Arabic, Spanish, Swahili, etc.

If you don’t feel the need to rush into international courts right away, I also recommend doing the job you want at the national level first. Because I arrived at the ICC with previous courtroom and investigative experience, a lot of opportunities were open to me that weren’t open to others. So the more you know and can do when you get there, the more interesting work you’re likely to get to do – and the more likely you are to get your foot in the door.