Iva Vukusic: War Crimes Researcher & Analyst

2012-02-23 10:53 AMInterviews

Iva Vukusic works as a researcher, archivist and analyst for the Sense News Agency in The Hague. An expert on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, she has used her specialist knowledge to help indict war criminals in Bosnia and has spoken at conferences all over the world, from Rwanda to San Francisco. We chatted to Iva about her career so far, her plans for the future, and what it takes to develop a career on the analytical side of international criminal law… 

“I don’t have nightmares anymore.”

Tell us a bit about your current job…

I’ve been working at the Sense News Agency in The Hague since the end of 2009. Basically, I work on ICTY-related archives; ICTY meaning the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I’m an archivist, a researcher and an analyst all at the same time, working on materials, such as videos, documents, reports and witness testimonies.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy my job in different ways. First of all, I enjoy the environment in which I work. The legal environment, for me, is intellectually stimulating and really exciting. The law being used, both substantive and procedural, is very interesting and has an important impact on policy and politics worldwide.


Certain aspects of my work are related to history, law, military strategy and even economics, so it can be really fascinating. What’s more, watching two very good barristers trying to outsmart one another in a courtroom can be very exciting.

Have you ever been tempted to pursue a career in law?

Personally, I’ve never wanted to work as a practising attorney in a courtroom. I would study law, but I would only want to study international criminal law or humanitarian law. I have no intention of going to law school and studying family law, tax law, or anything like that.


What I do now feels right for me and I don’t have a particular desire to practise law. I do, however, have a lot of respect for barristers, especially the ones here who are skilful, sharp and incredibly knowledgeable.


Most of the people that work in this environment are lawyers, but there is also space for people who do not have a legal background. For instance, other people work in administration, logistics, public relations or analysis.


It’s important to remember, however, that even if you’re not a lawyer, it helps if you can develop an understanding of certain aspects of the law. Being in and around this environment, you pick up a lot of legal stuff, but it also helps if you can get as much legal education as possible.

Before you joined Sense, you worked for the Office of the Prosecutor in the Special War Crimes Department in Sarajevo, Bosnia. How did you secure that position?

I used to work as a journalist whilst I was studying, and I started covering war crimes trials in Croatia. I’m Croatian and I was born in 1981. The Yugoslav War started when I was ten years old. I was sleeping in a basement and I didn’t go to school.


The war didn’t affect me in a horrible way - the way it affected people in Sarajevo and other cities that were badly hit - but I remember certain aspects of the war and I did have personal experience of it.


When I was 20 years old, I had a sensation that the war was still very important. It was still influencing political events, and I felt like I’d missed half of it. So I started reading up on it and began covering more war crimes trials as a journalist.


I ended up in Bosnia when I was doing my master’s degree in human rights. I wrote my thesis on the impact of The Hague Tribunal in certain municipalities and places around Bosnia. In that period, I started meeting people that were working at the Prosecutor’s Office and the ICTY office in Sarajevo.


My thesis ended up coming out pretty well; it got published and I graduated at the top of my class. I then got offered the analyst position at the Office of the Prosecutor in Sarajevo because I spoke the local language and I also speak English. Furthermore, I had the relevant academic experience from my master’s degree, I’d covered the war crimes trials as a journalist, and I was doing all sorts of freelance work on the side.


However, there are different ways you can get into this area of work. A lot of people end up getting jobs in this field after doing internships. It’s very, very difficult to get an entry-level job in the international criminal law arena.


Most people go and work in other jobs in domestic legal systems or in law firms, and then try and apply for jobs in international criminal law after a couple of years. It’s very difficult. The competition is really hardcore.

Why is it so competitive?

The positions are becoming more visible. People hear about the International Criminal Court, documentaries are being made, and it looks all exciting. The people working in this field are depicted as crusaders for justice.


I give presentations at a lot of universities and many of the students I talk to want to work in this area because it’s prestigious, it’s interesting, it’s well-paid, you get to travel the world and you get the sensation that you’re doing something for justice. But that’s a very simplistic understanding; a lot of this work is also tedious, horribly frustrating and difficult.

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis?

Part of my job involves going through a lot of the evidence materials from the ICTY trials, including witness testimonies, courtroom confessions and lots of visual material, i.e. original footage from the time, which includes both amateur footage and journalistic reports. I’m also responsible for digitising some of the material in an attempt to organise some of the archival materials.


I also help with enquiries from journalists or filmmakers. A lot of them write to the Sense News Agency saying: “We’re looking for this type of stuff, we need it for this film,” so it’s my job to find the right kind of material. It’s much easier for me than it is for someone from the outside, simply because I’ve seen so much of it.


I also work on the side a little bit with the War Studies department at King’s College London. I was recently working with Professor James Gow on a project relating to visual material from war crimes trials, which involved finding and identifying photographs, video footage, maps, graphs, and all sorts of things.


I also write academic papers and attend conferences. I was in Rwanda recently for a conference in Kigali. I was there for a week and now I’m writing an article about Rwanda for a website back in Croatia. I regularly speak at events in London, New York, San Francisco and Washington DC, so there’s a lot of travelling involved.


I think the travelling helps because a lot of the archivist work is done in the basement behind tons of tapes and documents. Every once in a while it’s good to go and meet people from other tribunals and talk about things.

Did you have similar responsibilities when you were working in Sarajevo?

It was a little bit different because I was assisting prosecutors and investigators in building war crimes cases. I was going through tons of databases and documents, trying to find evidence for prosecutors to build a case, take someone to court and hopefully put them in prison.


I don’t work on particular cases and investigations anymore, because the investigations at the ICTY are winding down; a lot of the investigating stuff has already been done. I am using a similar set of skills, though.


What makes my job easier is the fact that I speak the language. If I look at footage and documents, if I see the name of a town or a picture, it’s easier for me to understand it or recognise it because I’m from that part of the world.


For this kind of analysis work, it helps that someone has a specific knowledge of the region. You cannot work as an analyst if you do not speak the language or if you’ve never spent any time in the country you’re investigating.


If I decided to study Arabic and spent some time in the Middle East, I could maybe get a job at the ICC working on that particular region in four or five years’ time. It takes preparation. You also need to understand how international criminal law works, how prosecutors work and what they want.

How many languages can you speak apart from BCS and English?

I’ve been taking French for the last five years, so I can speak it, but I’m not as comfortable with it as I am with English. I can understand some German and some Dutch, and I also speak some Italian.


What would be useful would be Arabic or any of the African languages. In general, if a person wants to go into this kind of work, any of the UN languages, e.g. English, French, Chinese, Russian or Spanish, are useful.


Today, if you don’t have a master’s degree, two foreign languages and two years’ experience, don’t even bother. It’s incredibly difficult to get in straight out of university.

Do you intend to learn Arabic and move on to different things?

Little by little, I am branching out. But I don’t completely want to leave the former Yugoslavia. It’s an expertise that I’ve built over the years and I feel attached to it. I’m from Croatia and I’ve spent time in Bosnia, so this is my job-related home.


I would love to learn other languages for work-related purposes, but also I’d love to learn Arabic for the personal satisfaction of being able to speak the language.


I’ve also considered doing a PhD at King’s College London in War Studies. However, I’m not completely sure. I’ve had academia as my mistress for a while, but I’m just not sure I want it as a wife.


Alternatively, I could work for a UN agency that provides aid or engages in international negotiations. A lot of the people I used to work with in Sarajevo have ended up in Kabul or Baghdad, working for organisations that work on identifying missing persons and excavating mass graves. I could even do policy work at the UN. The options are pretty broad.

You must be exposed to some pretty distressing footage and information. How do you cope with that?

I think I was much softer in the beginning. I was much more upset by gruesome images or really horrible testimonies. But after a while, you just toughen up a bit. I don’t have a particular strategy; although sometimes after I’ve been watching amateur footage which is pretty horrible for two or three hours, I look at puppies on the internet or do stupid stuff like that.


I don’t have nightmares anymore. Once in a while something still upsets me, but far less than it did in the beginning. You cannot do your job well if you’re destabilised every time something upsets you. Overall, you just need to decide if this is something you want to do.


If you’re going to fall apart every time something upsets you, you should just quit and stop torturing yourself. If it is something you want to do, then work on it and it will get better.

I understand that you did plenty of volunteering across Europe before you started working in this area. Do you think that was instrumental in getting you where you are today?

I started volunteering at a student radio station in Zagreb when I was 19, but I also used to lead youth groups of high school kids around Europe on a programme that was funded by the European Union. It was basically all about young kids meeting, sharing and establishing an identity as Europeans. I did that for three years and it was great fun.


Whatever you think you want to do, just go out and do it. Even if the only thing you accomplish is figuring out what you don’t want to do, that’s great! I was a journalist for five years and decided it wasn’t for me, so I went into something else.


Volunteering gives you confidence. It helps you function in a professional environment, you get the opportunity to meet people, and it helps you toughen up a bit. All of the things you accomplish and the skills you develop at a young age can be really valuable.


Just go out and do something. The skills I developed through volunteering aren’t directly related to what I do now, but they’ve still helped get me where I am today.


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