Peter Robinson, International Criminal Defence Lawyer

2012-03-16 02:06 PMInterviews

Peter Robinson is a defence lawyer who specialises in international criminal law. He is currently the legal adviser to Radovan Karadžić, who is accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of committing genocide and other war crimes against Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croat civilians during the Bosnian War in the early 90s. We chatted to Peter about making the transition from prosecution to defence, the value of doing an internship, and the challenges of working as a defence lawyer on such a high-profile war crimes case…

“We are always the underdogs.”

Did you always want to be a lawyer?

No, I actually wanted to work in politics until I was in my last year of university, and then I decided to be a lawyer. I worked for someone who was in politics and all he did was ask for money from people. I hate asking people for money, so I decided politics wasn’t for me and I switched to law.

Once you had completed your legal education, you started your career as a prosecutor. During this part of your career you were involved in the prosecution of various members of the neo-Nazi group ‘The Order’. What did you gain from that experience?

I actually worked on this case after ten years as a prosecutor, so by that time I was pretty experienced. What I gained from the experience was how to handle myself in a very big case. 30 people were charged and they had committed crimes over a very large area.


It was an organisational effort to try and work with people all over the USA, but we somehow managed to bring together a case against these people who were on trial for very serious crimes. At that point in my career, the biggest challenge of the case was the sheer scope of it.

Why did you decide to switch sides and become a defence lawyer?

I started off working on the smallest cases as a prosecutor and ended up doing a very big one, which involved a neo-Nazi group. After that I was ready for a new challenge. Since all I had done was criminal law and I loved it anyway, I didn’t want to go into any other areas of law. Consequently, it seemed like the natural thing to do was to become a defence lawyer.

Do you think it’s important for a defence lawyer to gain experience of prosecution?

It was very valuable to me because I learned how the prosecution puts its case together brick by brick. As a defence lawyer, I can take some of those bricks out and hope that the house falls down.

Was it a difficult transition?

Yes, it was a huge transition for me. I was used to working with the FBI, having a lot of resources at my disposal, and everybody supporting me. All of a sudden, as a defence lawyer, I was on my own with very unpopular clients.

How did you first become involved with international criminal law cases?

I came over to The Hague in the year 2000. My daughter was 11 years old at the time and had lived in California all her life. I wanted her to be a world citizen, so I tried to find someplace where we could go as a family for a year and I could do something related to criminal law. That’s when I found out about the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and I came to The Hague.

In 2002, you were assigned as Lead Counsel for Joseph Nzirorera at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Was that your first major international criminal law case?

It was the first case that I worked on where I was assigned as the Lead Counsel. Before that I had participated in two cases at the ICTY, but I hadn’t had a very major role in them.

What did you gain from that experience?

The biggest thing was adjusting to Africa and the whole mentality of the people who live and work there. The people in the tribunal were not used to the same kind of vigorous advocacy that I was used to in the United States, so they didn’t like me very much.


I got sanctions many times for things that I would normally regard as completely reasonable, normal things to do, but they weren’t appreciated there. It was very difficult to make the cultural switch and work in a different culture.

International criminal tribunals use a hybrid legal system. Why is this? How does it affect the trial?

It’s a political decision to combine the two systems of continental civil law and common law because they don’t necessarily want to favour one legal system over the other.


It makes for a lot of creativity on the parts of the lawyers. As a defence lawyer, I try to pick the best thing for my client, in whatever legal system it happens to be in, and then use it to convince the judges. I get to think outside the box, and I try to be as creative as I can for the benefit of my client.

Typically, these international criminal law trials take a long time from start to finish. Is the hybrid nature of the legal system a reason for that?

Not really. I think the biggest reason is that the prosecution makes the case very wide in scope. They prosecute someone for everything that they have done over a long period of time in a large geographical area. As a result, the case is very broad. A lot of witnesses are needed to prove the case and a lot of witnesses are needed to refute the prosecution’s proof.

You are currently working as a legal adviser to Radovan Karadžić, who actually represents himself in court. How does this work? What responsibilities do you have?

Dr Karadžić is the one who asks all the questions of the witnesses and I’m the one who speaks on legal issues in court. He’s not a lawyer and he wanted someone on his team who could help him with the legal issues in his case. However, he knows the facts better than anybody, so he wants to have the floor on factual issues.


He’s does all of the cross-examination, and I help him draft written pleadings and make submissions, objections and things like that in the courtroom.

What are the biggest challenges of working as a defence lawyer on cases relating to crimes against humanity?

The biggest challenge is that everyone wants the guy to be found guilty and you’re like a single person standing in Tiananmen Square facing a tank. With victims groups, non-governmental organisations, the prosecutors and, in some cases, the judges, there’s tremendous pressure to have a guilty verdict, so the biggest challenge is standing up to all that and fighting for your client.

Do you feel that criminal defence lawyers are often the underdogs?

There’s no doubt about that. We’re always the underdogs in every system—domestic or international. With all of the resources on the side of the prosecution and the added pressure because of the heinous nature of the crimes, the International Tribunal is not a level playing field at all.

How do you go about dealing with that added pressure?

I have to work really hard. I put in really long days and we also try to get a great team together. There are huge numbers of young people who are really enthusiastic about international criminal law and are incredibly well-trained and talented, so we try to have the strongest team as possible and work as hard as we can.

I understand that you have a team of interns working for you. What kind of responsibilities do they have?

The interns research legal issues and help Dr Karadžić with his cross-examination by summarising the testimony of prosecution witnesses in other trials and in statements they’ve given to the prosecutor. They put together a document that Dr Karadžić can use when he cross-examines the witnesses.

How did these interns manage to secure such a fantastic opportunity on such a high-profile case?

When we first started we basically sent out a notice to as many law schools as we could, calling for people to send us their CVs. And then we tried to choose the best ones with a lot of diversity. We continue to receive CVs through law schools or, in some cases, through word-of-mouth.

Where do the interns come from?

They come from all over the world. We’ve had interns from around 50 different countries.

How long do these internships last and how many interns do you have at any one time?

We have five at a time. Almost a hundred interns have worked on the case so far. The internships last between two and six months.

Do you think it’s essential for aspiring defence lawyers to secure an internship of this nature?

It definitely helps. I wouldn’t say it’s essential. Actually, the most useful background for this kind of work is to have trial experience in your own national jurisdiction. That way, you can acquire the skills and the knowledge to actually participate in international criminal cases at the level of a counsel. If you come here and work as an intern, you’ll definitely get a great experience but you won’t be in court, speaking on your feet, which is the most useful skill you can have if you want to develop a career in this area.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is dealing with the clients. Remarkably, people who are charged with some of the worst crimes are some of the most interesting people, especially when they’re high-level political figures like Radovan Karadžić or my client at the Rwandan Tribunal. The relationship I have with my client and the fact that I’m fighting for him every day is something that I take a lot of pride in. I get a lot of enjoyment from that.

What is the worst part of your job?

The worst part of my job is sitting in court five feet away from a victim who has suffered immensely during the war. I feel so bad for these people, what they’ve been through and what their families have been through. I find that very depressing.

What advice would you give to aspiring international criminal defence lawyers?

My advice would be to come over to The Hague, do an internship, see what it’s like, make some contacts, and then go back to your own jurisdiction and get the trial experience that you’ll need to come back into this field at a level where you can either represent the client or work as part of the prosecution trial team.


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