Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Miriam Helena Boxberg
This is a very personal account about some of my work as a Pupil Barrister at Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers. In my first week, I was asked to review the transcripts of several interviews that members of Chambers had conducted with Syrian torture victims – witness interviews to build a case before the International Court of Justice which the Government of the Netherlands is seeking to bring on behalf of torture victims against Syria, in order to hold the Syrian state accountable for breaches of the United Nations Convention against Torture. Members of Guernica 37 are instructed to assist the Netherlands in this historic and crucial pursuit for justice. I was given the task of putting several transcripts into a witness statement format, in preparation for court proceedings.
I was completely new to the case. Not knowing who the Syrians were, and the extent of torture to which they had been subjected or had witnessed in detention, I read three lengthy transcripts with the utmost care and attention. The individuals interviewed were a Syrian man who was a former human rights lawyer, a Syrian woman who is also a mother and humanitarian, and a young Syrian man who was 15 to 16 years of age when the torture that he endured and witnessed happened.
I read the English translations of the accounts, which had originally been given in Arabic. The first witness had started his interview in English, but his voice broke off as he came closer to describing his detention and he had to switch to Arabic. As someone who came to appreciate the unparalleled richness and beauty of the Arabic language in an attempt to learn it some years ago, I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to have heard or read the pain, the horrors and the brutality of torture in the original language. Yet, despite the transcripts being English translations, I found each detailed account to be immensely painful and raw. In fact, as I am writing this account and thinking back to them, they still affect me in a way that makes my body feel numb. I believe that says something about the sickening and horrifying torture in detention they described.
While I am unable to speak about the contents here, I wish to say that as a lawyer, I was deeply moved and inspired by the witnesses. The witnesses are all immensely courageous for giving an interview, for re-living these events again in such detail, and for all being willing to appear before the International Court of Justice in person for the court proceedings.
The three Syrians whose stories I read are still suffering immensely from what happened to them and what they witnessed. It is heart-breaking to read that they are unable to get effective help in the countries to which they fled as they do not feel understood or able to talk – a cultural, language but also mental barrier is always there. Yet each witness also at some point during their interview mentioned their dream and longing to see justice for what had happened to them and other Syrians, even if it is only partial justice, as a means for them to move on.
This is what members of Guernica 37 are trying to realise together with the Netherlands by bringing this case before the International Court of Justice, when too many other international efforts to achieve justice for Syrians have failed, have been blocked, or have been ineffective.
In this way, my small contribution to the Syrian torture case in my first week at Guernica 37 brought home to me why I wanted to become a barrister in the first place – to speak up in situations of injustice where others cannot or will not do so.
My mother, a speech therapist, often quotes Theodor Fontane to us, who said “Das Menschlichste was wir haben ist die Sprache” – the most human thing we have is language. Being a Barrister and thus a specialist advocate makes us able to utilise our most human tool – language – to achieve a fundamental and integral human pursuit understood beyond all languages – justice. This is what to me makes being a Pupil Barrister at Guernica 37 so meaningful.