War crimes
and punishment

By Lorenza Bacino

John Hocking reflects on his 15 years at ICTY in the Hague.

Warm sunlight streams through the window on this beautiful spring day and sailing boats bob up and down on the waves.

I’m here to meet international human rights lawyer, John Hocking, at his home overlooking the beach. He relaxes on the sofa, cup of tea at the ready, toes poking through a pair of ancient Uggh boots as he gazes out at the view over the North Sea.

Image of John Hocking

We are in the Hague, the Netherlands – home to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – the ICTY. It was established by the UN Security Council to deal with the crimes committed during the Balkans wars of the 1990s. Hocking (LLB ’84) has been the Registrar of the ICTY for the last three years, but he’s been instrumental in running the Court for the past 15 years. Officially his title is Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, which makes him one of the highest-ranking Australians within the organisation.

Somewhere in the background a baby is gurgling contentedly. At 54, Hocking recently became a father for the first time. His partner and baby live in France and visit every couple of weeks according to a complex calendar arrangement.

Ever since I was a little kid, it was my dream to work for the United Nations

Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Serbia, and Romania are just some of the destinations Hocking has visited in the last few weeks for his job. He struggles to remember them all.

“Ever since I was a little kid, it was my dream to work for the United Nations,” he recalls. “I was in the car with my parents driving somewhere in western Victoria, and I asked them if there was a government of the world. They said: ‘well, yes, it’s the United Nations’. So ever since, I’ve had this desire to work for the UN, to make a contribution to people’s lives and I always knew I wanted to travel.”

But first there was his law degree. “The Sydney University Law School was extremely rigorous. I can still to this day recall the lecturers we had. Some were academics, some practitioners. That mix, their expertise, gave me an incredibly thorough and broad education in law. The skills I learnt from them have followed me throughout my career and laid the foundations for where I am today. While at Sydney Uni I became aware of work being done on native land rights and I think this is what sparked my interest in human rights.”

Following his law degree and a year as the associate to former High Court judge Michael Kirby, Hocking went to London to do a Masters in international law. A weekend trip to Paris during that time was enough for him to fall in love with the city. He learned French, and found a job with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These two things, says Hocking, helped him secure his dream job at the UN.

Difficult scenarios to deal with

Radovan Karadzic had been on the run for 15 years. Suddenly the steps of the plane are lowered and down he comes. ‘Sorry to have kept you waiting so long’, he said.

During his time at the ICTY, Hocking has seen the prosecutor indict and arrest all the main players of the Balkans conflicts. The arrival of Bosnian Serb leaders Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and more recently, Serb military leader Ratko Mladic all happened on his watch.

“I was waiting to meet Karadzic in a military hangar at the airport in Rotterdam, surrounded by Dutch Special Forces in their outfits that look like they’re from Star Wars. He’d been on the run for 15 years. Suddenly the steps of the plane are lowered and down he comes. As I shook his hand in greeting he said, ‘Sorry to have kept you waiting so long’. But Mladic, he was a different character altogether. I always shake hands, but he didn’t, he just saluted me. That was a harder scenario to deal with.

“And Milosevic I visited on several occasions while he was in prison. He tried to convince me he needed a glass of red wine and then he mocked my Australian accent! So yes, they can be interesting people to talk to and meet.”

Interesting they may be, but these men are accused of unspeakable atrocities. It’s hard to see how he can put that to one side when dealing with them.

"The presumption of innocence is a really key principle of my work. That is fundamental and it’s the basis of the ICTY. If you don’t believe that then you may as well not bother with a trial and just sentence them immediately. But these trials are about answering the question – did these people in front of me commit these crimes? – and the ICTY has acquitted some 10 per cent, so it shows the system is working.”

The ICTY is winding down after nearly 20 years, but Hocking has somehow managed to double his workload recently. In January he was appointed Registrar of a brand new UN body he’s in the process of setting up from scratch with its president and prosecutor. It’s called the ‘Residual Mechanism’.

“Basically, it will ensure any remaining fugitives can be tried after the ICTY and the ICTR (the Rwanda Tribunal) close in the next couple of years, and secondly it will hear requests for early release from those already serving their prison sentence. This means that the work remaining from these tribunals can continue effectively after they officially close their doors.”

For someone who should be used to public speaking, Hocking appears almost embarrassed when talking about his achievements. Self-deprecation aside, he’s clearly proud to have been so instrumental in the successful running of the ICTY.

Fascinating and challenging

“I can honestly say I love my job. You get hit and punched from all directions as there are so many different issues that are happening, there’s never a dull moment. The Tribunal is full of very committed people. They believe in what they do and they want to make it work. That’s what makes it a fascinating and challenging place to work.”

The ICTY is the first tribunal of its kind and a precursor to all the other international tribunals now up and running. Its place in the history of international law cannot be underestimated.

“The ICTY helped remove those responsible for atrocities from the leadership, so that a new generation of people can step in. Equally importantly, we’ve worked with the local judiciaries and helped them build up their legal systems so they can try people domestically. That will be the most important legacy. And if it hadn’t been for the ICTY, we wouldn’t have all the other international courts like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia. Before the ICTY there was nothing. Now people in positions of power who abuse that power can be held accountable for their actions.”