By NYU Florence student Sariah Bunker
Anta Guissé is a French-Senegalese defense lawyer with fifteen years of experience in international criminal law, having worked for the defense in three cases at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), as a victims’ representative at the International Criminal Court and, currently, representing the former Cambodian head of state Khieu Samphân before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the tribunal for former Khmers Rouges). Among many other positions, she’s been a trainer for the ICTR Capacity Building Program working with Rwandese lawyers in international criminal law. Guissé has also been a board member and legal advisor for the Citizenship Governance Initiatives, a Cameroon‐based association working on citizens’ participation, governance and access to information. Between 2010 and 2013, she has been a member of the working group in charge of drafting a model law on access to information for Africa in collaboration with the Center of Human Rights, along with many other groups. She regularly advocates on behalf of citizens of Cameroon to gain access to legal information. I had the chance to sit down with Guissé following her recent dialogue at NYU Florence and she clarified her role and the perceptions she has about her controversial work of “defending the presumed guilty”:
What does dialogue mean to you?
Exchange. Talking about my experience, having feedback from those who don’t know my job.
When you were studying law did you want to be an international lawyer?
I knew I wanted to work with Africa at some point. Yes, the International Criminal Court is a very good way to work with Africa, not only in representing Rwandan clients, but because many witnesses in that case are African refugees, so I had an opportunity to go and visit them and investigate. In a way it is not finished, and I hope I have another opportunity to work with Africa.
Do stereotypes associated with lawyers interfere with your work?
I think it´s less strong in Europe than the United States, but of course you have all the usual jokes, and I am fighting it. I am used to all types of stereotypes and to fight them, and I have no problem fighting it. And I think it´s part of the challenge.
How do you maintain a separation between your preconceptions about your clients and your professional work?
A good thing when you are a lawyer is you have time to talk to the client, so the first thing I did, I had many interviews with my client [Khieu Samphân], several hours of discussion to know and to understand him. That’s the advantage, you have the direct link to your client, dialogue is possible.
Have you ever refused to represent a client? Why or why not?
No. I have not. I could say no to somebody, if I feel like I couldn’t defend them properly.
Are there language barriers inherent to your work? How do you overcome them?
I have never had this problem in the International Criminal Court because the people in Rwanda are French speakers, and my client in Cambodia also speaks French, so I have never had this barrier, which makes it much easier.