[Interview] Niki Siampakou: ‘Victims could be important actors in counter-terrorism efforts’

Published 8 August 2023
By Lisa Ameline

@ Michael Swan, Flickr. Canada has used transitional justice mechanisms to look into human rights abuses against indigenous people.

Niki Siampakou is a joint research fellow at the Asser Institute and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague (ICCT). Her work focuses on legal responses against violent extremism and terrorism, with a particular focus on (inter)national criminal justice and human rights considerations. “Victims could be important actors in counter-terrorism efforts.” An interview. 

What are the research projects you are working on at the moment? 
“I am currently focusing my research on the topic of victims of terrorism. This includes questions linked to their recognition as victims of terrorist acts, the obstacles that they encounter to access to justice, their needs outside and inside the courtroom, their right to reparation, and their potential role in countering terrorism. At the moment, I am writing an analysis on victims of sexual and gender-based violence committed by terrorist groups. This paper examines if and how a victim-centric approach in prosecuting sexual and gender-based violence committed by terrorists can contribute to counter-terrorism efforts and will be published on ICCT’s website.” 

Can you explain the importance of this topic? 
In my opinion, victims of terrorism are still not getting enough consideration. Generally speaking, I think that more attention is being paid to the perpetrators: their profile, their motivations, and their reintegration into the society. In the aftermath of an attack, the media tends to be interested in victims’ stories, but then it quickly leaves victims aside. However, victims have to deal with their trauma while overcoming many difficulties in accessing justice and having their voices heard. The situation of victims of sexual and gender-based violence committed by terrorist groups is even more challenging. Firstly, because these crimes raise sensitive questions, including social stigma, perpetuation of gender inequalities, reluctance of victims to report such crimes, secondary victimisation, and distrust in the criminal justice system. Secondly, because the prosecution of these crimes, when they are associated with terrorist groups, is rare.”  

What are you hoping to achieve with the research? 
“At the Asser Institute and the ICCT, we conduct research not only ‘for the purpose of research’. Our work is also policy-oriented; writing policy briefs and undertaking projects which result in recommendations for states. So, through my work I am hoping to raise awareness about victims’ rights, to provide recommendations for a better implementation of the relevant legislation, and to contribute to the design of counter-terrorism policies which take victims into account. I believe that victims could be important for counter-terrorism efforts, as they are the ones who have directly experienced the harm inflicted by the terrorist acts.” 

Why did you decide to undertake a PhD in international criminal law? 
“Since my Bachelor's studies, I have been interested in human rights, initially from a constitutional law perspective. During my Erasmus exchange at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon, I had the opportunity to attend a course in international criminal law taught by Leila Sadat which triggered my interest in the topic. My Master thesis in France was dedicated to a comparative study of the crime of enforced disappearances within the jurisprudence of the European and Inter-American courts of human rights. One of the questions treated, was how these two regional human rights courts dealt with victims’ reparation. After this, I studied this question within the context of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first international criminal tribunal with the possibility to order reparation to victims. I dedicated my PhD to exploring whether the ICC can fulfil its promise of reparation. Arguing that the ICC cannot keep such a promise and aiming to identify the reasons why, my PhD provided a critical analysis of the ICC’s reparation mandate.So it was my initial interest in human rights and victims’ reparation which led me to international criminal law. 

You are a joint research fellow, working for both the Asser Institute and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague. What is your role? 
“At the Asser Institute, I am part of the research strand ‘In the public interest: accountability of the state and the prosecution of crimes, led by the senior researcher Christophe Paulussen. At the ICCT, I am in the ‘Rule of law responses to terrorism’ research pillar, which is led by the senior research fellow Tanya Mehra. My role consists of facilitating research cooperation, managing common projects, and fostering synergies between these two institutions, which are already quite close, as the Asser Institute is one of ICCT’s founding institutions. Asser researchers are also collaborating with the ICCT, and they have been organising an annual joint Advanced summer programme on terrorism, counterterrorism and the rule of law.

You have been focusing on the topic of transitional justice. Can you explain what it is? 
“Transitional justice is a set of processes and mechanisms that societies use to deal with a violent past, typically after a period of conflict or dictatorship. The goal of transitional justice is to ensure accountability for past abuses, to promote reconciliation, and to build sustainable peace in the society. It finds its origins at the end of the World War II, with the establishment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo. But it was developed as we know it today in the late 20th century when countries in Latin America transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. Later, transitional justice was applied in South Africa to address the human rights violations committed by the Apartheid regime, and in the aftermath of the conflicts in Rwanda and the Balkans. Nowadays, many states around the world use transitional justice mechanisms."

Four pillars 
“Transitional justice is based on four complementary pillars, that were defined by the French jurist Louis Joinet. The first pillar is ‘truth’, which is implemented through truth and reconciliation commissions. These commissions organise public hearings where victims and perpetrators can share their story. These commissions are non-judicial, and the perpetrators cannot be prosecuted for the information which they provide. The second pillar is justice’, which entails trials of the perpetrators. The third pillar is ‘reparations’, which can take various forms: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. The ‘guarantees of non-recurrence’ form the last pillar. They include vetting procedures, institutional reform, training on human rights for the police and the army, and other interventions to ensure the non-repetition of the violations. These four pillars are all essential to the transitional justice process and should be applied holistically, although some measures could be prioritised. Transitional justice demands political will, though, and compromise. Plus it is a timely process, so it should not be considered to be a magical solution. 

Why could transitional justice be important for states dealing with terrorist crimes, or for preventative counterterrorism policies? 
“The use of transitional justice has not yet been raised in the area of counter-terrorism, and there is very little research on the topic. But I think that transitional justice could inspire counterterrorism policies. Transitional justice has traditionally been applied in states going through a transition after a dictatorship or a civil war. More recently, however, we see transitional justice mechanisms being used by consolidated democracies to investigate crimes that occurred in the past. An example is Canada, which used it to look into human rights abuses against indigenous people. Here we see transitional justice, but without the transition. So, transitional justice seems to be adaptable to different contexts where grave and massive human rights violations have been committed. 

During the upcoming Asser Institute workshopCountering terrorism and violent extremism in the public interestwhich will take place on October 31st and November 1st, I will present a paper on transitional justice and counter-terrorism. Transitional justice tries to address the violent past, and to establish a truth, so as to allow the community to move forward. It is also victim-centred. Similar to grave human rights violations, terrorist acts often result in massive victimisation, serious psychological impact, and post-traumatic stress. While victims are trying to cope with their trauma, they also have to find ways to access justice, which as I said before, can be an important challenge. The similarities between these two contexts indicate that transitional justice measures could be adapted and used in counter-terrorism. 

In the area of counterterrorism, states tend to concentrate their effort on neutralising the perpetrators, but without guaranteeing victims' reparation or a reconciliation within the community. So, it is also interesting to study whether counter-terrorism efforts inspired by transitional justice, could lead to a more victim-centred counterterrorism approach.” 

Lastly, what would be your advice to young academics or legal scholars that want to go into this field? 
“Firstly, they would need to be open-minded, prioritise a multidisciplinary approach, and cultivate critical thinking. I would further recommend to seize any opportunity for broadening their intellectual horizon. Participating in trainings and attending conferences, even if the topic is not exactly the one that they are focusing on, can trigger ideas that could be adapted to their own field. I also believe that it is important to present one’s work to your peers. This will help them move forward and learn to receive and give feedback. Last but not least, I would say: be determined and persistent. In international law, the road is not always easy. There will be competition, you may face rejections, and there will be distractions and deviations. But deviating from your original path is also a way to gain skills. Today, it is important to know how to manage a project, find funding, and use the different communication channels. It is essential to talk with your colleagues, to share ideas, and to engage in collaborative research. This will all help to reach your goal.” 

Interested in counter-terrorism? 

In this thought-provoking summer programme, you will focus on the international and domestic legal aspects of countering terrorism and violent extremism, in inspiring and interactive classes by leading academics and practitioners in the field. Read more

About Niki Siampakou 
Dr Niki Siampakou joined the Asser Institute in May 2023, as a Joint Research Fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague (ICCT). Her work focuses on the appropriate legal responses against violent extremism and terrorism, with a particular focus on (inter)national criminal justice and human rights considerations. At the Asser Institute, she is part of the research strand 'In the public interest: accountability of the state and the prosecution of crimes'. 

Prior to joining the Asser Institute, Niki worked in the field of transitional justice as a research and training project manager at the IFJD-Institut Louis Joinet in France. She also participated in two field missions in the Central African Republic and in several conferences. Between 2016 and 2019, she was a contractual researcher (doctorante contractuelle) at Aix Marseille University. Her principal areas of expertise include international criminal law, transitional justice, and international human rights law. Niki holds a PhD in international criminal law (2020) and a master’s degree in public international law (2016) from Aix Marseille University and a bachelor’s degree in law from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2014) which included an Erasmus exchange at Lisbon School of Law of the Universidade Católica Portuguesa (2013). Her doctoral dissertation, entitled ‘Against all hopes: The untenable promise of reparations of the International Criminal Court’, provides a critical analysis of the ICC’s reparation mandate.  

Read more 
[Opinion] Scotland: Transitional justice to deal with economic violence 
In an opinion peace, Jean-Pierre Massias and Niki Siampakou comment on a bill passing before the Scottish Parliament in October 2021, which aimed to grant pardons for coalminers who participated in the violent strikes of 1984 and 1985. They argue that its scope is limited, but like the commission of inquiry that preceded it, this bill is evidence of an original process that uses transitional justice tools and is part of a truth and reconciliation approach. Read more. 

Mexico’s amnesty proposal: an instrument of transitional justice? 
Dr León Castellanos-Jankiewicz published an analysis in Just Security about the shortcomings of Mexico’s amnesty law. The law aims at benefiting individuals accused of involvement in the country’s drug trade. The author argues that it could help erase the social stigmas associated with drug consumption and begin a national reconciliation process. But to be effective, it must also integrate robust transitional justice mechanisms, including independent fact-finding commissions, which the current government has adopted only reluctantly. Read more. 

'Time for a victim-centric approach in prosecuting sexual and gender-based violence committed by terrorists'
In this analysis for the International Centre for Counter-terorism, Niki Siampakou demonstrates that adopting a victim-centric approach in prosecuting sexual and gender-based violence helps to combat terrorism. Read more.