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Matias Hellman

Born May 16, 1971, Espoo

Master of Arts 2004 (Slavic languages and cultures), University of Helsinki
Master of Laws 2004 (LLM), University of Essex

External Relations Adviser 2010–, International Criminal Court (ICC)
Legacy Officer 2008–2010, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Liaison Officer 2004–2008, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Outreach Coordinator 1999–2003, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Media Analyst 1998–99, Observer Finland

Znati and um(j)eti in Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Grammaticalisation of Habitual Auxiliaries. Slavica Helsingiensia, Helsingin Yliopisto, 2005.

The International Criminal Court: the need to foster cooperation, in "Legal dimension of international community: mosaic elements", Centre Européen de Coopération Juridique, 2013. (with Alexander Khodakov and Julie Fraser)

Challenges and limitations of outreach: from the ICTY to the ICC, in "Contested Justice. The Politics and Practice of the International Criminal Court Interventions", Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Photo: Matias Hellman's archive
Written by
Matias Hellman and Tero Juutilainen
Translated by Matthew Billington

The Importance of Being There

When he was working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Matias Hellman was sent to former Yugoslavian territory as a spokesperson and a liaison officer with the local populace.

– The Tribunal recognised that people in the countries under its jurisdiction lacked sufficient information on the Tribunal or that the information was distorted or one-sided, which in turn had a negative impact on attitudes towards the Tribunal and the willingness of the authorities to cooperate with it. That is why the ICTY decided to establish an outreach programme and send employees to the region to correct misconceptions.

Hellman had the advantage of being fluent in Serbo-Croatian, so it was easy to approach the locals and appear at various public discussions.

– The important thing was to try to understand the views of the local people on the legal process. You quickly learned what could and should be said.

Over the years he noticed that this all took a lot of work and was extremely taxing.

– The job took a psychological toll. There were great expectations placed on the outreach programme from the outset, and they were not entirely realistic. It was assumed that communication could radically alter attitudes towards the Tribunal. It was also thought that legal proceedings and the convictions of criminals would offer closure. Later on it became clear that political rhetoric was so strong and the scars left by the war so deep that the Tribunal could not have hoped to effect radical changes.

According to Hellman, further complications were caused by the Tribunal being based in The Hague, quite some distance from the former Yugoslavia, and by its operating mainly in English and French and applying judicial norms that differ greatly from the legal tradition of the former Yugoslavia. The greatest obstacles, however, were political factors and the traumas left by the wars of Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

– While working in Bosnia I realised that reality is not as simple as one is tempted to imagine.”

Matias Hellman in Grabovica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 2006, informing relatives of victims about the verdict of the ICTY. Photo from ICTY.

Hellman noticed that even if the Tribunal handed down a verdict for some crime, it would not necessarily match the sense that the locals or the relatives of the victims had of justice, and the verdict might not be considered to have been correct or just—despite the evidence, reasoning and active communication.

“Everyone has some narrative on what has happened, and at the beginning of the legal proceedings they also have expectations about what should result from those proceedings. However, those expectations can be too great or unrealistic when considering the rules of the trial and the role and mandate of the Tribunal.”

Despite the setbacks, the years at the ICTY led to many great memories.

“At the beginning of my career, a group of students from the Faculty of Law in Zagreb made an excursion to The Hague and spent a week visiting the ICTY. I remember how one of them said to me at the end of the visit that she had initially been critical of the Tribunal but had changed her mind when she saw how serious and professional the organisation was. Then I felt reassured that my work was meaningful.”

Hellman underlines that effective communication can nip many misconceptions in the bud.

“If there is one thing I have learned, I would say that you have to initiate communication as early as possible, and the organisation in question has to be physically present with as strong a team as they can muster. Such a challenging task as interacting with key interest groups in a region cannot be left to a handful of junior employees.”

ICTY officials talk to a Markale Market survivor in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 2006. Photo from ICTY.
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