For this interview, we talked to Dr Leila Ullrich, exploring her perspective on a wide range of issues related to criminology: from technology, to terrorism and gender issues within the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Dr Ullrich is a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology and a Lecturer in Law at Queen Mary, University of London. She has previously worked for and written about the International Criminal Court, as well as for the UNDP as a social stability adviser in Lebanon, where she completed a WhatsApp-based project studying the experiences of Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities.
We began our discussion by talking about the ICC and how the perception of gender has changed in this institution in recent years. Dr Ullrich highlighted her early experiences of the ICC, where gender ‘was understood as an external issue’ alone. At this stage, the ICC focused solely on gender problems beyond the court, in prosecuting and confronting sexual violence in states around the globe, without much inward examination.
By contrast, on her return in 2018, she noted that this discourse had shifted substantially. The ICC remained committed to dealing with sexual violence around the world, but the rise of the #MeToo movement had created an awareness of the court’s own issues, ‘in the way staff interacted [and] in the way gendered hierarchies play out in the court room and the corridors of the ICC.’ As evidence of this, Dr Ullrich highlighted the forthcoming election of the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, where civil society organizations have already been far more vocal about placing candidates’ records on sexual harassment at the centre of the selection process.
We then discussed the charges of neo-colonialism which have been levelled at the ICC, in part a reflection of institutionalized power imbalances within the United Nations itself. Dr Ullrich noted that the court has historically ‘been very dismissive of this critique’, despite scholars highlighting both structural inequities in the Court’s regime as well as ‘racialised and gendered’ logics in international criminal law. She stressed that critical scholars needed to produce more empirical research on how neo-colonialism manifests itself in the Court’s day-to-day discourses and practices , as this would enable a more substantive debate. She had limited faith in a reformist approach, however, arguing that genuine change is usually the outcome of ‘power struggles and social movements’ rather than academic debate.
COUNTERTERRORISM AND GENDER
Dr Ullrich is also in the preliminary stages of a postdoctoral project on gender and counterterrorism; thus, she shared some initial thoughts about this. Dr Ullrich is interested in the ways in which gendered ideas translate into counterterrorism policy and practice. She discussed the dominance of sensationalist reporting about female terrorists, and the ways in which these women are constructed as being naively manipulated by men. Her proposed project is a comparative study between Lebanon, Kenya and the UK, looking at the interplay between terrorism, counter terrorism and gender in each of these jurisdictions.
Dr Ullrich highlighted the commonalities between discourses in these three countries. Whilst there is often an assumption that Western discourse and policy is ‘more progressive’, Dr Ullrich observed that there is a tendency to construct the role of women in counter-terrorism through their traditional roles as wives and mothers in all three jurisdictions. She also highlighted the (post-)colonial context, as both Kenya and Lebanon have largely adopted counterterrorism strategies from the West. Thus, while there are important differences between these countries, they are more subtle than cultural stereotypes suggest. However, there was one strategy that Dr Ullrich noted was more prominent in the UK. This was the willingness to adopt counterterrorist policy that responsibilises families, particularly mothers, by suggesting that they should proactively monitor their child’s online presence and detect signs of radicalisation. This observation was particularly interesting as it relates to topics covered on our MSc course; the literature from ‘Crime and the Family’ has highlighted how the UK tends to responsibilise mothers through parenting orders and other mechanisms of criminal justice policy.
‘SPEAK YOUR MIND’
During her time as a social stability adviser at UNDP in Lebanon, Dr Ullrich devised a qualitative WhatsApp-based survey entitled ‘Speak your Mind to Prevent Conflict in Lebanon’. This project aimed to reach out to Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, to understand resilience in protracted crises. She explained that she sought to create a WhatsApp-based survey, to compensate for the UN’s qualitative methodological gap and to bridge the knowledge gap around local interactions between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts. She sought to understand different forms of ‘resilience’ arising from a country where six million inhabitants have welcomed a million Syrian refugees. Two forms of resilience were highlighted: (1) a negative resilience by locals who profit financially from the crisis (e.g. as landlords and employers of cheap Syrian labour) and therefore have a stake in the refugees’ presence, (2) a positive resilience, through the creation of a strong local support network within the Syrian community and their Lebanese neighbours.
This research encountered some challenges, she noted. First, the survey initially received a low female response rate. In Lebanon, 78% of the Syrian community has WhatsApp, however a family often possesses only one phone per household. Initially, only males in the family would respond, reflecting their status as traditional heads of household. To overcome this challenge, the survey ran longer – with time, more female responses were recorded – and further information about the survey was promoted by local women’s groups. A second challenge was data security. Although WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted, Dr Ullrich had security concerns that governments or commercial agents would still be able to access metadata. Thus, to protect personal data, participants were asked to be careful with any information they decided to share and to avoid providing information about their private situation, address and names. Nonetheless, Dr Ullrich remains aware that data security is an ongoing issue.
Finally, Dr Ullrich recommends using this kind of novel qualitative methodology to ensure high-quality and bottom-up research. She stressed that in times of crisis, such as the current COVID-19 crisis, new types of research that allow off-site data collection may become a new norm for the foreseeable future.
We would like to thank Dr Ullrich for participating in our conversation and offering a unique insight the workings of international justice.