Meet the Irishman working on some of the world’s biggest war crime cases
Working Abroad: Aonghus Kelly, defence lawyer at the Khmer Rouge Court, Cambodia
Since leaving Ireland 14 years ago, Aonghus Kelly has lived in New Zealand, Bosnia, and the UK, working as a prosecution lawyer on war crimes, organised crimes and terrorism cases.
I have been living away from Ireland now for 12 of the last 14 years. To paraphrase Dickens, it has been the best of times and the worst of times.
I am currently working as a defence lawyer at the Khmer Rouge Court in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, but since leaving home I have lived in New Zealand, Bosnia, and the UK, working as a prosecution lawyer on war crimes, organised crimes and terrorism cases. The crimes have ranged from the biggest massacre during the war in Kosovo and the Srebrenica genocide, to the first successful prosecution of doctors for organ trafficking, and the smuggling of migrants and drugs.
My journey began with a trip through South America and the Pacific, ending in New Zealand where I spent four years living the life of Reilly in one of the most beautiful, friendly, scenic and laid-back countries in the world. I came home for two years in 2006, worked in a great law firm in Galway, and got my Master’s in NUIG.
But the itchy feet I’d picked somewhere along the way were nagging at me again, and I moved to the UK to take up a job with a firm in Birmingham specialising in public interest law. There, I acted in a number of cases involving Palestine and Iraq. My work mostly involved representing a group of Iraqis who had been tortured by the British Army in Basra in 2003, before a public inquiry set up following judicial review proceedings initiated by my firm before the British courts.
For an Irish person, the events themselves and the policy decisions by all levels of the military and political establishment bore incredible similarities to the days of internment and the hooded men in the North.
Living for a year in Birmingham and a year in London, I came across the many strands of the Irish in Britain. There were the old heads that had headed over in the 50s and 60s like my own parents had, but unlike them, they had never returned home. They were still holding up bars in Digbeth and Willesden Green. Speaking Irish to old lads from Connemara in bars in Kilburn was always fun, as was watching GAA games in the hidden Irish bars of Kentish Town and Camden.
Running into the Irish lawyers and stockbrokers of the City of London, and the second generation Irish who were more Irish then the Irish themselves, it was amazing to see how things had changed for us as a people in Britain.
But man’s inhumanity to man was always there nagging at me in my daily work. The creation of the “other”, a story to mask the treatment of other human beings, was there among those soldiers in Iraq like it had been in the North.
After two years in the UK I moved to Sarajevo, the mountain capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the western Balkans. I had found a job in the State Prosecutors Office as a lawyer, working on a team investigating and prosecuting crimes that took place in and around Srebrenica in July 1995. The place was haunted by the ghosts of the recent past, where the only genocide in Europe since the second World War took place.
Bosnia is an amazing country. Indeed, the whole region from the plains of Vojvodina and Romania to the beaches of Bulgaria and Greece and across to the dry arid mountains of Albania, Croatia and Montenegro, is a delight. Everyone should visit if they can at all, it’s cheap, there’s lots to see, and it’s incredibly varied in every way. Being Irish was always an advantage; our history and politics have given people in the region a great affinity for us as a nation. The strength of family bonds, the importance of the diaspora, and nationalism are values shared by Ireland and the various nationalities in the Balkans.
The competing sides - both in Bosnia where I lived for two years, and in Kosovo where I lived for three years - believed we understood them and were their kindred spirits in northern Europe.
After two and a half years in Sarajevo I moved to Pristina, the capital of Europe’s youngest country, Kosovo. I started working at the Special Prosecutions Office for the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), investigating and prosecuting war crimes, organised crime, corruption and terrorism.
Kosovo’s problems echoed many of those in Bosnia. While there had been clear winners and losers in the war in Kosovo (unlike in Bosnia), the continuing non-recognition of the country by Serbia, and nearly half the members of the UN (including five EU member states) made simple actions Byzantine in their complexity.
Pristina had none of the beauty of Sarajevo, but even given its many problems, there was still more hope there. But that hope is dissipating fast, and much like in Bosnia, the international community seems to be fiddling while Rome burns.
The movement of guns, drugs and people through the Balkans to the EU has been a major money spinner for organised crime, and the lack of employment opportunities have been a boon for extremists. Many of the guns used in recent Paris attacks came from the Balkans; the movement of masses of guns from the Balkans throughout Western Europe is a stark reminder of the international community’s failures following the Yugoslav wars, and continuing on into the present day.
That nagging sense I first felt in the UK was even plainer to see in Bosnia and Kosovo. They had words for the “others”, phrases and terms of superiority, which allowed for the creation of the enemy, and produced the bloodletting of the past in both places. That still haunts me.
In November last after nearly six years in the Balkans, it was time to move on, to Phnom Penh to take up a position with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Court. I have crossed the fence, and I am now working in the defence. To some of my former colleagues from the civil law tradition and especially from North America, to cross that line is incredible, even sacrilegious. If you believe in the system though, both sides are necessary, and needed, and equally important.
The work is interesting and the country is amazing. Even in my short time here, the reasons for the brutality, murder and madness that took place under the Khmer Rouge regime are plain to see. Again, it is down to the creation of the “other”, a divide and conquer mentality. Events in Europe today make me wary of this divide happening again.
I still think about Ireland every day. I miss my family and friends, of course, but also watching club hurling games in Kenny Park and Connacht at the Sportsground, to the taste of salt blowing in off the Atlantic on Tawin Island, or the views in Connemara.
But I feel lucky to have a job I love, and to be healthy. Seeing the poverty and lack of opportunity for most in many of the places I have been, I realise just how lucky I am. I think we as a people are also hugely fortunate; maybe we don’t have the greatest weather, natural resources or wealth, but we have a relatively peaceful, prosperous and developed state, a diaspora around the world, and the gift of the gab.