illustration by Alisa Burke
Srebrenica was one of the first. It was also one of the hardest. For days, Kirsten Bowman ‘96 pored over videotape evidence chronicling the July 1995 assault on the city — and the subsequent mass murder of some 8,000 people — during the Bosnian War.
At the time, she was a law clerk working with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Away from work, she was reading The Key to my Neighbor’s House, which included eyewitness accounts of the Srebrenica Massacre. It wasn’t long before the horrors described in the book came to life in graphic detail on the video screen.
“It was very unpleasant,” Bowman says. “That was a hard week for me. I had become all-consumed by it and I wasn’t sure if I could do this kind of work anymore.”
That was 2004. Nearly five years later, Bowman is still helping bring individuals responsible for some of the world’s most egregious crimes against humanity to justice as a lawyer for the International Criminal Court.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional evidence of these horrible things that have happened,” Bowman says. “You want somebody to be held accountable. But our job is to adjudicate fair trails in a court of law, so you have to remove yourself from the emotional side in order to do your job effectively.”
After graduating from USD with a major in sociology and a minor in gender studies, Bowman became a social worker in San Diego, then completed a Coro Fellowship in Public Policy in Los Angeles. She subsequently worked as a lobbyist for international women’s health rights in Washington, D.C., before earning a law degree from Santa Clara University. After clerking for the Yugoslavia tribunal, Bowman worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, before landing her current post as a legal officer at the ICC.
“I knew when I went to USD I wanted to do public work but I don’t know that I imagined this,” Bowman says. “I pictured myself working on treaties or conventions to stop Darfur from happening — rather than prosecuting people that had already committed atrocities in Darfur. I still struggle with that. But there’s something very tangible about international criminal law.”
Tangible though it may be, Bowman has learned that many of the cases she has worked on at the ICC fall in a nebulous gray area where the concepts of right and wrong are anything but black and white.
“I’m not sure there are always good guys and bad guys,” Bowman says. “Sometimes it’s just conflict between people, but there are rules of war, and you have to uphold those rules regardless of what side you’re on.”
Bowman recently assisted in a case against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader accused of perpetuating human rights violations, including the murder of United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When it became apparent that Dyilo could not receive a fair trial based on the prosecution’s handling of evidence, Bowman helped push for a “stay” in the proceedings.
“To get to that decision was very difficult, but it was probably the proudest moment of my career, even if a lot of people were critical of it,” she says. “I felt like it was really important to distinguish the ICC as a criminal court, not a political court, and if we moved forward with an unfair proceeding we would be doing a major disservice to international criminal law.”
While currently based in The Hague, Netherlands (home of the ICC), Bowman frequently spends weeks and months at a time collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses in the field. Aside from those often gut-wrenching investigations, one of her biggest challenges is piecing together universal laws that work for the entire global community.
“Back home, the statutes have already been interpreted and there’s not much to do but look at past case studies and do it again,” she says. “It’s fascinating and challenging trying to figure out how we can take pieces out of all these major systems of law and place them in this new system that works for everybody.”
Bowman credits the year she spent studying abroad in Japan as a USD student for sparking her physical and cultural wanderlust, though she does lament that there’s little use for her Japanese fluency in the wilds of Africa. “I can get by quite easily in Kiswahili, but French is the bane of my existence,” she sighs. “French drives me crazy, and it’s the language that I probably need to use the most.”
Aside from relying on the support of friends and family, Bowman has learned to cope with the emotional rigors of her job by brushing up on her Français, exercising, taking cooking classes and beautifying her home.
“My boyfriend thinks that it’s odd that I put so much effort into making my house look so nice,” she says with a chuckle. “But sometimes I need something that’s frivolous and pretty in my life. It’s important to take care of yourself because you won’t be helpful to people if you’re burned out and unhappy.”
Despite the often mentally and emotionally taxing nature of her work, Bowman — who anticipates eventually returning to the United States — still relishes the challenges her job presents.
“It can be very exhausting. There are times when I just want to go home and be a corporate lawyer or a public defender and have a nice little life. But every day I’m fascinated and stimulated by what I’m doing, and I know I may never have this kind of opportunity again.”