The "Customers" of the UNDU

Yesterday, I had a very unusual opportunity. I got to visit the United Nations Detention Unit in The Hague. This facility is where all the accused of the ICTY, ICC, and Special Tribunal for Lebanon are held during pre-trial, trial, and appellate proceedings. Very few people get to tour the UNDU, but the ICTY arranges a trip for twelve people every two months. Staff get first priority to visit, but fortunately they are only allowed to go once and most staff have been earlier in their careers here. The remaining spots are offered to interns through a first-come, first-served basis via email. I sit in an office of ten people, so as soon as the email was seen two weeks ago, someone yelled it out -- and everyone started furiously typing to get their information to the organizer as fast as possible. It took another week to find out who made the list, and I did! Super lucky, plus six or seven of my good friends also made it. All together there were two staff members and ten interns.

The instructions for the trip were very detailed and, understandably, very restrictive. We had to be ready and outside at 09:20, and could only bring our passports with us. A BMW and a van pulled up in front of us. When we were told to get in the cars, people immediately started moving toward the van but I bee-lined for the beamer. Three other interns realized they could ride in it too, and joined me for the smoothest ride I've had since arriving in Europe.

It took less than ten minutes from the ICTY to get to the detention facility near-ish the beach. The United Nations rents the single building for the UNDU from the Dutch government, and it is contained within a Dutch prison facility. Therefore, we first had to go through the perimeter security of the Dutch prison system, then get escorted to the back to the UNDU building where we went through another set of metal detectors, ID and visitor pass checks. The first thing I noticed as I went through this second set of security measures was two round impact marks and cracks on the thick glass of the security booth. They looked like bullet holes to me, but another intern said they were from someone trying to smash the glass with a sharp object like a screwdriver. 

First on our agenda was a PowerPoint presentation by the head of the UNDU. He is Finnish and has worked in national prison systems before, and said that the UNDU is unlike anything else. First of all, the average age of the current 23 ICTY accused at the UNDU is 63 years. He said there are six ICC accused in custody and even fewer for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, but the figures discussed here do not apply to them. The age of the ICTY accused creates many difficults from a financial perspective due to medical requirements. Second, the ICTY accused at the UNDU are not life-long criminals. They are accused of genocide, murder, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, but most had never been in a prison or been prosecuted before. Individually, they are not violent people - though they (allegedly) masterminded some of the most events in history. There are very few incidents with physical violence. As the director said, he has so many presidents, generals, prime ministers, and other military and political leaders that they are essentially all equal, but there is only one real general - himself. They rose up the ranks and were able to do what they did often through their speaking abilities. Most of the conflict at the UNDU is consequently verbal and not serious. It was kind of funny because he mentioned that 10% of the inmates cause 90% of the work because of what they demand and believe they are owed, treating the guards as servants, and expecting their high lifestyles from before and during the Balkans conflict to be maintained. I'm not sure if it was a joke or a cultural thing, but he kept referring to the accused or detainees as "customers." Occasionally, he called them "detainees" (never prisoners because their convictions have not survived appeals yet and they are not serving prison sentences yet), but just as often "customers." Such a strange word and way to think of them.

The costs of running the UNDU are huge. There are three guards for every accused at this point in time, and it costs over 300 euro per accused per day. The director said that he doesn't know the exact figure but that he was confident saying it was high above that. As the UNDU is rented from the Dutch, the UN must pay a flat monthly rent including all of the services and personnel the UNDU uses. However, despite the intern rumor mill, things are not as cushy for the accused as I thought. They do get to order food out, but they have to pay for it themselves. The UN gives each accused 15 euro per week, but that's it. Other than that, they get three square meals and a snack each day. But no more. The vast amount of money spent for each accused does not go directly to them, but is wrapped up in the bureaucracy of the necessary facility.

After the presentation, we went on a tour of the building. First, we were shown the visiting rooms where several accused had guests. They are monitored the entire time, but each accused can have seven days of visitors per month. The director said that part of this is due to the great distance from the Balkans that family and friends must travel to visit, but also due to the age of the accused it would be very difficult on them to separate them further from their loved ones.

Second, we were shown the conjugal visiting rooms. Yup, conjugal visiting rooms. No one was using them, thank goodness. And none of the interns stepped inside. But we saw the twin-sized futons and the table and two chairs. It is the only place in the UNDU that is not monitored, so not only is it used for its name, but also for private visits with entire families and for meetings with attorneys.

Third, we saw the art studio. It was really interesting to hear that some of the accused really dedicate their time to developing something beautiful. I wonder if it's a way to try to give back after doing such horrible things, or just a way to fill up the time. There were gorgeous paintings of flowers on the wall, and an interesting in-progress painting of a Balkans pastoral scene on a work table, as well as numerous pottery pieces. 

Fourth, we went up to the gymnasium facilities. The accused are given roughly one hour per day of gym type and one hour of fresh air when they can go outside. Inside, there were weights, cardio equipment, and a full court with basketball nets and soccer goals. Out the window we could see the volleyball/tennis court where five or six of the accused were taking turns playing tennis. Shirtless. All of them. In the Netherlands. It's not that hot here. Definitely an unwelcome surprise. Especially as one of the players was Popovic, the lead appellant on my case Popovic et al. Not what I wanted to see before I go into court next Tuesday for our status conference and see him and all the other appellants in suits with their attorneys. But at the same time, the UNDU is their home. The average stay is seven years for an ICTY accused there. They have to make it their home as much as possible.

Fifth, the director showed us the residential wings. Another rumor in the ICTY intern rumor mill is that each accused has a huge bedroom with a sitting room, private bathroom, and a locking door. Not true at all. Each wing has about ten private cells, a kitchen/living/dining area, and communal shower are. Each cell looks like a bad freshman year dorm room with a toilet and sink. They aren't anything like a fancy hotel as I had been led to believe. Plus, when it comes down to it, these men are kept in those cells from 8:30pm to 7:00am. They are not free. They do not have control over their own lives. They are detainees. Each is responsible for cleaning his own cell and they all clean the shared spaces. One of the guards escorting us around said that most of these guys had never held a broom in their lives, always having servants or family members to do the cleaning for them, but that some of them are so detailed cleaning now. Similarly, many of the detainees have learned how to cook and share their recipes with their wives who come visit. They can order food from a Balkans store in Rotterdam and use the kitchen facilities whenever they want.

Finally, we got to see the isolation cells. The UNDU has never needed to put anyone in solitary confinement, fortunately, but the facilities are there if necessary. One of the cells is used as a tele-conference room now.

As we were gathering to leave, we saw a woman going through security. She had a small suitcase with her, full of files and ICTY judgements. The guard explained that every single person has everything examined when they come in, even family and attorneys. There was a small table by the metal detectors with open food items on it and tags indicating they belonged to visitors who were in seeing detainees. They were items that were not allowed in for some reason. Three guards per detainee. That still seems like such a high number to me, especially since the average age is 63, so most of these men would not pose much - if any - threat.

On our way out of the building, a detainee came out of one of the medical offices with a doctor. We were all told to stand aside for him. He smiled, said "excuse me" and "hello" to us as he was escorted past and down a hallway. As we left the building and walked outside, I looked in through the window and saw him sitting in the art studio at the pastoral painting we had seen earlier. I wonder if people really can change.