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Students experience international law, witness history on global co-op

Colleen Luibrand, SSH'19, right, and Rodas Beyene, SSH/S'19, worked on co-op together last year at the U.N. International Criminals Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Colleen Luibrand and Rodas Beyene couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed.

It was late November, and a sentencing hearing was underway in the final case at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where the two Northeastern students were working on co-op. The tribunal’s charge was to carry out justice for atrocities committed during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s.

Luibrand and Beyene had been busy all morning, working with prosecutors and coordinating with other offices in preparation for the day’s proceedings. Beyene watched the hearing from the public gallery, through a glass wall separating them from the courtroom. Luibrand watched on the television in the press office.

“It was a great experience that further reinforced my interest in studying law and working in international human rights.”

Rodas Beyene SSH/S'19

Then came the moment when a U.N. judge confirmed his 20-year sentence for former Bosnian Croat military commander Slobodan Praljak. Seconds later, Praljak shouted something in Croatian that Luibrand and Beyene didn’t understand at the time—“I am not a war criminal!”—and drank a liquid from a small bottle later revealed to be poison. The hearing abruptly halted, and Praljak was rushed to a hospital where he later died.

“I’m watching this happen, I’m not believing what I’m seeing with my eyes as he brings his hand to his mouth,” recalled Luibrand, SSH’19, a fourth-year student majoring in international affairs.

Luibrand and Beyene were shocked but didn’t have time for much reflection; they sprung into action. For about two-and-a-half hours, they fielded numerous press calls from the likes of CNN, The Associated Press, and The New York Times and rushed between the press office and the lobby to handle inquiries and provide logistical assistance to dozens of journalists stationed there.

“It looked like a movie,” added Luibrand. “People were sprinting around, calling on their phones, throwing paper. It was so surreal.”

They credited their supervisors for helping prepare them for the moment, by treating them as full-time employees and empowering them throughout their co-ops to independently handle new projects and tasks. “There was a lot of pressure, but I think we handled it very well,” said Beyene, SSH/S’19, a double major in political science and psychology.

Colleen Luibrand and Rodas Beyene said they gained invaluable professional experience working at the groundbreaking tribunal in its final months before closure. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Luibrand and Beyene said the intense day epitomized the impact of their co-op experience. They had witnessed history over the past several months and gained invaluable professional experience working at a groundbreaking tribunal in its final months before closure. The tribunal, which began in 1993, indicted 161 suspects and convicted 90 of them.

Throughout their co-ops—which lasted from July to December 2017—the students prepared press releases, wrote summaries of court judgments, and helped plan a range of events. Their work volume ratcheted up as summer turned to fall, particularly as the verdict and sentencing neared for former Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic.

A week before Praljak’s hearing, Mladic was convicted of genocide and other crimes in the worst massacre in Europe since World War II and sentenced to life imprisonment. Luibrand and Beyene said it was the highest-profile case the tribunal faced, receiving significant global interest. They recalled standing in the courtroom as they accompanied a BBC crew filming a documentary on Mladic. “It felt monumental seeing him in real life,” Luibrand said.

They both said they sought co-ops at the tribunal to gain real-world experience in law and international human rights, and arrived with some understanding of the Bosnian conflict. Beyene is from St. Louis, where there is a large population of Bosnian refugees. Luibrand, for her part, had explored the wars among former Yugoslav republics in a “Comparative Politics” course prior to the co-op.

“It was a great experience that further reinforced my interest in studying law and working in international human rights.” Beyene said.

Luibrand, who plans to attend law school after graduation, said the experience helped narrow her focus for her next co-op, in which she’s seeking a job that combines media, law, and government. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity, and it will shape my future plans for sure,” she said.