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Q & A with International Criminal Court Registrar Herman von Hebel: Part I

Herman von Hebel is the newly-elected Registrar of the International Criminal Court (ICC). He spoke with the Open Society Justice Initiative in June 2013 and answered questions about the work of the Registry and its role in providing administrative and judicial support to the ICC. 

Taegin Stevenson (TS): Could you describe how the registry helps to achieve the International Criminal Court’s mandate to end impunity for mass atrocities and how your role as the Registrar helps carry out this mandate?

Herman von Hebel (HvH): Registrar is a misleading title. I don’t think it covers the job very well. If you compare it with national legal systems either where the registrar is a non-existing concept or where it is an existing concept, but it often describes the person sitting in the courtroom helping the judges, making summaries of proceedings, etc. My tasks are many-fold, but that is not one of them. It is more of a secretary-general kind of job within a ministry.

Another way of approaching the position [of Registrar] is to describe it in negative terms. It is not the position of a judge in terms of deciding guilt or innocence over an accused; it is not the position of a prosecutor in terms of bringing cases against an accused before judges; it’s not the position of counsel representing the accused or representing victims. Anything else that needs to be done in order to have the court function well is likely a role of the Registry. It’s primarily a behind the scenes service provider making sure everything runs smooth.

This covers a huge variety of issues: the detention of accused persons; security; administration; human resources; budget; and finances. It [the Registry] is also for the protection of victims and witnesses and the support for victims and witnesses. It is the court management system making sure that parties get the material in time and can walk into the courtroom, can walk out of the courtroom, have their hearings organized, etc. It also includes the victim participation system the court has in place.

The reason it is such a particular job is because the ICC is a jurisdiction on its own. In a national legal system you have a police department, you have the justice department, you have the judiciary, you have the detention facilities, and these types of things. Over here [at the ICC], everything is part of one organization, and anything that is not specifically a judges role, prosecutors role, or counselors role, is therefore the Registry’s role.

TS: You’ve only been on the job for a few months. In those months can you say what you think the biggest challenges are in your role?

HvH: Let me talk about it in terms of different levels: first, looking inward towards the organization, and then more outward. Inward, one of the most important things – it may not be a challenge because it has not proven to be so yet – is good cooperation among the President, the Prosecution, and the Registrar. We are three different principals having different responsibilities, but there are times we have a need to speak with one voice. I think we have been able to start establishing very good relations. I find it a great pleasure to work with the Prosecutor and Deputy Prosecutor and a great pleasure to work with the President and his staff. I’m in contact with the judges on a regular basis. And although there will undoubtedly be moments when we have different interests, at the same time I think it is very important to take a common position on certain issues on the senior management level.

Within the Registry, I think that there are challenges in terms of communication and the internal culture of working. I think there is a need to strengthen the internal communication. I think there is a need to get a better feeling about what we as a Registry are required to do and what we can do to make the overall functioning of the Registry successful, thereby, contributing to the overall function of the court itself. At the moment, I think that every section looks primarily from their own perspective on what their job is. I want to create more of a culture of a Registry-overall feeling, rather than looking into all the various separate units. There are a lot of different silos or pillars, but there’s not an overall structure in place. I think this is necessary and important. I also think people [Registry staff] are craving for it. It will be a challenge to change this, but I also see a huge amount of potential. Of course, I cannot do it on my own. It will be a team building exercise.

I think there is also a need for going towards efficiency because I think in the past there was a focus on the different sections doing work on their own. I think there are issues of overlap in responsibility and duplication of work, so there is a possibility of harmonizing that more.

Outward looking, I strongly feel that the Prosecutor needs more resources in order to be able do her job. I’ve been making some calculations, and the Prosecutor has just over 60 investigators and is dealing with eight different situations. Basically, that leads to seven and a half investigators per situation. That is grossly inadequate in order to effectively prepare a case. I think if we want to make sure that the Prosecutor is really able to prepare strong cases that withstand the scrutiny of the judges and the high standard that the court has to apply, then we need to address that situation.

I have been making a lot of noises about this so far and will continue to do so. The challenge comes in when amongst many members of the ASP [Assembly of States Parties] have huge financial constraints back home as well. Simply asking for more money without at the same time showing that you have done your utmost in terms of improving efficiency is a no-go. I understand that, and I agree with that.

At the same time, I think that there is the need for additional resources for the prosecution and there is strong obligation for all organs [of the ICC], in particular the Registry as the biggest organ, to look carefully into our own activities and to really ensure we have the most efficiently functioning registry possible. It’s all about value for money. There’s a huge amount of money going into the court; we may need to ask for more, but I think the states parties are only really willing to look into the discussion if at the same time we look for guarantees in other efficiency formulas.

TS: You mention some of the challenges of communication and that the Registry has to interact with a number of actors including the Chambers, the Prosecution, the Defense as well as the ASP. How does the Registry do this while maintaining its neutrality?

HvH: The key word is neutral. I can only do my job, and everyone in Registry can only do their jobs, if we show that we are neutral. It is not simply a statement; it’s a practice that we have to apply on a daily basis. I think so far, I have seen a very professional approach in this respect. The VWU [Victims and Witnesses Unit] has to provide support and protection of witnesses regardless of whether they are from the prosecution side or the defense side. We have to be neutral in order to be respected.

There are also limitations on what we can and cannot do. Overall, being able to represent the court in a neutral way is the most effective. For example, in the situation in Kenya there are a lot of political discussions about the Kenya cases. Obviously, judges are not in a position to deal with criticisms that are often in relation to their own decisions due to their impartiality. They have spoken through their decisions, and that is the right way of doing it.

The Prosecutor has limitations on what she can say also because she brings the case. This is probably where the Registrar can come in and assist with bringing out the messages through outreach by providing clear, simple, clear-cut factual information about our proceedings, the possibilities of our proceedings, the challenges in our proceedings, why things happen in a certain way, making comparisons with other cases in other courts and tribunals, and showing what is happening over here is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary with other proceedings in other courts and tribunals nationally and internationally. This is just how justice works, and in this case, it is how international justice works.

There is room for us to strengthen our messaging possibilities. I am a great supporter of an effective press and outreach strategy. In my previous jobs as Registrar of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, one of the major achievements of the court was an incredibly effective and well developed system of outreach. That is something we [the ICC] can do – not to the extent of the Special Court for Sierra Leone was able to do because they were based in the country focusing only one situation and located much closer to the victim communities – but we can do bits and pieces of that. I think we can be doing more than what we have been doing so far. That is not about big budgets, it is about getting a proper strategy in place, effective implementation, and seeking partners as well.