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

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 his experience at other international tribunals, the Registry’s role in outreach, and priorities going forward.

TS: You earlier mentioned the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). How has this job compared so far to past positions as the Registrar for the SCSL and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon?

HvH: It is interesting because this is the third time I have had the privilege of being the Registrar for such institutions. The amazing thing is that every time it has proven to be a completely different job. Although the title is the same and the institutions are similar, in reality they are completely different jobs.

At the Special Court [for Sierra Leone], the strength of that organization came from it being located in the country where the crimes were committed. There was the opportunity for strong outreach, which had a great impact on how the court operated. It was a fantastic experience, and I learned a lot there. The Lebanon Tribunal [based in The Hague] is further away from the country and the crimes are completely different than those of the Special Court or ICC. Lebanon is a country with a huge and complex political situation that created huge challenges for the tribunal in terms of its press strategies, its communication with the people, and its outreach activities.

Here at the ICC our perspective comes closer to that of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. We are not in the country, but we have had discussions about whether we can have in situ hearings. I think in principle these are very positive reflections, but it is, of course, for the judges to make the final call. It is something that I’ve seen in Sierra Leone that can be a very effective way of bringing justice closer to the people. With the ICC the major challenge is that you work with so many different situations at the same time. You work in countries where you are at different levels of peace or lack of peace. You often deal with situations where ongoing conflicts put huge pressures and challenges to our operations. That’s where we have to have a different approach to our work.

Another different aspect is that the ICC has an ASP [Assembly of States Parties] – 122 parties. There is much more interaction between the ASP and the court than at other courts and tribunals. This is an interesting and time consuming part of the job. There is also a huge amount of interest from the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), made of NGOs and civil society, which is a great thing to see because of their support for the court. It also requires a lot of work in terms of communication. It is fascinating and challenging but also rewarding because if the communication works well with the ASP and with the CICC, you get a lot back from them as well.

TS: How does the Registry ensure those affected by conflict in situation countries know about the work of the ICC and ongoing judicial activities?

HvH: The issue is that even the situation of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, there was comments about the need for more outreach and more communication. In the ICC, we are not in a position to come even close the amount of outreach and communication that the Special Court was able to do. I think to a certain extent, which you may call a frustrating element, is that you can never do enough outreach. Of course there are limitations, but having to deal with eight different situations you simply have limited resources for what you can do. I am working closely with the sections directly responsible on how we can get the maximum amount of outreach from our resources.

Another area we have to work hard on is improving our website. We are now in the process in getting assistance on how to change that. The website is a strong tool, and frankly speaking, I don’t think the website at the moment is doing what it should do or what it can do. In the next year, we are going to work hard on changing the website so that the public at large, journalists, diplomats, lawyers, but also affected communities and NGOs are really able to keep with developments of the court. At the moment, this is less than optimal.

On the ground, we have outreach and press people in situation countries, but the numbers are limited. Therefore, the amount of effective communication that you can authorize is limited as well. You can never do it enough, but there are limitations financially and with human resources. It is very important to us [the Registry] to work closely with other organizations who are active in the field, journalists that are actively communicating with us, and local NGOs that interested in our work. We have to continue to do that on a daily basis. This is absolutely crucial.  It’s one thing to conduct our proceedings right, it is another thing to be objective and in a factual-based way communicate our work and have a dialogue with people about what we do.

TS: Would you like to see a model like the Special Court for Sierra Leone in terms of outreach, where you have parties from all sides participating and taking questions from the public about the work of the court?

HvH: Ideally that would be fantastic to do, but realistically, I don’t think that is possible. The simple fact that the Special Court was based in Sierra Leone allowed for so much more opportunity to communicate. Whereas, the court here is based in The Hague and we deal with situations far away from here. So the possibilities to actually communicate, to enter into dialogues on a regular basis is limited. I think it is simply not possible to do it up to the same level as the Special Court.

But  within the limited resources, given the factual situations being far away from the court, we should seek to do the maximum with what we have – dialogue with partners and with affected communities and also strengthen cooperation within the Registry, for example between the victim participation, reparations, and outreach units. There was a recent decision by one of the pre-trial chamber judges, who touches upon the relationship between outreach and victim participation. Reaching out to affected communities and victim participation are strongly connected issues.

TS: Can you talk about how the Registry engages with civil society in countries and builds those contacts and networks?

HvH: I cannot say much because I have only been here less than two months. I have yet to go into the field, although I will go to Kinshasa soon in order to meet with the authorities, diplomatic community, and see pieces of the outreach program there. However, I can bring experience from the other tribunals. I know that there has been contact in the past with the ICC and experts from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, so there is a lot that is ongoing. Now that I’m here, I’m not saying everything is going to start from scratch. I am jumping onto a moving train, and I need more time to see how to further develop that. This is one of my priorities and big projects that I hope to be able to strengthen in the future.

TS: How does the Registry help with positive complementarity and building domestic capacity to investigate and prosecute international crimes?

HvH: Complementarity primarily goes through the Prosecutor’s office. It is up to the Prosecutor to determine – in contemplating the start of an investigation – whether or not the national authorities are willing and able to do undertake the activities themselves. It is not a place where we, as Registry, have a primary role to play.

At the same time, the Registry can assist the prosecution. My experience with the Special Court is that I often had little projects where people working in the national judicial system were coming to the Special Court in order to participate in trainings that were provided by the court [SCSL] for their own staff, so why not bring some people over from the national judicial system as well. But these were little projects. At the more strategic level, we can partner with other organizations, although it is not our primary mandate to work on the development and strengthening of national legal systems. We do, of course, work with people in the EU system and the UN system with agencies that do focus on that [complementarity] on a daily basis. We can provide expertise. We can exchange information. I am still in the process of seeing how it exactly works, but I will soon travel to New York in order to talk with agencies there that may be interested.

I want to strengthen the work of our field offices on the ground in order for it to be more feasible for the diplomatic community, UN agencies on the ground, and local authorities, to make sure that the face of the court is being recognized as far as possible. But also so that we can be identified as a partner and as a resource organization for others to do their activities that may contribute to the strengthening of national legal systems. Again, this is not our primary mandate, but we can certainly play an additional role there.

TS: You’ve already highlighted engaging with civil society in situation countries, but do you have other projects that you are passionate about and want to take-up at the ICC?

HvH: Primarily, from my perspective and due to my experience at other tribunals, for me the NGOs are a great partner for our work. The ASP is also a great partner. I want to focus on being more engaged with the states parties to strengthen forms of voluntary cooperation. Under the Rome Statute, on one end you have the need and obligation to cooperate with the court, particularly with those countries where the OTP [Office of the Prosecutor] is investigating cases. In addition, you also have issues, like the relocation of witnesses and enforcement of sentencing agreements, etc. That is certainly something I would like to focus on. I think we have a huge number of witnesses that are already under our care and in order to be able to cope with that workload in the future I think we need to strengthen and rely more on the cooperation of states – not only the same states that have already been providing great assistance, but also to other states.

It’s a question of burden sharing and being part of the ICC community. There is an element of assisting the court, supporting the court, and making our work possible in terms of relocation of witnesses – often on a temporary basis, sometimes on a more permanent basis. Also, enforcement of sentences and funding of relocation of witnesses. The kind of activities where privileges and immunities agreements are needed for [ICC] staff working in different countries – there is room for improvement there. I want to have more of a structural approach to strengthen those and to intensify the number of agreements that we can conclude. Hopefully, there will be a listening and a willing ear on the states parties’ side to enter into such agreements. That is certainly a project where I am going to focus on in the years to come.





  1. In no other proceeding before the ICC (though there are some fait similarities to some ex-Yugoslavian cases) have witnesses and their families to such an extent been pressured, intimidated, threatened, extorqued, even murdered. In no other proceeding.

    And to the larger part, this falls into the Registry’s responsibility.
    If the two Kenyan cases were to fail because most of the witnesses have been pressured and threatened to recant or to “vanish” (they have even publicly indicated their duress now!), then it is mostly the Registrars who would bear the responsibility and guilt of this.

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