ICC Interview: One-on-one with ICC registrar Herman von Hebel

Sunday January 17 2016

The International Criminal Court building at The Hague.  PHOTO | AFP

The International Criminal Court building at The Hague. PHOTO | AFP 

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More than a decade after the international criminal court came into existence, it now has permanent premises. What does this mean to you?

The new premises are a milestone in the life of the court. I have been part of the ICC project from even before the Rome conference in 1998.

Looking back 20 years, I don’t think there were a lot of people around who could have foreseen the immense progress that has been made since.

Today we have an iconic building that serves as a symbol for international criminal justice.

I am extremely proud and honoured to have been part of this great project. 

What do the new premises mean for the prosecution of international crimes?

The new building allows the court to hold a greater number of hearings and the parties and participants to the proceedings to work in an environment that is fit for purpose.

It really is a fantastic building that has both symbolic value and allows the Court to conduct its core business more effectively and efficiently.

The new premises have also great facilities for visitors who want to know more about the work of the ICC and to follow the hearings.

I hope as many people as possible will come and visit us at our new home.

The first suspect to be tried in the new court is a sitting Deputy President (William Ruto). What does this mean for the court?

As you know, the trial in the case against Mr Ruto and Mr Joshua Sang started in September 2013.

Many people at the court, and especially in the Registry, have worked hard to ensure that hearings could resume only a few weeks after the move to the new premises in mid-December.

The hearings are conducted in court rooms with features that allow the ICC to work in a transparent and effective way.

This is vital for the credibility of the court as it helps to guarantee the fair trial rights of all accused persons.

Ultimately, a court exists to serve justice to the victims for their suffering. In this case, what opportunities do the new court premises have for victims of the most heinous crimes?

The new building has a number of features that allow us to provide even stronger support to witnesses and victims.

These features will also ensure fair and transparent proceedings, thus helping to better serve the interests of victims.

Elements of the building have been custom-designed to fit logistical needs of having witnesses and victims at the court.

Examples include stairways that are separate from those used by the accused and waiting rooms that have been built taking into account feedback from previous witnesses and victims.

Also, there is a space especially for those witnesses who have been granted permission to testify from outside of the courtroom, so as not to be in the same room as the accused.

The permanent premises are a symbol of the international community’s commitment to providing justice to victims and to preventing others from having to experience such suffering in the future.

Even with the best courtrooms and most advanced technology, it means nothing if states who are members of the Rome Statute are not co-operating. How does the court now ensure co-operation?

In establishing the ICC, States set up a system based on two pillars. The court itself is the judicial pillar.

The operational pillar belongs to States, including the enforcement of the court’s orders.

It is quite clear that the co-operation regime established under the Statute is not perfect and a new building is not going to change that overnight.

However, I do think that by giving the court a tailor-made building which enables us to work more effectively, States Parties have shown their continuing commitment to supporting the ICC.

What do you think of the threats by some African countries to withdraw from the Rome Statute? 

The ICC is an important international judicial mechanism which was established with the overwhelming support of African States.

I think that withdrawal by any State Party would be regrettable.

Universality of the Rome Statute is an extremely important value since the more States Parties there are, the more people will be accorded international protection from atrocity crimes.

Of course ICC membership is a voluntary and sovereign decision that is the prerogative of all States.

The Rome Statute contains clear rules as to the process of withdrawal from the Statute, including that any withdrawal will take at least one year to enter into force from the moment it is deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

It is important to keep in mind that a State’s withdrawal from the ICC would not affect, in any way, the obligations arising from the Rome Statute while the State was a Party to the Statute.

What withdrawal would do is to lessen the protection that the withdrawing State’s own population would have in the future outside the Rome Statute system. 

Finally, the ICC still does not have the capacity on its own to have convicts serve their sentences and still has to depend on the willingness of the member states on this front. How does the ICC hope to solve this challenge?

We need to remember that it was never intended for the Court to enforce sentences.

This is an obligation incumbent upon States and rightfully so. Under the Rome Statute framework, any sentences are implemented in States which have signed an agreement with the ICC to that specific effect.

Currently, the ICC has 9 framework agreements with countries in different continents on the enforcement of sentences.

The Court has also concluded an ad hoc agreement with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), based on which two persons (Mr Lubanga and Mr Katanga) have been transferred to the DRC.