Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Blacker Provides Vital Link

Former anti-apartheid activist maintains crucial communications link between the court and investigators in the field.
By Katy Glassborow
From the steps leading up to the International Criminal Court building in The Hague, lawyers, translators and judges buzz in and out of the swivelling doors and proceed past metal detectors and security guards into their offices and log on to the computer network.

This is fairly routine for a big organisation, but what is more difficult to realise is that this shiny new court is connected to field offices in some of the most inhospitable conflict zones in the world - such as the Congo, Uganda and refugee camps in Chad.

Ian Blacker, born in District 6, a famous “coloured” inner suburb of South Africa’s Cape Town, is the man in charge of making sure that the technology in and outside the court fits the needs of this innovative judicial organisation and its 600 staff and that the international media can follow its trials.

A major task is to ensure that investigators in the field can communicate information - including incriminating evidence and protected witness testimonies - back to The Hague from conflict situations without the information being illegally accessed and tampered with.

Statements from victims who volunteer to take part in the investigation and trial stage at great personal risk need to be flown between continents with no risk of interception. Their lives could be endangered if testimonies fall into the wrong hands.

If witnesses or victims give their testimonies over video link, Blacker’s team has the technology to encrypt this link. “I’m very aware that if any of the sensitive information is compromised, it can lead to someone’s death, or the collapse of a trial,” he told IWPR.

Therefore, he uses techniques to conceal identities and protect information, like voice distortion, video image blurring, and encryption over mobile video links so that the data cannot be intercepted.

“We are now able to have witness testimony from anywhere in the world,” said Blacker, while adding that the job is tough in countries where there are very limited resources and poorly developed infrastructure. Often those same countries are riddled with violence and conflict.

“Imagine a country where there is nothing, no phones, no computers, no internet and no electricity,” he said. “We have to set up IT operations even there, and provide adequate solutions for investigators and witness protection teams to be able to do their work safely.”

Communication can be very expensive, because investigation teams (often unwelcome in the countries where they investigate where they do their probing) need to speak to each other and keep in constant contact via secure mobile phones and satellite phones.

As well as working in the field, Blacker’s team and other court staff have developed computer systems that everyone across the ICC - including the defence and prosecution - works on.

The goal of this electronic court (“e-court”) is to minimise the amount of paper used and to “make trials more efficient without compromising justice”, said Blacker.

Because so much is done via an integrated computer network that everyone can access, they can do analysis quicker, for example, by scanning a trend electronically or searching a database.

In electronic courtrooms, the court reporter types down what is said on a computer, with the transcriptions displayed instantly on all the monitors in the courtroom and saved for later reviewing. “This means that the judges do not have to take notes during a court session, so they can do their own analysis later. This process can assist with decision making,” said Blacker.

Blacker has always had to think on his feet, since his days growing up in apartheid South Africa when District 6, and his parents’ home there, was declared “whites only” in 1966 and bulldozed to the ground, leaving him and another one and a half million people homeless.

His said his education was severely compromised at the time. “For our generation, education took second place to what we were trying to achieve,” he said. “At that time, I could never imagine that thirty years later apartheid would be gone, it had such a stranglehold.”

He participated in the defiance campaign, consisting of strikes and boycotts against South Africa’s white supremacist National Party government, and took most of his examinations as demonstrations went on against the regime. “On my exam sheets, I would write ‘I am doing this exam under protest’,” said Blacker. “Schools were closed because this is where the student uprising would gather to protest, so students like me had to take exams, without having had a proper education.”

He joined other students in a campaign of passive resistance. Typically, they would all go to a bank and form a long line to open and then close a bank account, so that the bank could not do any other work that day.

In the course of his campaigning, Blacker had teargas thrown at him, but told IWPR that “if the police came to threaten us we sat down, and they did what they needed to do”.

His career began as a cleaner sweeping the floors of a South African shipping container depot. He became a supervisor by the age of 20, moving up the company as a data entry clerk, administering the IT systems.

He decided to leave and join his sister in Austria, cashing in five years of savings and his pension, which together covered only half of the plane fare. “It was prohibitively expensive, and the apartheid authorities would only give non-white people like me a passport when they could prove there was someone in another country to sponsor them,” he said.

In Vienna, he embarked upon serious education, completing a BA in Business Management and securing a job with the United Nations as a computer programmer, later completing an MSc in Information Management.

He spent eight years working for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians, based in Vienna, before moving to Gaza to help set up information systems at the new UN headquarters in Gaza City.

His British wife and three young children went with him and stayed in Israel while he worked in Gaza. When he returned to Vienna, he assisted in setting up the International Data Centre for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - an organisation set up to carry out the necessary preparations for the treaty dealing with the ban of all nuclear weapon testing.

Blacker became in 2002 one of the first people drafted in to build and shape the ICC, having been asked to set up the court’s information technology systems.

Today, Blacker considers himself “extremely privileged to be where I am”, adding that his youthful years in apartheid South Africa gave him a “determination to succeed”. When he hears about victim protection in the course of his work at the ICC, it “triggers memories of South Africa. When I hear what those people fear, I can hear it and understand it.

“I know from experience what persecution is. I can feel for them and what they are facing. I have an idea of what their mental framework is, and how brave it is for them to come forward and say they have witnessed something as grave as a war crime.”

In South Africa, when the grim “necklace” murders of so-called sell-outs was being carried out by black township militants, Blacker recalled, “I saw at first hand that at any time if someone stood up to give evidence against someone else in public, then within five minutes they could be dead. You do not know who is on whose side, who has seen you, and you need to be wary of the friends you make.”

Blacker travels back to South Africa with his Manchester-born wife and three children every two years to keep contact with his family, and says that his priority is to “give an education to my kids”. He does not want them to “do it like daddy did, taking ten years and working all the hours, then waking up at 5am to work for a university degree”.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.