New ICC prosecutor promises to ‘revive’ troubled tribunal

Published June 17, 2021
In this file photo, lawyer Karim Khan adjust his headphones in the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the Netherlands. — AP
In this file photo, lawyer Karim Khan adjust his headphones in the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the Netherlands. — AP

THE HAGUE: Britain’s Karim Khan took office on Wednesday as the new prosecutor of the International Criminal Court with a promise to “revive” the troubled tribunal after several high-profile failures.

Khan, who inherits a bulging file of tough cases including in the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and the Philippines, lamented the previous track record of the Hague-based ICC in terms of convictions.

The remarks by the 51-year-old former defence lawyer come after outgoing prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was criticised for a string of setbacks including the acquittal of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating — we have to perform in trial. We cannot invest so much, we cannot raise expectations so high, and achieve so little so often in the courtroom,” Khan said in a speech after his swearing-in ceremony.

The barrister indicated that he may focus on fewer cases than his ambitious predecessor, adding that priorities were “building stronger cases and getting better results.” “My aim is to build upon what works, to build on the solid ground that exists. But also to repair what is broken, to rejuvenate, to revive in the quest for greater efficiency and greater impact,” Khan said.

Khan was elected by ICC member states in February to serve a nine-year tenure, as only the third prosecutor at the world’s only permanent war crimes court since it launched in 2002.

ICC chief judge Piotr Hofmanski said during the swearing-in ceremony that being prosecutor was a “tough job” but hailed Khan’s “outstanding credentials.” Khan previously led a special UN probe into crimes by the militant Islamic State group.

More controversially, he successfully defended Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto against crimes against humanity charges at the ICC, and was lawyer for late Libyan leader Moamer Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam.

His immediate challenges in his new job include a probe into the Philippines war on drugs that Bensouda announced in her final days in office, and decisions on probes in Ukraine and Nigeria.

But the most politically sensitive hurdles will be the investigations that Bensouda opened into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan, and into the 2014 Israel-Palestinian conflict in Gaza.

The administration of US President Donald Trump hit Bensouda with sanctions over the two cases, and while they have now been lifted, relations with non-ICC member states like Israel and the US remain testy.

Khan held out an olive branch on Wednesday to countries that are not part of the court, which also include Russia, China and Myanmar, saying that “I wish to include you in my engagement in this joint quest for justice.” However he swore that as ICC prosecutor, a role that involves opening investigations and deciding on charges to bring before the court, “without fear or favour”.

The ICC was set up nearly two decades ago as a full-time successor to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals and several separate international tribunals into situations such as the former Yugoslavia. But it has long faced criticism on a number of fronts, ranging from alleged bias, its initial focus on cases involving Africa, the large pay packets for judges and the length of time taken to bring suspects to justice.

“The ICC is in a crucial phase, it has faced criticism for not being as effective as states have wished,” Carsten Stahn, international criminal law professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, said.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2021

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