Karim Khan: The controversial choice for Chief prosecutor

By Nour Abu-Ismail BA Korean Studies and Development

On 16 June 2021, Karim Ahmad Khan will begin his nine-year term as the newly elected Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Electing the third Chief Prosecutor of the ICC was both lengthy and discordant as member-states could not agree on a candidate. The deciding factor came down to a secret ballot, held for the first time since the court’s establishment, between four candidates. According to the Guardian, Khan beat candidates after obtaining votes from 72 nations, ten more than needed to win. 

The ICC functions as the only permanent international court to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of committing crimes against humanity that are of global concern. Unlike the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which seeks to reconcile disputes amongst UN member states and provide legal advice, the ICC exists to convict those who have not been held accountable for violating international law. 

Although the court is supposed to supersede national jurisdictions, its conviction rate is astonishingly low. Throughout its existence as an autonomous body, the ICC has only convicted four significant people, one of whom was later acquitted. Khan, who will succeed Fatou Bensouda, will take on the task of increasing the ICC’s number of convictions during his tenure. 

His experience in international law has strengthened his candidacy. Notable politicians, such as British foreign secretary Dominic Raab, posted a tweet stating his support. Raab described Khan as ‘pivotal in ensuring we hold those responsible for the most heinous crimes to account.’

According to the Economist and Africa Report, over 22 African-led human rights groups opposed Khan’s candidacy. The controversy surrounding the newly elected prosecutor is primarily due to leading the defense council of William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta. Both men were accused of coordinating political violence, likely to be ethnically motivated, over the 2007 Kenyan post-election brutality, resulting in the deaths of at least 1000 people. However, the court absolved their charges because of ‘intolerable political meddling,’ claimed by an unnamed ICC judge. That same judge further asserted that there was definitive evidence of ‘witness meddling’ following the murder of a key witness in 2014. This issue has remained one of the criminal court’s most contentious cases to this day. Although Khan is entitled to defend any client, the fashion in which the trial unfolded left an unfavourable impression on the public.

There are many controversies, especially those suggesting impartiality, surrounding Khan’s win. He did not initially appear as a nominee on the selection committee’s shortlist. Nonetheless, the Kenyan government was successful in insisting on re-assessing the selection process and Khan’s name subsequently appeared on the revised shortlist.  

Moreover, Mauritius prevented Khan from being chosen by a consensus vote. The objection was based on his British nationality, as the UK has refused to acknowledge ICC rulings deciding the Chagos islands belonging to Mauritius. Jagdish Koonjul, the Mauritian ambassador, criticised the country ‘to claim a right to run international bodies like the ICC’ due to their lack of compliance with international law. 

“Khan has consequential decisions to make which will determine whether he will continue pursuing investigations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Gaza conflict and Afghanistan’s United States war crime allegations.”

Despite these controversies, Khan has consequential decisions to make which will determine whether he will continue pursuing investigations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Gaza conflict and Afghanistan’s United States war crime allegations. There are questions concerning his policies and whether he will be as bold as Bensouda, who continuously improved and revised the court’s practices and strategies to pursue investigations regardless of politics. 

For many, the ICC’s appointment of a non-white Muslim could represent a necessary change. However, this begs the question as to whether this change is coming at the expense of justice. The institution requires someone with impeccable credibility to enable and power its working body. Khan’s credibility is dependent on the convictions he could secure whether he will be able to garner greater international recognition and gather more member states. Should Khan be successful in doing so, it may improve the ICC’s credibility and jurisdiction.

Photo caption: Karim Khan, pictured in 2017, moderating the panel at the ICTY Legacy Symposium. (Credit: ictyphotos)


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