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ICC prosecutor pushes back on special tribunal for war crimes in Ukraine

Delivering his first annual report during a meeting of countries that participate in the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan warned against fragmented prosecutions.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court called Monday for reinforcing its mandate in prosecuting crimes in Ukraine, pushing back against a move by the European Union to establish a special tribunal to investigate the Russian invasion. 

“We should avoid fragmentation, and instead focus on consolidation,” Karim Khan told reporters, following his address before the Assembly of States Parties, an annual meeting of countries that have signed on to the Rome Statute, which created the ICC in 2002.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for the United Nations to back the creation of a special court to investigate the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ICC cannot prosecute Russian leaders for the crime of aggression as the Russian Federation is not a member of the court. 

The Hague-based ICC is already looking into possible war crimes and genocide, crimes for which it does have jurisdiction. The court moved forward with an investigation in March, just days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February. It had already been probing possible crimes in Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. 

“The serious international crimes being committed in Ukraine and elsewhere demonstrate once again the importance of the ICC’s promise of accountability and the court’s crucial role,” Liz Evenson, international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. Her group called on the court to do more to bring justice for victims around the globe. 

Khan also said that his office was keen to do more in Ukraine and in other conflict regions, but was hampered by a lack of resources. His office is juggling investigations in 16 countries on a budget of 49.5 million euros ($52 million). By comparison, Khan said his previous office – the UN. Investigative Team for the Accountability of Islamic State, which only looked into crimes committed by the terrorits group in Iraq – had a budget of $30 million.

“We cannot be set up to fail,” Khan said. 

A lack of funding is a frequent complaint from the court. Member states gave the institution as a whole a budget of 151 million euros ($156 million) for 2022, some $50 million less than was requested.

“The ICC will never be able to do everything it needs to do, but in recent years inadequate resources have significantly limited the court’s contributions to justice,” Evenson said. 

Advocacy groups took the opportunity to press Khan about the status of specific investigations. The prosecutor said he is planning trips next year to visit both Palestine and Afghanistan, where the court is looking into war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

In Monday's speech, Kahn also defended his decision to move forward with confirmation of charges hearings - the first step in the trial process - against Lord's Resistance Army founder Joseph Kony. It would be the first time the court has taken that step against someone not yet in custody.

“Victims want to tell their story,” Khan said of atrocities allegedly committed in central Africa.

The Assembly of States Parties will continue for the rest of the week with budget discussions and side events highlighting different components of the court’s work. 

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