International Criminal Court Selects New Top Prosecutor

This is the first time in the court’s history the chief prosecutor has been elected by secret ballot instead of being chosen by consensus.

Karim Khan is seen at the International Criminal Court in 2013. (Photo by ICC-CPI).

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — After a difficult and controversial process, British lawyer Karim Khan was elected Friday as the third chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court. 

Khan, who is currently heading a United Nations team investigating Islamic State crimes in Iraq, was elected to the top post in international criminal law with 72 votes in a secret ballot of the court’s 123 member countries. He will take over in June from the current prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, whose term in office is up. 

He is no stranger to the ICC, having previously served as defense counsel before the court for Kenyan Vice President William Ruto; Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; and Congolese Vice President Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo. 

The 50-year-old Khan steps into a challenging role. The current prosecutor and one of her senior staffers are currently under sanctions by the U.S. government. A recent move by the court to open an investigation into crimes committed in Palestinian territory has also drawn ire. 

“Karim Khan’s election as ICC prosecutor comes at a moment when the court is needed more than ever and faces both internal performance shortcomings and external pressure about its role,” said Liz Everston, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

To adhere to Covid-19 restrictions, the representatives of the member states, all wearing masks, took turns placing their ballots into boxes. The four candidates on the ballot needed 62 votes to be elected. Khan took 72 in the second round of voting, with Irish lawyer Fergal Gaynor taking 42 votes. After a first round of voting earlier in the day, Khan received only 59 and Gaynor 47. The remainder of the votes were for the Spanish nominee Carlos Castresana and Italian Francesco Lo Voi. 

The ICC, created in 2002 by the Rome Statute to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, had seen its previous prosecutors chosen by consensus. Argentinian Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first person to hold the position, was unopposed and unanimously elected. For his successor — the current prosecutor, Bensoudaa search committee was created, privately reviewing 51 applications before selecting four. She too was ultimately chosen by consensus. 

The two previous selection procedures came under fire by nongovernmental organizations for being too political but the new election process has also been rife with controversy. The Association of States Parties, the body which oversees the court, selected a committee to compile a shortlist, which put forth four options. Only one, Gaynor, was included on Friday’s slate.  

The selection process was criticized for being too opaque, though many did acknowledge that it was better than the previous ones, for lacking a procedure to lodge ethical complaints against the candidates, and for producing a shortlist that some saw as substandard. Only two of the shortlisted four had international criminal law experience and only one in the capacity as a prosecutor. 

“Unfortunately, today’s election was overshadowed by the failure to adopt a proper vetting system to assess the ‘high moral character’ required of prosecutors. The court cannot stand for justice if it perpetuates injustice within its own walls,” Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the human rights organization Global Justice Center, said in a statement. 

The ASP was scheduled to elect the new prosecutor during its annual meeting in December. Instead, a month before the meeting, it announced it would expand the candidate pool from its existing shortlist of four to a long list of 14 after some member states balked at the options. 

Khan will start his new role on June 16 and will serve a term of nine years.

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