THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Plagued by technical issues and mired in controversies, the selection process for the next prosecutor of the International Criminal Court includes an uphill battle against political infighting, sexual harassment allegations and Covid-19.
"This is a circus now," Susan Okalany, one of four shortlisted candidates for the role at the world’s only permanent court for war crimes, told the a virtual panel on Thursday after her connection repeatedly cut out. The Ugandan judge wasn’t the only one frustrated with the technical issues. The feed, publicly live-streamed, repeatedly lost both its video and audio connection during the two days of hearings.
Court watchers joked that when the video returned, it would be a soldier telling everyone the military was in charge now, referring to the common practice in military coups when a state television’s channel goes blank before a military commander announces the head of state has been deposed.
The selection of the third prosecutor for The Hague-based court, known as the ICC, is markedly different from the last two times. Argentinian Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first person to hold the position, was the only candidate on the ballot when he was unanimously elected by states. For the selection of Ocampo’s successor — the current prosecutor, Gambian Fatou Bensouda — a search committee was created for the first time, privately reviewing 51 applications before selecting four.
The two previous selection procedures had come under fire by nongovernmental organizations for being too political.
“There was a lot of backroom political dealings. You vote for my candidate, I’ll vote for yours,” said Mariana Pena, a senior legal adviser at the Open Society Foundations, a grantmaking network that supports civil society groups.
“This happens across institutions,” said Mark Kersten, a senior consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a nonprofit focused on international criminal justice.
The Rome Statute, which established the ICC, stipulates that prosecutors be elected every nine years via secret ballot by the Assembly of States Parties, or ASP. The ASP oversees the court and is made up of representatives from the treaty’s 123 members. For this election, the ASP created the Committee on the Election of the Prosecutor to review applications and compile a shortlist of no more than six people for the ASP to consider.
Assisted by a panel of independent experts, the five-person committee includes one person from each of the United Nation’s five regional groups: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin American and the Caribbean and Western Europe and Others, which includes Australia and Canada.
The prosecutor’s job goes beyond trying cases. The Office of the Prosecutor, or OTP, identifies situations to be investigated and suspects to bring to trial, and obtains the evidence to be used against them. The next prosecutor will manage a team of some 350 people all while walking a political tightrope in an increasingly hostile landscape.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump announced sanctions against ICC personnel in retaliation for an investigation into war crimes committed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S., which is not a member of the court, revoked the current prosecutor’s visa to travel to the United States.
It isn’t just the U.S. that has problems with the court. The African Union backed a plan in 2017 for African countries to withdraw from the Rome Statute en mass, over complaints the court was only prosecuting African nationals. Burundi became the first country ever to do so later that year.
South Africa and the current prosecutor’s home nation of The Gambia did as well, but South Africa’s withdrawal was blocked by its constitutional court and The Gambia was readmitted after longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh was toppled. Last year, the Philippines became the second country to leave and not return, after the ICC opened an investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte’s role in extrajudicial killings in the country.