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Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

(The Hague) – The new prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should seize opportunities to strengthen the court’s delivery of justice for victims, Human Rights Watch said today. Karim Khan, the court’s third prosecutor, will be sworn in on June 16, 2021, beginning a nine-year term following his election by ICC member countries.

Khan, a UK national, was a legal adviser in the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He also served as defense counsel on various cases at the ICC, the Yugoslav tribunal, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He was most recently the head of the United Nations Security Council-mandated investigation of crimes committed by the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq. He succeeds Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian national, who had served as the court’s prosecutor since 2012.

“The outgoing ICC prosecutor’s decision to seek an Afghanistan investigation and to move forward with a Palestine probe, despite intense political pressure, reinforced the office’s independence,” said Liz Evenson, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Karim Khan should build on his predecessor’s efforts to ensure that those most responsible for grave crimes are held to account, regardless of their power or position.”

Bensouda’s term was marked by decisive efforts to expand the reach of the court around the globe to address serious international crimes. In addition to Afghanistan and Palestine, during her tenure the prosecutor’s office opened investigations in Bangladesh/Myanmar, Burundi, Georgia, and Mali, as well as a second investigation in the Central African Republic, and announced that the situations in Nigeria, Philippines, and Ukraine warrant full investigation. The prosecutor persevered in opening the situations in Afghanistan and Palestine in the face of a hostile campaign by the former US administration, including financial sanctions on the prosecutor and another senior court official, to thwart the court’s scrutiny of alleged abuses by US and Israeli nationals.

Human Rights Watch calls on the incoming prosecutor to safeguard the Office of the Prosecutor’s independence and impartiality, while also prioritizing increasing the resources necessary to robustly carry out the court’s mandate. The court’s 123 member countries fund its budget and have limited it to more or less zero growth since 2017, despite an expanded workload. This has hampered progress in investigations, and Bensouda cited the funding issue as one factor affecting her decision to delay seeking formal investigations in Ukraine and Nigeria.

Khan can also increase the court’s effectiveness by following through on an ongoing review of the court’s performance aimed at strengthening the ICC’s delivery of justice, Human Rights Watch said. Member countries, with the support of the court’s leadership, commissioned a review by a group of independent experts. This followed disappointing setbacks in several cases as well as other gaps in the court’s performance. The experts addressed a number of recommendations to the Office of the Prosecutor to bolster investigations and to ensure a more strategic assessment and conduct of its work in any given situation.

Human Rights Watch intends to publish shortly initial reflections on the experts’ recommendations regarding some key issues for the Office of the Prosecutor. The incoming prosecutor and his team are expected to assess these and other recommendations.

Khan will submit a list of candidates to ICC member countries for the election in December of the deputy prosecutor. The independent expert review reported on incidents of harassment and bullying at the court, particularly within the Office of the Prosecutor. Khan has stated his commitment to ensuring a safe workplace for all staff. He should ensure that member countries put in place a thorough process, following best practices, for vetting deputy prosecutor candidates, including for past allegations of workplace misconduct.

“Member countries need to change their approach to the ICC, or financial and political pressure could severely limit the court’s reach and cut off victims’ access to justice,” Evenson said. “Khan should urge member countries to scale-up the budget to meet the court’s pressing needs while providing a vision for the prosecutor’s office that ensures meaningful delivery on the court’s mandate in its various country situations.”

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