Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands.  © 2019 Peter Dejong/AP

This week, International Criminal Court (ICC) member countries will hold hearings with four candidates shortlisted for the court’s next prosecutor. Countries are due to elect the prosecutor in December, filling the most critical top job at the court.

There are fewer more important decisions for member countries. The prosecutor, serving for a nine-year term, drives the work of the ICC through decisions about what cases to bring and how. The next prosecutor will need to continue efforts to improve the court’s performance and forcefully confront politicized opposition.

This is the third election for the top ICC prosecutor, and these hearings are unprecedented. During two sessions, candidates will answer questions posed by member countries and civil society groups. Candidates will not receive questions in advance, and written questions may be submitted during the sessions. While not without its limits, this unique arrangement offers a first public chance to assess the candidates side-by-side, and hear directly from them about their experience and vision.

The hearings come as member countries, with the shortlist in hand, begin consultations to identify, by consensus, a top choice. The shortlist of candidates was prepared by a committee set up by the leadership body of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties. The committee’s methodology, and the fact that it was assisted by a panel of independent experts, represent an important innovation. The committee, as detailed in their final report, assessed applications, established and interviewed a longlist of candidates, and asked a specialized ICC section to independently vet all longlisted candidates.

In spite of efforts to work transparently, the candidate shortlist sparked questions and a reported call to set it aside. We understand that some member countries wanted a longer shortlist, and others wanted to see greater representation of different legal or other expertise.

Human Rights Watch, along with 29 other nongovernmental organizations, are urging member countries to remain genuinely engaged with the process, including by avoiding nominating candidates beyond those shortlisted. While the process can no doubt be improved – and the committee has offered to do a lessons-learned report – it represents a further advance in the Assembly of States Parties’ approach and a possible antidote to the political trading that could dominate the choice for this job. Such deal-making is out of step with the nature of the court as an independent, judicial institution. Nominations, although permitted, could upend efforts to ensure merit, not politics, guides the decision.

We and many others will be watching the hearings closely, as an essential step toward ensuring the court’s next prosecutor is fully up to the task.