Member states of the International Criminal Court are set to begin voting to select a new prosecutor for a nine-year term after failing to find a consensus candidate.
A secret ballot will be held on Friday to pick one of four candidates remaining out of an initial field of 14 to replace lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who is under United States sanctions and is scheduled to leave on June 15.
Intense political jostling for the top job came amid heightened scrutiny of the prosecutor’s office. Four candidates from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy and Spain are vying to replace Bensouda.
The ICC member states have failed to reach a consensus despite several attempts in recent weeks, and will now vote on the new prosecutor at the United Nations in New York.
Former US President Donald Trump’s administration imposed sanctions last year on court staff including Bensouda over investigations by her office into possible war crimes committed in Afghanistan, including by American troops. The United States is not a member of the court.
Last week the court said it has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, which could lead to an inquiry strongly opposed by non-ICC member Israel and the US.
One of the first decisions by a new prosecutor could be whether to press ahead with a full investigation into the Palestinian territories, where Bensouda said there is a reasonable basis to conclude war crimes may have been committed by both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups.
Among the four candidates to replace Bensouda, British lawyer and human rights specialist Karim Khan has been a defence lawyer in several ICC cases, including for late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam.
Khan recently headed a UN special probe into the ISIL (ISIS) group’s crimes and called for trials like those of Nuremberg of Nazi leaders.
Ireland’s Fergal Gaynor has previously represented victims of crimes at the ICC in probes including the Afghan war investigation and a case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Spain’s Carlos Castresana, a judge by training, previously headed a UN panel combating crime and corruption in Guatemala but resigned in 2010 alleging “systemic attacks” by power-hungry officials.
Sicilian prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi meanwhile, has led cases against Italy’s Mafia and a major people-smuggling network.
A candidate must gain at least 62 out of 123 voting countries to win. The election process has been the focus of lobbying by states and non-governmental organisations and additional rounds of voting may be required.
A first round is expected on Friday when a session of the court’s governing body, the Assembly of States Parties, resumes in New York at 10am local time(15:00 GMT).
Bensouda has had a mixed record even as she expanded – some analysts say overextended – the court’s reach.
Under her leadership, former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was cleared of crimes against humanity, while former Democratic Republic of the Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal.
Kenya’s Kenyatta also saw charges of crimes against humanity over electoral bloodshed dropped by Bensouda.
But she has recently secured high-profile convictions against Ugandan child soldier-turned-Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen and Congolese strongman Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda.
She has also been credited with improving the prosecutor’s office compared with her predecessor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, whose leadership was described as “autocratic” in a probe ordered by the ICC into the Kenyatta case.
The ICC is the world’s single permanent war crimes court, after years when the only route to justice for atrocities in countries like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia was separate tribunals.
Hamstrung from the start by the refusal of the United States, Russia and China to join, the court has since faced criticism for having mainly taken on cases from poorer African nations.