British barrister Karim Khan took over as the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor on Wednesday with a pledge to improve its track record by taking only its strongest cases to trial.
Khan, who is only the third person to hold the role, faces many challenges at a time of fierce political pressure on the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal.
He takes over from Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, whose nine-year term ended Tuesday.
The ICC is handling a number of sensitive cases, including in the occupied Palestinian territory and Afghanistan, and members of the prosecutor’s office were personally targeted by US sanctions while Donald Trump was president.
Under Trump, Washington opposed decisions by Khan’s predecessor, Fatou Bensouda, to examine war crimes allegations in Afghanistan, including against US troops, and alleged atrocities in the occupied Palestinian territories by Israeli troops, Palestinians and other armed groups.
The sanctions have been dropped, but US and Israeli opposition to the court remains.
‘Building stronger cases’
Khan, 51, took an oath to serve his nine-year term honourably and impartially during a ceremony in The Hague. He said one of his main tasks would be improving the performance of the prosecutor’s office.
ICC chief judge Piotr Hofmanski said during the swearing-in ceremony that being prosecutor was a “tough job” but hailed Khan’s “outstanding credentials”.
Khan also pledged to reach out to nations that are not members of the court and to try to hold trials in countries where crimes are committed. World powers the United States, Russia and China are not members and do not recognise the court’s jurisdiction.
“The priority for me, and I believe that’s the principle of the Rome Statute, is not to focus so much on where trials take place, but to ensure that the quest for accountability and inroads on impunity are made,” Khan said, referring to the treaty that founded the court, in his first speech after taking his oath of office.
“The Hague itself should be a city of last resort,” he said. “Wherever possible, we should be trying to have trials in the country or in the region.”
Since opening in 2002, the ICC has convicted five men for war crimes and crimes against humanity, all African militia leaders from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali and Uganda. Sentences ranged from nine to 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors dropped or lost at least three major cases, or failed to gather enough evidence in others to proceed to trial.
“Opening preliminary examinations, requesting authorisation or commencing investigations is a start, but as we say in English the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have to perform in trial,” Khan said.
“We cannot invest so much, we cannot raise expectations so high and achieve so little, so often in the courtroom,” he said.
“We need a greater realisation of what is required… Building stronger cases and getting better cases in the courtroom.”
Already short of resources, the ICC is dealing with 14 full-blown investigations and eight preliminary examinations. Khan also inherits investigations opened in countries including Myanmar, the Philippines and Ukraine.
Most recently, Khan led a United Nations team investigating atrocities in Iraq, telling the Security Council last month that he uncovered “clear and compelling evidence” that members of ISIL (ISIS) committed genocide against the Yazidi minority in 2014.
The ICC was set up nearly 20 years ago as a full-time successor to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals and several separate international tribunals into situations such as the former Yugoslavia.
But it has long faced criticism on a number of fronts, ranging from alleged bias, its initial focus on cases involving Africa, the large pay packets for judges and the length of time taken to bring suspects to justice.
“The ICC is in a crucial phase, it has faced criticism for not being as effective as states have wished,” Carsten Stahn, international criminal law professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told the AFP news agency.
Bensouda had a number of setbacks, with former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo being cleared of crimes against humanity, while former DRC vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had charges against him dropped.
But she recently secured high-profile convictions against Ugandan child soldier-turned-Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen and Congolese strongman Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda.
In her farewell statement, Bensouda said that she had “made my decisions, with careful deliberation – but without fear or favour. Even in the face of adversity. Even at considerable personal cost”.