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The African trajectory of Karim Khan, the ICC’s new chief prosecutor

By Marième Soumaré
Posted on Thursday, 3 June 2021 19:46

Karim Khan at a press conference on the confirmation of Darfur rebel Bahr Idriss Abu Garda’s charges hearing at the ICC in The Hague. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Britain’s Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court’s new chief prosecutor, will take office on 16 June. While he is well-known and liked on the continent, he does have some detractors.

For a year, Karim Khan travelled around Iraq, gathering evidence and testimonies that could one day be used against leaders of the Islamic State (IS) group. Last March, as Pope Francis was preparing to walk through the ruins of Mosul, that IS had once claimed as its stronghold, the British lawyer of Pakistani origin, who was a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, announced the launch of an interfaith dialogue across the country.

However, he did not end up participating in it. At the beginning of May, after submitting his last report to Guterres, Khan left his ultra-secure residence in Baghdad. He was heading for The Hague, where he will be sworn in on 16 June as the new chief prosecutor of the ICC.

‘Africa’s candidate’

He was elected last February, after many months of negotiations and discreet lobbying between The Hague and New York. Although he was initially excluded from the selection process, the specialist in international criminal law won 72 votes out of 123 in the second round, thus proving that he was not as popular as his predecessors: Luis Moreno Ocampo and Fatou Bensouda. However, he was able to count on support from Africa, which makes up the ICC’s largest regional group of state parties.

Majority of the 33 countries on the continent that ratified the Rome Statute – the treaty that established the ICC – supported the British candidate. Furthermore, it was Senegal’s Adama Dieng (UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and a citizen of the very first country to join the court) who convinced him to run for the position. Dieng also wrote Khan a letter of recommendation, which he submitted to the court, coached and supported him during his campaign.

He’s not afraid to displease in order to do that. He’s not afraid to make enemies.”

When Khan’s candidacy was eliminated from the selection process, several countries on the continent (including Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Kenya) called for the shortlist to be expanded. Eventually, Khan was shortlisted as a consensus candidate by the African Group. Only Mauritius, which was engaged in a dispute with the UK over the Chagos Archipelago at the time, opposed his candidacy.