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British barrister Karim Khan elected next International Criminal Court prosecutor

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The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Peter Dejong
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Member states of the International Criminal Court elected British barrister Karim Khan the next prosecutor of the war crimes tribunal on Friday, ending a drawn-out and divisive process to replace Fatou Bensouda when her 9-year term expires later this year.

Khan, an assistant U.N. secretary-general, was widely seen as the favorite to get the job. But neither Khan nor any of the other candidates garnered enough support to be appointed by consensus, prompting Friday’s election in the U.N. General Assembly Hall.

Khan won on the second ballot of the 123 parties to the Rome Statute that established the tribunal. He received 72 votes, ahead of Fergal Gaynor of Ireland with 42 votes, Spain’s Carlos Castresana Fernandez with 5 votes and Francesco Lo Voi of Italy with 3 votes. One member did not vote.

When Michal Mlynár , vice-president of the Assembly of State Parties, a smattering of applause broke out in the hall, where masked diplomats had voted one by one, putting ballots into spaced out boxes because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Khan has been leading an investigative team set up to investigate allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Islamic State group in Iraq. ‘

He is no stranger to the ICC, having acted as a defense lawyer for Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and persuading judges to throw out prosecution charges against his client. Gaynor acted as a legal representative for victims in the Ruto case, which focused on post-election violence.

The ICC prosecutor holds a position that is one of the toughest in international law due to the court's mandate to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The Trump administration slapped sanctions on Bensouda and one of her top aides last year for continuing to investigate war crimes allegations against Americans, although the court was often criticized in the past for its focus on African crimes.

Last week, ICC judges angered Israel by saying the court’s jurisdiction extends to territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, potentially clearing the way for the prosecutor to open an investigation into Israeli military actions and the country’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision a “perversion of justice.”

The selection process and the alleged failure by the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties to conduct stringent background checks on the candidates has drawn criticism from civil society groups that work with the court.

“Although ICC member countries took a number of innovative steps to guide this election process, they did not put in place steps to professionally vet candidates as part of an assessment of ‘high moral character,’ a key requirement under the ICC treaty for the prosecutor,” Liz Evenson, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said.

A diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of closed meetings said the fact that many of the meetings to discuss possible successors to Bensouda took place virtually made it difficult for member nations to discuss concerns during informal “corridor” meetings.