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Will a British ICC Chief Prosecutor be Brave Enough to Investigate UK & its Allies?

The writer is Secretary General of Amnesty International

Karim Asad Ahmad Khan was elected on 12 February 2021 as the new chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). On 16 June, he formally took office during a ceremony held at the Seat of the Court in The Hague, The Netherlands. A national of the United Kingdom, he is expected to serve a nine-year term in office. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

LONDON, Jun 17 2021 (IPS) - As British barrister Karim Khan QC begins his term as ICC chief prosecutor, his first steps should be to proceed with investigations into alleged war crimes involving UK allies in Afghanistan and Palestine.

Last month, following months of heightened violations of the human rights of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups into Israel, Israeli forces carried out airstrikes targeting residential buildings in Gaza, killing entire families.

The attacks by Israel and Palestinian armed groups may well amount to war crimes under the Rome Statute.

Tragically, and to the shame of the international community, this pattern of likely war crimes is nothing new. But where previously the international community had ignored the evidence of its own eyes, this time the incoming prosecutor of the International Criminal Court will presumably have been watching events unfold with a view to gathering evidence and bringing perpetrators to account.

Following the Israel-Gaza ceasefire, Dominic Raab spoke of the need to “break the cycle of violence that has claimed so many lives”. But how? Surely, it can only come through proper accountability. That’s why the ICC’s investigation in Palestine, opened in March, is so important, especially to long-suffering victims.

Israeli air strikes destroyed buildings and infrastructure in Gaza. Credit: UNOCHA/Samar Elouf

After decades of injustice, this investigation offers the first genuine prospect for justice for victims in Palestine and Israel. Break the cycle of impunity and you have hope for the future.

It’s tremendously worrying, then, that Boris Johnson has voiced his opposition to the ICC’s Palestine investigation, calling it “a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s”.

And unfortunately, the UK’s opposition isn’t unique. Other supposed supporters of a “universal ICC” are unwilling to extend this universality to Palestine. Of course, under Donald Trump, the USA went further, imposing sanctions on then ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and members of her prosecuting office.

Though President Biden has lifted sanctions, the US remains opposed to any investigation in Palestine or into any alleged crimes by US nationals around the world.

The prime minister said he hopes Khan would work for “reform” at the ICC. This is reasonable.

The ICC has not – yet – lived up to the expectations of the victims of some of the world’s worst atrocities. The prosecutor’s office in particular has faced numerous valid criticisms, especially related to the length of its investigations and the relatively few results it has to show for nearly 20 years’ work.

Amnesty, which played a crucial role in the development of the court, continues to press for reforms that serve the interests of justice and victims. Greater speed is one.

However, reforming the ICC should not mean that allies of powerful countries are given a free pass.

Khan will need to demonstrate he’s not afraid to pursue justice close to home. The UK itself has a poor record in bringing its forces to justice for crimes under international law.

There have been glaring failures to ensure effective investigations – let alone secure prosecutions – into alleged crimes committed in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. In December, the ICC decided not to investigate war crimes committed by the UK military in Iraq.

Even though there has only been one prosecution out of the large number of alleged war crimes committed by UK forces in Iraq, the chief prosecutor was willing to accept the UK had not been “inactive”.

Despite clear examples of unwarranted delay and obstructive behaviour from the UK authorities, the ICC prosecutor said she could not substantiate allegations that the UK’s investigative and prosecutorial bodies had engaged in “shielding” perpetrators from justice. This raises clear concerns over the court’s willingness to take on powerful states.

The investigation in Palestine represents perhaps the first big test for Khan. The chief prosecutor needs to demonstrate his steadfast commitment to impartiality by pressing ahead with it, possibly in the teeth of opposition from Israeli allies like the UK and USA.
Karim Khan will need to be unphased by any attempts to strong-arm him.

The personal and professional consequences of pursuing investigations into powerful states, including the UK’s allies, may be heavy. It will require courage. Victims who are placing their hopes in the new ICC prosecutor will demand nothing less.


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