How Karim Khan took on the world to bring Israel to account

Grandson of a miner, the International Criminal Court prosecutor has sought an arrest warrant against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney at the UN in New York. Shutterstock

Nicky Harley

May 26, 2024

When International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan triggered a global political maelstrom last week with a bold call to indict Israeli and Hamas leaders, it came as no surprise to those who know him.

The British barrister became the first ICC prosecutor on Monday to go after a sitting, western-backed head of government, when he requested an arrest warrant against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the conflict in Gaza. At the same time, he looked for a charge sheet against Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.

His fearless move to take on Israel, which has whipped up a diplomatic quandary for some key member states and led US President Joe Biden to label the step “outrageous”, is just the latest challenge for the Yorkshireman.

Growing up in a former mining area in the northern English city of Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, it is hard to imagine that his man of the people personality would stay intact at a desk at The Hague, taking on world leaders.

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After all, this is the man who issued a warrant for Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s arrest last year, accusing him of bearing personal responsibility for the abduction of children from Ukraine.

British-based Ryan D’Souza, executive producer of the Nobody’s Listening project, which highlights crimes by ISIS against the Yazidi ethnic minority, worked closely with Mr Khan in Iraq. He told The National the ICC prosecutor has always been one to “rise above politics”.

“I witnessed first-hand the impact that Karim Khan had while he was investigating the Yazidi genocide,” said Mr D’Souza.

“The Yazidi community felt truly heard and understood by Karim. His survivor-centric approach to delivering justice distinguishes him as someone who rises above the politics.

“During his time in Iraq, it was clear that Karim Khan was destined to champion the cause of victims and survivors on a global stage.

“His unwavering commitment to fighting for justice and protecting human rights has made a profound difference in the lives of many Yazidis and Ukrainians that I have worked with.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the first sitting western-backed head of government to be pursued by the ICC. AFP

Before taking on one of the world’s toughest roles in June 2021, Mr Khan spent the past few years fighting for justice for the victims of ISIS.

Under his tenure as head of the UN’s ISIS war crimes unit, many Yazidis were finally able to bury their loved ones.

Initially Mr Khan was seen as an outsider for the nine-year ICC role.

Some may have thought the position was out of reach for the grandson of a Yorkshire miner.

But the barrister, who studied law at King’s College London, had spent years cutting his teeth as a top international defence lawyer and has been no stranger to taking on tough challenges.

High-profile clients included Saif Qaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and William Ruto, now president of Kenya.

It has been under the 54-year-old’s watch that the UN has been building war crime cases against more than 150 ISIS fighters.

Colombian Foreign Minister Luis Murillo and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan in Bogota in April. AFP

When it came to his nomination for the ICC role he went on to receive strong backing from Britain and others in Europe.

On his appointment, Mr Khan inherited a number of ongoing ICC investigations into hotspots such as the Palestinian territories, Myanmar and the Philippines, and one of his first moves was to “deprioritise” an investigation into abuse of prisoners by US forces in Afghanistan.

He then began an investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, sending investigators into the area.

His latest move to request arrest warrants for Mr Netanyahu – who called it a “moral outrage of historic proportions” – Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the conflict was backed by independent experts, including human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

“We unanimously agree that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the suspects he identifies have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the ICC,” the panel said.

If issued the warrants could limit any travel plans for them and all 124 member states would be required to act on the warrants.

Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr Khan’s move could be “damaging”.

Supporters of Karim Khan say he was ‘destined to champion the cause of victims and survivors on a global stage’. Getty Images / Reuters / The National

“It would be especially damaging if European countries fail to observe arrest warrants, as they have always been among the court’s most active supporters,” he said.

“It is vital for the credibility of European claims to support the rule of law that European officials do nothing to undermine or condemn the ICC’s actions, or suggest that democratic countries should be above the law.”

But Mr Khan is unfazed.

“We are not going to be swayed by the different types of threats, some of which are public and some of which may be not,” he told CNN.

“This is not a witch hunt. This is not some kind of emotional reaction to noise. It’s a forensic process that is expected of us as international prosecutors.”

When he took on the role, Mr Khan said he was “realistic” about the task ahead.

“It is important to be realistic about what the court can achieve,” he told the Opinio Juris legal blog.

“The worst scenario would be trying to do it all and ending up doing nothing.”

Back in his home city of Wakefield, where his parents worked at the local hospital as a consultant and midwife respectively, those who know him spoke of their pride at his actions.

“I’m not at all surprised, he was always a man of the people sticking up for their rights,” a family friend told The National.

“I’m proud of him for not being phased at the fallout. He is highly educated and a man of values. He’s a decent person, once he helped me deliver leaflets on a rough estate and another time he lent his brother his Bentley.

“You would not expect a man of his stature to walk around handing out leaflets but he did.”

Another said he would “expect no less” and described him as a “decent” guy.

Satellite imagery shows tents and shelters before the displacement of Gazans, in Rafah, southern Gaza. Planet Labs Inc via Reuters

“I don’t know what he could do next, but I don’t think he will stop at anything to ensure justice is done.”

Despite the political fallout and controversy now facing Mr Khan, he has stayed true to the vow he made when he was sworn in when he told the court the ICC should be “judged by its actions”.

As Mr Khan said back then: “The proof of the pudding should be in the eating.”

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