War crimes is a bloody but powerfully significant part of the legal landscape given the unprovoked and invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but for law star Karim Khan QC, the fight also involves some of the most significant issues to arise in the past half century and elevates his importance as the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
A barrister at Temple Garden Chambers, Karim Khan has a long history of legal work in the public international law arena, focused on human rights, media and commercial law areas. However it is his work as a war crimes investigator that has provided his added profile given the conflict in Ukraine.
Described as a “clever master strategist” he has already handled major claims in international courts, including prosecuting for the International Criminal Court and now handling war crime cases emerging from the Ukraine invasion by Russia.
Described as “frighteningly clever master strategist,” who has represented clients in international courts across the world, Khan has vast experience of handling complex matters such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and contempt of court disputes.
One commentator noted: “His ability to address and sum up the most complicated legal analysis in concise yet powerful words has become legendary.”
Karim specialises in all areas of public international law, international criminal and human rights law, sports law, international arbitration, extradition, media law and major commercial fraud cases. He acts for both states and individuals and victim groups.
Obtained his law degree and Associateship of Kings College from Kings College and later started but did not complete a D.Phil degree from Oxford University.
Worked as a Crown Prosecutor for the UK Crown Prosecution Service between 1993-1996. From 1997 he worked as a Legal Officer at the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and later served as Legal Adviser at the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) until 2000.
He subsequently went on to handle defence and prosecution matters in a range of different cases at the International Criminal Court and in various jurisdictions, establishing his reputation as a leading human rights and in Febuary 2021 he was elected as chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, the third such elected chief prosecutor at the Court in its history.
Appointed Queens Counsel in 2011. Served as President of the International Criminal Court Bar Association.
Karim Khan Career Milestones
The ability of Karim Khan to play such a leading role in so many headline-making human rights and war crimes issues is highly notable. From his defence of Liberian president Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone in 2006-2007, he went on to handle major cases before the International Criminal Court in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Cameroon, Greece and Lebanon.
One of the key issues that brought Khan into the international law arena was the events in the Balkans War, according to an interview he gave with Counsel Magazine.
Seeing the horrors of the Balkans war on television made helped motivate him to work at the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia, which he did.
Personal Motivation For His Human Rights Work
But there is a personal motivation for Khan’s human rights work also. During his time at Kings College he handled voluntary work with the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, of which he is a member. The Ahmadiyya community is a persecuted sect of Islam, which moved its headquarters to the UK in the 1980s after the Pakistani government passed a law forbidding Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims and curbing their religious practices. Khan said his experience with them “helped me gravitate to this area”.
He has handled cases for such people as former journalist Florence Hartman on contempt issues and acting for former Sudanese rebel leader Bahr Idriss Abu Garda and as Lead Counsel for Deputy President of Kenya William Ruto before the ICC. The charges against Ruto were for crimes against humanity following post-election violence in 2007 that led to 1,200 people being killed and the charges were subsequently dropped by the ICC.
Further developments in Khan’s career occurred in 2018 when the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, appointed Karim as the First Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Team investigating international crimes committed by ISIL / Da’esh i (UNITAD), which was established by way of unanimous Security Council Resolution 2379 (2017). See https://www.unitad.un.org
This work saw him based in Baghdad, Iraq working as Special Adviser and Head of the Investigative Team for UNITAD, and leading the team in the collection, storage, and preservation of evidence related to crimes committed by ISIL.
Khan is Muslim and is brother to former Conservative MP Imran Khan.
Karim Khan’s Ukraine War Crimes Brief
The case against Vladimir Putin and other Russian aggressors involved in the Ukraine invasion is a tough one, but Khan has been heavily involved in such cases before, notwithstanding the substantial doubts over whether Putin and others will ever face the legal music in the ICC.
The Guardian reported comments by professor Philippe Sands QC, who has known Khan since teaching him at King’s College London, said Khan had a tough job, but added: “All the signs are that he will have the capacity to be an independent, fearless and pragmatic prosecutor.
He faced criticism from some quarters for his election as Chief Prosecutor, given his defence of Charles Taylor and others, however his experience and knowledge of defence issues and tactics can serve the Court well.
“He’s had an extremely impressive career as an advocate,” said Sands. “He’s got huge experience and brings to that job real knowledge and experience of what it means to prepare, conduct and litigate an international criminal trial.”
The path ahead for Khan so far as the Russian cases is concerned is high. He may go for the low-hanging fruit or for the high level perpetuators of war crimes against Ukraine and its people. The ICC needs a stronger track record of success for its prosecutions and it may be that Karim Khan is the man to deliver that.