The International Prosecutor: Reconsidering an Almighty Saviour? on International Criminal Law's Obsession with Individuals

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International institutions, like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (icc), promote peace, democracy and justice. However, these intergovernmental institutions are typically governed through vertical structures and strict hierarchies, with little to no room for popular control and democratic participation of the wider society. The internal structures of these institutions are also revealing: individual high officials, from Secretary-Generals to Chief Prosecutors, play a crucial role, and great importance is attached to their personality and individual leadership skills. This article takes the recent and highly contested election process of the third icc Prosecutor, Karim Khan, who was appointed for a period of nine years in 2021, as a case study to reconsider the well-known yet enduring problem of the democratic deficit of international institutions and their at times undemocratic, or even authoritarian-like, decision-making processes. It starts by demonstrating the great attention given to the Prosecutor as an individual, both in the statute of the icc and in legal-political discourses more generally. This will lay the groundwork to develop the argument that this strong focus on certain individuals is highly problematic and does not contribute to increasing the legitimacy of the Court, whatever the reputation, skills and actual conduct of the official in question. As it will be argued, this disconnect can explain some of the deep-seated challenges and criticisms that the icc, and in particular its Prosecutors, have encountered since its establishment in 2002. Finally, the article seeks inspiration from democracy theory, in particular relevant research that has engaged with international institutions, to suggest that the Office of the Prosecutor could be directed not by an almighty chief, but rather by a panel of prosecutors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)108-122
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Criminal Law Review
Issue number1
Early online date2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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