Beyond the Class: Reflections on ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s 2023 Elie Wiesel Distinguished Lectureship in Human Rights

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Human rights
International humanitarian law

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

Common Law students/alum, Alexandra Cunningham, Loujain El Sahli, and Sanjida Rashid
Alexandra Cunningham (4th year Hons Conflict Studies and Human Rights, uOttawa), Loujain El Sahli (JD’23, uOttawa, and MA’23, NPSIA CarletonU), and Sanjida Rashid (2nd year JD, uOttawa)
The following story was written by three students/alum, Alexandra Cunningham, Loujain El Sahli, and Sanjida Rashid as part of the series BEYOND THE CLASS. The series shares first-hand accounts of experiential learning opportunities and op-eds written by our students.
Poster promoting the 2023 Elie Wiesel Distinguished Lectureship in Human Rights, with photo inset of Karm A.A.Khan, Chief Prosecutor of the INternational Criminal Court

The Honourable Karim A. A. Khan KC, Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), delivered the 2023 Elie Wiesel Distinguished Lectureship in Human Rights co-hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and co-sponsored by uOttawa’s Faculty of Law, the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue, along with The Advocates’ Society and Gowling WLG. The event was held at the National Gallery of Canada on the evening of May 4th preceded by a reception for V.I.P. attendees and a public reception afterwards.

The lecture started with an indigenous affirmation by Sophie Thériault, Professor and Vice Dean at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law (Civil Law Section), in order to acknowledge and reflect upon the unceded Algonquin territory upon which the lecture was able to take place. Then, the Honourable Justice Rosalie Abella, formerly of the Supreme Court of Canada (2004-2021), gave a special video message introducing former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Professor Irwin Cotler and commending him, Elie Wiesel, and Raoul Wallenberg for their work in marrying justice and law.

Photo of Karim A.A.Khan, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, taken during the lecture
Photo by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

With powerful States refusing to ratify the Rome Statute, resisting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and even challenging the Court’s utility in achieving any form of global justice, and the recent ICC arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, it is interesting that Prosecutor Khan chose to focus his lecture on the universality of the quest for justice and the malleability of justice instead of promoting the work of the ICC.

The overall tone of the lecture was one of humility; he spoke very highly of his co-presenters, especially of the great Elie Wiesel in whose honour this lecture was being given, and he did not speak of the celebratory contributions of the ICC, opting rather to acknowledge the credibility gap that the Court and International Law face. In the prologue of his remarks, the Prosecutor caveated that he is not in the “export business,” as a nod to the general perception that the Prosecutor’s role is to advertise and advocate for the ICC’s supremacy in delivering accountability and justice for the victims of crimes. Prosecutor Khan stressed the importance of collaborating with local communities in their respective languages and sources of morality, rather than using distant and hollow platitudes about rights and justice. So it was not surprising that the speech was not an advertisement of the ICC’s positive contributions, but a surrendering acknowledgement that any justice must be locally-driven.

The particular emphasis on understanding and achieving justice outside of and beyond the ICC may also be understood as an attempt by the Prosecutor to configure his speech to fit with the broader theme associated with the Elie Wiesel Lectureship in Human Rights in the quest for justice. Yet the lecture also illustrated the relatively new Prosecutor’s vision of both his role and the role of the ICC in achieving justice around the world. The overall message of the lecture was one of hope, balancing both the failures of the past with the opportunities of the future, and encouraged the listener to continue to insist on the creation of basic norms and fight against apathy.

Photo of Karim A.A.Khan, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, taken during the lecture
Photo by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Throughout his lecture, Prosecutor Khan cited from a wide range of religious texts, particularly the Quran, as justification of the existence and persistence of human rights. This choice is understandable due to the theme of the Elie Wiesel Lectureship in Human Rights. Elie Wiesel was, amongst many things, a holocaust survivor. A practicing Muslim himself, Prosecutor Khan’s choice to cite the Quran could be interpreted as a choice to de-stigmatize Islam – an effective move given that Islam, a religion of peace, has been so often misinterpreted and faces much criticism, which has resulted in rights violations by many Muslims. However, this choice to cite religious texts to justify the existence of international human rights left one wanting something more; for the justification of human rights on the basis solely because they are important and that all humans are entitled to them irrespective religious beliefs or tenets. Moreover, the citations in question pertained to only Abrahamic religions. It is important to recognize that a religious justification for human rights might not have resonated as loudly with attendees who did not subscribe to an Abrahamic religion or to any religion at all. As such, even though the religious justification has value, one would have appreciated a broader range of justification that was inclusive while being substantive.

The lecture closed with a brief Question and Answer period, with a particularly interesting question being “How do we move forward?” Indeed, given all of the faults of the international justice system and the past failures we have seen, how do we move forward as an international community to strengthen our institutions and deliver justice in concrete and meaningful ways? Ever optimistic and practical, the Prosecutor spoke both about the importance of connecting the law to individuals through the creation of common grounds and the need for increased funding for the ICC. While the ICC’s funding is “peanuts” in comparison with other organizations, the Prosecutor rightly acknowledged they need to show that it is money effectively spent.

Prosecutor Khan concluded by remarking that International Criminal Law is just a sapling right now, not yet the mighty tree we want it to be. However, if we become discouraged and stop nurturing it, it will never have a chance to grow. We must continue to hold the young institutions accountable when they stumble and strive to do better at every turn. Overall, the lecture was a good mix of optimism and realism, with an overarching theme of hope for the ICC’s future and the future of International Law.