ICC lawyer’s dream of top UN torture job suffers major setback
Dreams of a celebrated British lawyer Karim Khan becoming the top United Nations official on torture ended abruptly this week when his name was omitted from the list of those proposed for election.
Mr Khan, who represented Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto and former civil service boss Francis Muthaura at the International Criminal Court, was last week ranked top on a list of three candidates shortlisted to become UN Special Rapporteur for Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment. He was, however, the only candidate out of the five who topped the lists of nominees for UN special rapporteurs not selected to go forward for appointment at the 33rd Human Rights Council between September 13 and 30 week.
Other UN Special Rapporteurs being appointed will cover the human rights of internally displaced persons; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, member from Eastern Europe; independent exert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mr Choi Kyomling, the President of the Human Rights Council, announced that he was replacing Mr Khan’s name with the second best candidate – a Swiss — on the same day that 30 civil society organisations from Latin America and East Africa send the UN a strong petition seeking to block his appointment.
“I would like to hope that our concerns have been vindicated,” said Mr George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, one of the 30 organisations that signed the petition. “This is a small but important victory for us.”
The initial application deadline for the torture mandate was extended after a limited number of candidates. Eventually, the position attracted 14 candidates, whom members the consultative group that selects nominees interviewed and ranked on the basis of stated qualifications, relevant experience, expertise, independence, impartiality, personal integrity, objectivity, availability and compliance with relevant provisions of Human Rights Council resolution.
The petition by the 30 civil society organisations said that although Mr Khan’s representation of his Kenyan clients should not have personal consequences for his independent professional role, it notes
“As defence counsel in the case, Mr Khan’s actions in relation to a specific witness, Meshack Yebei, who disappeared from his hometown on December 14, 2014 before his body was found at another location several hundred miles away, are of interest. When the body of a person mistakenly thought to have been Yebei was discovered, Mr Khan wrote a letter to Kenyan authorities claiming that Yebei had been a defence witness in his case and demanding an investigation to determine if the body discovered belonged to Yebei.
“When, thereafter, the body of Yebei was discovered, something that caused significant political embarrassment in Kenya, Mr Khan showed no interest in the discovery and appears to have dropped his demand for an investigation. They add that the lawyer’s behaviour would be of interest in an independent inquiry into the disappearance and killing of Yebei,” the petition added.
The 30 organisations claimed that given Mr Khan’s role in the Kenya cases, he would struggle to attract the support and confidence of civil society, without which it would be difficult to discharge his mandate.
The Special Rapporteur examines questions related to torture, relying on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment for guidance. He conducts fact-finding country visits, communicates with States regarding allegations of torture, and submits annual reports on his or her activities to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. The mandate lasts for three years.
Special Rapporteurs are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organisation. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.
Past UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture
Juan Méndez, an Argentinian has been the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture for the past six years. His first appointment by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment was in 2010 and his term was extended in 2014.
Mendez has a long history of involvement with human rights work. He is a professor of Human Rights Law in residence at the American University – Washington College of Law and the author (with Marjory Wentworth) of Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.
He was Special Advisor to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. He was also Co-Chair of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute from 2010-2011
Until May 2009, he was the President of the International Center for Transnational Justice (ICTJ) and in the summer of 2009 he was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Ford Foundation in New York. Concurrent with his duties at ICTJ, then Un Secretary General Kofi Annan named Mr Méndez his Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, a task he performed from 2004 to 2007.
A native of Argentina, Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defence of human rights and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. As a result of his involvement in representing political prisoners, the Argentinean military dictatorship arrested him and subjected him to torture and administrative detention for more than a year. During this time, Amnesty International adopted him as a “Prisoner of Conscience.” After his expulsion from his country in 1977, Méndez moved to the United States.
For 15 years, he worked with Human Rights Watch, concentrating his efforts on human rights issues in the western hemisphere. In 1994, he became general counsel of Human Rights Watch, with worldwide duties in support of the organisation’s mission, including responsibility for litigation and standard-setting activities.
2. Manfred Nowak, (Austria), 2004 – 2010
He is Scientific Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, and a former judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was one of the five authors of a United Nations report on the detention of captives at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Nowak has been quoted in the past saying that he believes United States had a clear obligation to bring proceedings against President George W. Bush and former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, because of torture inflicted on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. Nowak said, “We have seen the documents that show that these interrogation methods were expressly ordered by Rumsfeld, but of course with the knowledge of the highest levels in the United States.
Theo van Boven, (Netherlands), 2001 – 2004
He is a Dutch jurist and professor emeritus in international law. In 1977, he was appointed director of the United Nations‘ Division for Human Rights. From 1986 to 1991, he was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Reparation to Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights and, from 2001 to 2004, Special Rapporteur on Torture. He is also a member of the International Commission of Jurists. From February 1994 to December 1994, he was the first registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. On December 16, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution 60/147, titled ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law’. These principles are largely inspired from the work of Van Boven and Cherif Bassiouni and are known as the Van Boven/Bassiouni Principles.
Sir Nigel Rodley (United Kingdom), 1993-2001
Professor of Law and Chair of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex; member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Nigel Rodley obtained an LLB from the University of Leeds (1963), an LLM from Columbia University, New York (1965), an LLM from New York University (1970) and a PhD from the University of Essex (1993). His first academic post was as Assistant Professor of Law at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (1965-68). In 1968-69 he served as an Associate Economic Affairs Officer at United Nations headquarters in New York, working on legal and institutional aspects of international economic co-operation. In 1969-70 he was Visiting Lecturer in Political Science at the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research (New York) and in 1970-72 was also a Research Fellow at the New York University Centre for International Studies.
Returning to the United Kingdom in 1973, he became the first Legal Adviser of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, a position he held until 1990; during the same period he taught Public International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science (part time). In 1990 he was appointed Reader in Law at the University of Essex, becoming Professor of Law in 1994. He was Dean of the School of Law 1992-95 and has been Chair of the Human Rights Centre since 2004.
In March 1993 he was designated Special Rapporteur on Torture by the UN Commission on Human Rights, serving in this capacity until 2001. Since 2001 he has been a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, a position to which he has been re-elected three times by the States Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (as the UK’s nominated candidate); he was elected Chairperson for the 2013-2014 biennium. He was elected a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists in 2003 and then President in 2012, and is a member of Council of its British Branch, JUSTICE. He is a Trustee of Freedom from Torture – the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.
Sr Peter Kooijmans (Netherlands), 1985-1993
He was a Dutch jurist, politician and diplomat before his death in 2013. He was a member of the Anti-Revolutionary Party and later a member of its successor party the Christian Democratic Appeal. He was State Secretary and later Minister of Foreign Affairs (1973–1977 and 1993–1994). In between these periods of office he worked for the UN as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture,(1985–1993). He served as a judge on the International Court of Justice (1997–2006).
He joined the Dutch Foreign Ministry, as State Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 1973 to 1977. In 1976 and again in 1991, he served as a Lecturer at The Hague Academy of International Law. From 1978 to 1992, he served as a Professor of Public International Law at the University of Leiden. From 1993 to 1994, he served as Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, succeeding Hans van den Broek. In 1995, he returned to his former position as Professor of Public International Law at the University of Leiden, serving until his