Editor’s Note: This month, Gambia-born lawyer Fatou Bensouda assumed the high profile position of chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. This profile provides some details her background, both professionally and personally. It is part of the series Enough 101.
On June 15, 2012, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, swore in its second chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. Bensouda replaced Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court's chief prosecutor since its 2002 launch. She is the first African and first woman to hold the position.
The ICC is the world’s first permanent international tribunal, trying cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Bensouda, who had served for eight years as the deputy chief prosecutor, was an obvious choice as Ocampo’s successor. Per the Rome Statute, which established the court in 1998, Bensouda was elected by the ICC’s 121 member states.
Bensouda will carry on her predecessor’s legacy of drawing attention to the work of the ICC and making the court relevant and effective. She inherits 14 pending cases and 11 outstanding arrest warrants. Despite this daunting load, her swearing in prompted strong expressions of optimism for her nine-year term.
Bensouda was born to a polygamous Muslim family in 1961 in the African Republic of the Gambia. She went to college and passed the bar in Nigeria before returning to her home country in 1987 to work as a prosecuting attorney. She holds a masters degree in International Maritime Law and Law of The Sea, making her Gambia’s first international maritime law expert.
In May 2002 Bensouda began working as a trial lawyer and later legal advisor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. In 2004 she was elected by the Assembly of States Parties to the position of deputy prosecutor.
As deputy prosecutor, Bensouda oversaw the ICC’s first successful prosecution of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga in March 2011.
Bensouda is the mother of two sons and one adopted daughter.
The Road Ahead
Expectations are high as an African woman takes office. African countries make up the largest block of the ICC’s founding states, and all of the court’s pending cases are on the continent.
In the past the ICC has been challenged by some African countries refusing to cooperate with the court in arresting and surrendering suspects.
Bensouda has made a point of working to repair the relationship between the African Union and the ICC, but she also stressed the importance of evenhandedness:
I am an African and I am very proud of that … But I think it is not because I am an African that I was chosen for this position. I think my track record speaks for myself … I have been endorsed by the African Union, but I am a prosecutor for 121 states parties and this is what I intend to be until the end of my mandate.
In a 2009 interview with the Enough Project, Bensouda also confronted the criticism that the ICC is disproportionately focused on Africa:
I am really dismayed when it is said that the ICC is targeting Africans. The ICC is not targeting Africans in fact. The ICC is working with Africa, and the ICC is trying to protect African victims. (…) Africans say that we are tired of the double standards, which I believe. And this is why I think the court is the solution, because of its impartiality, because of its independence, and because of the legitimacy of its interventions.
Prosecutor Bensouda will tackle the task of arresting and bringing to justice two of the world’s most notorious war criminals: Joseph Kony and Omar al-Bashir. She has also committed to give increased attention to gender crimes and crimes against children. She described this particular focus in her first remarks as chief prosecutor:
[W]e should not be guided by the words and propaganda of a few influential individuals whose sole aim is to evade justice but – rather – we should focus on, and listen to the millions of victims who continue to suffer from massive crimes. The return on our investment for what others may today consider to be a huge cost for justice is effective deterrence and saving millions of victims’ lives.
Learn more in Enough 101: “The International Criminal Court and the Crimes it Tries.”