PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Prosecutor, ICC (The Gambia)
By Mirabelle Chi Epse Okezie
Fatou Bensouda (née Nyang) is a Gambian lawyer and current Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Serving since June 2012, Bensouda is the first woman and first African to assume the role. She was born on 31 January 1961 into a polygamous Muslim family in the Gambia’s capital, Banjul (then Bathurst), as one of more than a dozen siblings. Bensouda’s father, Omar Gaye Nyang, who worked for the government as a driver, was also a prominent wrestling promoter in the Gambia. He was married to two wives. Though he died from diabetes while Bensouda was still young, his two wives continued relentlessly to raise her and her other siblings.
Bensouda began her early education in the Gambia where she obtained both her primary and secondary school qualifications. During her secondary school days, Bensouda used to sneak into nearby Courts to watch court proceedings and quickly developed a feeling that women were not adequately protected by the law in The Gambia. Bensouda has said that this early experience informed her decision to pursue justice and accountability, and therefore, a career in the legal profession. In 1982, in line with her dreams and aspirations, Bensouda moved to Nigeria to pursue a Bachelor of Law degree (LLB) at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). After graduating from the University of Ife in 1986, Bensouda immediately enrolled at the Nigerian Law School in Lagos, where she obtained her Barrister-at-Law (BL) professional qualification in 1987. She was called to both the Nigerian and the Gambian Bars in the same year. Bensouda later earned a Master's degree from the International Maritime Law Institute in Malta, becoming the Gambia’s first international maritime law expert.
After her impressive academic accomplishments abroad, Bensouda returned to The Gambia and spent several years climbing the ranks of its public legal office. Starting with the Dawda Jawara government, Bensouda was appointed as State Counsel in 1987 and then as Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions in February 1994. When President Yahya Jammeh took power in 1996, Bensouda continued to play a pivotal role in the early years of his administration. She first served Jammeh’s government as General Legal Adviser from 1996-1998 and later became Minister of Justice in August 1998, being only the second woman to hold the position. Bensouda was removed from office in 2000 by President Jammeh, whose rule has since been criticized as a dictatorship that carried out gross violations of human rights. Despite her removal, Bensouda earned the admiration of human rights groups, especially for her role in ensuring the speedy prosecution of offenses against women and children during her years of service to her nation. After she was relieved of her government duties, Bensouda transitioned to private legal practice in the Gambia from 2000 –2002.
Bensouda’s international career as a non-government civil servant formally began in 2002 when she was hired to work with the United Nations Ad Hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), sitting in Arusha, Tanzania. She served the ICTR with distinction, starting as Legal Adviser and Trial Attorney before rising to the position of Senior Legal Adviser and Head of Legal Advisory Unit between May 2002 and August 2004. Bensouda carved out a reputation in legal circles for her perseverance in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, especially with regards to rape and other forms of violence against women and children. She then rose to international prominence when she joined the ICC in 2004 as its first Deputy Prosecutor. Elected to the position by the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC, Bensouda’s vast experience in prosecutions (national and international) and working with civil organizations, her previous record of advocacy for the rights of women and children, and her good command of both English and French (two of the ICC’s working languages) had given her an edge over two other candidates from New Zealand and Fiji.
Bensouda worked under then-Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo from 2004 –2012. She had been nominated by the Assembly of State Parties as the consensus candidate for the position of Chief Prosecutor on December 1, 2011, following informal consultations among ICC member states to identify a suitable candidate. Bensouda was then formally elected to the position by an absolute (two-third) majority of State Parties on 12th December 2011. She assumed full-time duty as Chief Prosecutor of the ICC on 15th June 2012, the first woman and first African to occupy the position. She has been instrumental in the prosecution of major cases including Congolese warlords Thomas Lubanga and Jean-Pierre Bemba and Uganda’s Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army. She has also worked on cases from the Central African Republic, Kenya, Libya, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Georgia among others. Notably, in July 2012, Bensouda secured the conviction of Thomas Lubanga, the first person ever to be convicted by the ICC.
Although Bensouda’s decisions as Chief Prosecutor of the ICC are primarily driven by law and the complex tangle of lines defining her jurisdiction, her background as a woman from West Africa has also informed the character of the Court in various visible ways. For example, Bensouda has made it an explicit goal of the ICC to challenge rape and other forms of exploitation against women and children in war. In 2014, to strengthen her office’s focus and commitment to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offenses, Bensouda launched a policy paper on sexual and gender-based crimes, the first-ever policy issued by her office.
The basis of the policy was the explicit inclusion of an expansive list of sexual and gender-based offenses in the ICC’s founding statute (the Rome Statute), also marking the first time in international criminal law that such offenses were extensively enumerated as crimes. Representing an important step in the development of international criminal law, Bensouda’s policy paper has transformed how the ICC investigates crimes and prosecutes individuals based on the way gender plays a role within mass atrocities, genocide, and wars.
Beyond pursuing a career in the legal profession marked with meritorious growth, Bensouda has also actively engaged in civic and social duties by serving her community, her country, the African continent, and the world at large. Between 1996 and 2000, for instance, Bensouda represented the Gambia in various regional and international negotiations, including negotiations on the establishment of the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) Tribunal. She also led the Gambia’s delegation to the meeting of the Preparatory Committee for Establishment of the ICC. In the Gambia, Bensouda served on the Governing Council of a leading women’s rights organization- the Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP).
In recognition of her achievements, Bensouda has received various awards. In 2009, she received the distinguished International Court of Justice (ICJ) International Jurists Award for her contribution to criminal law both at national and international levels. In 2011, Bensouda was honored with the World Peace Through Law Award, presented to her by the Whitney Harris World Law Institute in recognition of her work in advancing the rule of law and world peace. In addition to receiving various awards, Bensouda has been listed by Foreign Policy as one of the ‘Leading Global Thinkers’ (2013); by New African Magazine as one of the ‘Most Influential Africans’; and by Jeune Afrique as one of 50 African women who advance the African continent by their actions and initiatives in their respective roles (2014 and 2015).
Bensouda has described her journey to the ICC, and especially her election to the office of Chief Prosecutor, as a victory not only for Gambian women but for African women in general, especially those in the legal profession. Her journey to the ICC exemplifies how African women in the legal profession are breaking boundaries and challenging masculine domination of space and authority in the international justice arena, despite implicit biases and barriers that challenge their success. In an interview with the International Bar Association in 2015, commenting on what her role as ICC Chief Prosecutor should mean to African women in the legal profession, Bensouda said: “My role as ICC prosecutor, I hope, is encouraging younger women, other women, to realise that there is no glass ceiling. Whether it’s real or imagined, there is no glass ceiling, and we have the potential to fully grow into what we can be. I sincerely believe that the people of the next generation, or the younger generation who are coming up, will have this in mind. What is important, always I think, is to work very hard and stay focused.” As the first woman and first African Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, not only has Bensouda made valuable contributions to jurisprudence and the development of policies that have had a marked effect on the character of the Court, she represents hope and encouragement to the African woman in law.