PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Fatoumata Dembélé Diarra
Retired Judge, International Criminal Court (Mali)
By Chidinma Sophia Mong
Judge Fatoumata Dembélé Diarra, the eldest of nine children, was born in 1949 in Koulikoro, Mali to parents who were traders. At the time of her birth, the town of Koulikoro was still a French colony. The colony was perceived as a military project led by the colonial military but came under the authority of a civilian administration in the mid-1980s. Diarra’s early life was therefore immersed in a struggle for independence, which the country gained in 1960. Consequently, the colonial history of the area had an immense impact on her path to the field of law.
Education was not a priority of the French colonial administration, particularly for young girls. Only 8% of the population in Mali had received a formal education at the time of independence. However, Diarra was not only allowed access to formal education but was also encouraged by her father to study. This was notably due to the strategic geographical location of Koulikoro, a terminal that linked Mali to the Atlantic Ocean. Diarra was enrolled in primary school in 1956, then obtained her Baccalaureate from the Lycée de Jeunes Filles of Bamako in 1969. She was granted a scholarship by the French Coopération and obtained her Premier Certificat de Licence en Droit (First Certificate of License in Law) at the University of Dakar in 1971. She then returned to Bamako, Mali, and enrolled in the École Nationale D’aministration where she obtained the Maîtrise in private law in 1973. A year later, she was granted another scholarship from the French Coopération to study at the prestigious École de la Magistrature in Paris, France in 1975. In her professional capacity, Diarra served as an Examining Magistrate, a Deputy Public. She became Prosecutor, the President of the Criminal Chamber, and the Chamber of Assize of the Court of Appeal of Bamako.
In September 1999, she was appointed the National Director for the Administration of Justice in Mali, a position she held until August 2001. It was during her time at the Department of Justice that Diarra was suggested by Mali to be a candidate for a judgeship position at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). She was elected Judge ad Litem from 2001 to 2003. Her experience at the ICTY paved the way for higher appointments. From 2003 to 2012, she was appointed judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Judge Diarra also served as the First Vice-President of the ICC between 2009 and 2012 (wildlife). After the official end of her term at the ICC, she was appointed to the Constitutional Court in Mali.
When the 1st Republic led by Modibo Keïta was overthrown by Moussa Traoré, Diarra, only 19 at the time, embraced the law as a medium for justice and equity, in the face of Traoré’s repressive military dictatorship. Consequently, she seized the realm of civil rights activism by defending the rights of the most vulnerable, particularly disenfranchised women and children, within the various civil society organizations she coordinated. One such organization is the Association des femmes juristes (Association of Women Lawyers) which Judge Diarra founded in 1976 to provide legal assistance to illiterate women. Her success at this endeavor was remarkable because it occurred despite the Traore regime’s tight rein on civil society, particularly professional associations such as the judiciary and student unions.
Diarra’s association benefited from substantial international support, with funding provided by development agencies, such as USAID, and Belgian and Dutch NGOs. She further consolidated her international networks by participating in training in the United Nations system in New York in 1993, on issues such as the enforcement of international and regional human rights protection norms, with the support of the Fédération Internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme in Bamako in 1998. As such, her prominence as a civil society advocate for women’s and children’s rights, coupled with the support she had received from international aid donors, gave her particular traction. They may have, in fact, played a determining role in the trajectory of her career, especially in her appointment to the ICTY and the ICC.
Personal experiences from her professional career in Mali and her career at the ICTY, as well as the ICC, prompted her to continue to promote international development networks that foster issues relating to gender rights, women and law, women and peace, and the rights of children. Diarra is the founding president of the Office on Relief for Impoverished Women and Children, as well as the Observatory for the Rights of Women and Children (Observatoire des droits de la femme et de L'Enfant) (ODEF). She continues to provide critical support for women and children in distress through the two structures. Her legal office, the ProBono Center for women and children in Mali, also provides free legal assistance to women. Judge Diarra was a notable member of the National Commission on Trafficking in Children and International Adoption, a commission that serves to protect Malian children against the networks of organized crimes that traffick them to coffee and cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast.
Her commitment to the advancement of women’s rights has also been reflected in her position as Vice President of the International Federation of Women in Legal Careers (Fédération Internationale des Femmes des carrières Juridiques) [FIFCJ] from 1994 to 1997, and Vice President of the Federation of African Lawyers since 1995. Furthermore, she has worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross on humanitarian law and with the Agence de la Francophonie (Agency for the Francophone World) within the framework of the Preparatory Committee on the draft Rules of Procedure and Evidence and on the definition of the Elements of Crimes which fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC.
Judge Diarra is a pioneer in the field of law because she rose beyond the otherwise limiting intersections of her nationality, race, and gender to become a formidable legal voice in her home country. She was also one of the few African women to be elected to the ICC. Ultimately, her record of human rights advocacy and her emphasis on fighting for the rights of disenfranchised women proves that she is a most worthy role model for all women.