PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Judge, International Court of Justice (Uganda)
By Jordan Orange
Julia Sebutinde was born on February 28, 1954, in the Kiwafu Village, Entebbe, Uganda. Sebutinde’s mother was a civil servant and a housewife. Sebutinde came from a modest family, one without a wealthy background, and many people see this as a greater indicator of how hard she has worked throughout her life. Her parents worked hard and sacrificed so that their children could attend the best schools in Uganda. She was born into a period where Uganda was actively fighting for independence from the British colonial office.
Uganda became independent in October of 1962 and proceeded to join the commonwealth when Sebutinde was eight years old. The country's economy was built on the backs of the African people in Uganda. They created economic booms for the British empire through their production of products like cotton. Uganda after independence had to rebuild its economy and create new streams of revenue as a newly independent country. Growing up within this very tumultuous time proved how resilient both Sebutinde and her family were. Even in the face of a shift of power and destruction of life as they previously knew it, her parents were still able to make sure that they were preparing their kids to break through the barriers that colonization created for black people. She also grew up within the authoritarian regime of Idi Amin Dada that began in 1971. Having lived through this period of Ugandan turmoil, it is clear why Julia Sebutinde has led a career that has been dedicated to fighting for justice.
Julia Sebutinde attended Lake Victoria Primary School in Entebbe, Uganda, throughout the 1960s. After finishing primary school, she went to Gayaza High School. Sebutinde pursued her degree at Makerere University and received a Bachelor of Laws Degree in 1977. While she was still an undergraduate law student at Makerere University, she was chosen as a Ugandan delegate at the United Nations Decade for Women in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1975. This moment opened her eyes and inspired her. She was able to see driven women from all over the world strategically addressing the issue of gender inequality.4 She had no clue that her career would lead her to be one of the influential female voices that called for change involving gender inequality and discrimination. Sebutinde says that pursuing a career in law was not something that she had planned to do but decided to do so, based on encouragement from her associates. She then pushed herself to concentrate on law studies and realized that she enjoyed it. Not long after obtaining her undergraduate degree, she gained a post-Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Centre in Uganda.
While pursuing her education, the country remained under the control of Idi Amin's dictatorship. Sebutinde then traveled to Scotland to obtain her Master of Laws Degree with Distinction from the University of Edinburgh in 1990. The University of Edinburgh also awarded her with a Doctorate of Laws for her outstanding work in legal and judicial service in 2009. Sebutinde received countless post-graduate certificates and diplomas in many different areas. Some of them were legal practice, legislative drafting, and leadership skills. Being a woman receiving an education at this time was extremely difficult, but once again, she persevered and has continued her education throughout her life.
After Sebutinde graduated from Edinburgh in 1991, she worked in the UK for the Ministry of Commonwealth, and not long after that she joined the Ministry of Justice in the Republic of Namibia. She worked on a lot of individual committees where she drafted multiple treaties. These treaties established the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development. Both of these groups made a lot of impact throughout the continent. Sebutinde gained skills by way of drafting and interpreting laws, using legal instruments, and improving her listening.
In 1996, Sebutinde was appointed as one of the judges of the High Court of Uganda. She did many important things within this position. In her work on the Commissions of Inquiry, Judge Sebutinde investigated general and specific allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the Ugandan Police Force, the circumstances pertaining to the procurement by the Ministry of Defense of four MI-24 combat helicopters in 1997, valued at US$12.9 million, and over 500 allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the Uganda Revenue Authority. She was able to do substantive work and she made sure to have a fundamental role in being transparent with the people of Uganda. She made sure the local newspaper gave daily accounts of events so that the public would know what was happening. Sebutinde held people accountable and faced corruption head on.
Julia Sebutinde also served as a judge on the Special Court of Sierra Leone between the years of 2005 and 2011. The Special Court for Sierra Leone was created in 2002 by the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone to prosecute people who had violations of international humanitarian law and violations of the laws of Sierra Leone. In 2012, Sebutinde became the first African woman to be appointed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the world court. She has broken barriers and paved the way for countless other African women in the field of law.
Sebutinde has stood up against violence and acts of terror, whether it was against Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, or fighting for the courts to give reparations to the victims of violence in Sierra Leone. As Grossman (2018) notes, “given the Court’s inability to pay any kind of reparations to victims, Judge Sebutinde incisively questioned the impact of the Special Court on victims of the conflict and the goals of international justice.”
Sebutinde made sure to stand up for individuals all over the continent, fighting to ensure that people would better understand the humanitarian needs in parts of the world outside of Europe. In 2001 Julia Sebutinde was given a Special Award by the Ugandan Law Society in recognition of her work towards justice in Uganda. She also received the “Good Samaritan Award” at the Congress of Advocates International in 2004. She continued to make sure that she gave back whether it be through her membership in the National Association of Women Judges of Uganda from 1996-2011, or the International Association of Women Judges. She participated with these organizations to give back and continue to encourage and support women within the field of law. She also became a chairperson on the Board of Directors of the Acid Survivors Foundation in Uganda, even after becoming a judge.
She continued to serve women and the people of Uganda even when serving on an international platform. Sebutinde also spent her career continuously fighting for women and children, due to her unique perspective of being a woman and mother. These are just a few of the causes, boards, and positions she has championed and served throughout her lifetime. It is clear that Julia Sebutinde has been a pioneer and trailblazer within the field of law for black women all over the world, specifically within Africa. She is the first African woman to be appointed to the ICJ, and through her own efforts, broken many barriers and she definitely won’t be the last. Sebutinde has made numerous contributions to the field of law. By being the first African woman to serve on the ICJ, she has made a change to international law and the symbolic representation of women. She has contributed immensely to international law jurisprudence through the cases she has heard, often with dissenting opinions.
***Some of the cases decided by Sebutinde, as alluded to by Grossman, 2018, 54) include: Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament (Marsh. Is. v. India), Judgment, (Oct. 5, 2016); Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament (Marsh. Is. v. Pak.), Judgment, (Oct. 5, 2016); Immunities and Criminal Proceedings (Eq. Guinea v. Fr.), Order, (July 1, 2016); Alleged Violations of Sovereign Rights and Maritime Spaces in the Caribbean Sea (Nicar. v. Colom.), Judgment, (Mar. 17, 2016); Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Dem. Rep. Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, 2015 I.C.J. 168 (Dec. 19); Certain Activities Carried Out by Nicaragua in Border Area (Costa Rica v. Nicar.), Judgment, (Dec. 16, 2015);Construction of a Road in Costa Rica Along San Juan River (Nicar. v. Costa Rica), Judgment, (Dec. 16, 2015); Obligation to Negotiate Access to the Pacific Ocean (Bol. v. Chile), Judgment, (Sept. 24, 2015); Questions Relating to Seizure and Detention of Certain Documents and Data (Timor-Leste v. Austl.), Order, (June, 11, 2015); Application of Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide (Croat. v. Serb.), Judgment, (Feb. 3, 2015); Whaling in Antarctic (Austl. v. Japan: N.Z. intervening), Judgment, 2014 I.C.J. 226 (Mar. 31); Maritime Dispute (Peru v. Chile), Judgment, 2014 I.C.J. Rep. 3 (Jan. 27); Request for Interpretation of Judgment of 15 June 1962 in Case Concerning Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thai.), Judgment, 2013 I.C.J. Rep. 281 (Nov. 11); Frontier Dispute (Burk. Faso v. Niger), Judgment, 2013 I.C.J. Rep. 44 (Apr. 16); Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicar. v. Colom.), Judgment, 2012 I.C.J. Rep. 624 (Nov. 19); Questions Relating to Obligation to Prosecute or Extradite (Belg. v. Sen.), Judgment, 2012 I.C.J. Rep. 422 (Jul. 12). Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament (Marsh. Is. v. India), Judgment, ¶ 13 (Oct. 5, 2016) (separate opinion by Sebutinde, J.) (“In my view, the evidence on record when properly tested against the criteria well-established in the Court’s jurisprudence shows that a dispute did exist, albeit in a nascent form, between the Parties before the filing of the Application and that this dispute crystallized during the proceedings. I particularly disagree with the new criterion of ‘awareness’ that the majority introduces, as well as the formalistic and inflexible approach taken in the determination of whether or not a dispute exists.”); Maritime Dispute (Peru v. Chile), 2014 I.C.J. Rep. 3, 116, ¶ 6 (Jan. 27) (dissenting opinion by Sebutinde, J.) (“In my view, the above analysis of the evidence before the Court and conclusion thereon, fall short of the stringent and well‑established standard of proof which the Court itself has set for establishing a permanent maritime boundary in international law on the basis of a tacit agreement.”). Application of Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide (Croat. v. Serb.), Judgment, ¶ 2 (Feb. 3, 2015) (separate opinion by Sebutinde, J.) (“It is my considered opinion that, in the present Judgment, the inference that the Court draws from the absence of charges of genocide in certain ICTY indictments relating to the conflict in Croatia, without the Court having established the underlying reasons therefor, is highly speculative and can lead to undesirable conclusions.”).
Nienke, Grossman. (2018). Julia Sebutinde: An Unbreakable Cloth. In J.Jarpa Dawuni and Akua Kuenyehia (eds). International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives. Routledge.
Sebutinde, J. (2014). Honorees: Judge Julia Sebutinde. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), 108, 135-136.
International Court of Justice. (n.d). Judge Julia Sebutinde: Member files. Available at (Accessed March 20, 2020).