PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Prisca Matimba Nyambe
Judge, International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.
By Mawusi E.A Kudu
Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe is a bold, remarkable, and inspiring example of legal brilliance. An admirable polyglot, apart from English she is fluent in Tonga, Soli, Nyanja, Bemba; with a working knowledge of French, Swahili, and Lozi. She has left her mark at home in Zambia and internationally by playing critical roles as a judge in novel courts in the pursuit of justice; working in private practice; and organizing and participating in conferences throughout Africa, Europe, and the United States on the rights of women and children, gender-based war crimes, human rights, and democracy. This piece attempts to give a glimpse into her life as a legal trailblazer.
Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe was born on December 31, 1951, in Zambia. She graduated with honors from the University of Zambia with a law degree in 1975. She was admitted as an advocate of the High Court of Zambia in 1978, and in 1982, she was admitted as an advocate of the High Court of Zimbabwe. Nyambe began her career as a Resident Magistrate in Kabwe, Zambia in 1978 and worked in this capacity until 1980. She advanced to the rank of Senior Magistrate and served on the bench in Harare and Gwelo, Zimbabwe from 1980 to 1984. Nyambe then transitioned to the advisory position of Legal Counsel to the Central Bank of Zambia and worked in this capacity from 1984 to 1992. She transitioned again and started work as a private legal practitioner from 1992 to 1996.
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a yawning gap for justice opened. In February 1996, Judge Nyambe joined the novel International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, as a Senior Legal Officer. With support from the Tanzanian government and the team at the ICTR, Nyambe helped develop the tribunal from a three-office structure to a behemoth of justice. Prisca was at the forefront of the humble beginnings of the tribunal. She played a key role in bringing the first three suspects from Zambia on indictment to the tribunal; marking the first of many trials that would take place at the ICTR, with Zambia as the first United Nations Member State to cooperate with the Tribunal. She rose through the ranks at the ICTR from 2000-2002, occupying roles as the Senior Legal Officer, Chief of the Court Management Section, and Chief of the General Legal Services Section. In 2002, she was appointed General Counsel to the ICTR and served until 2006.
In 2005, she was elected Ad Litem Judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and sat on the trial of Zdravko Tolimir, a wartime Bosnian Serb general convicted of genocide for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Judge Nyambe was the sole dissenting judge and wrote in a thirty-six-page dissenting opinion that she would have acquitted Tolimir of all charges. In 2011, she was elected as a judge of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. Nyambe finally served as a Judge of the High Court of Zambia from 2006 until her retirement in 2015.
Judge Nyambe’s legal career has included several political and societal appointments. She was appointed Council Member of the Law Association of Zambia and served from 1982 to 1994. In 1989, she was appointed by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Zambia as a member of the Parliamentary Fact-Finding Committee to investigate and report on discriminatory laws against women in government and state-owned enterprises. Championing the pursuit of democracy, she played a key role as founder and member of the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT), which monitored the multi-party Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 1991.
Judge Nyambe’s dynamism was evident in her role as Commissioner of the Election Commission of Zambia and Patron of the University of Zambia Law Association in 1992. The next year, she was appointed by the Minister of Finance as a member of the Study Group to Research and Reform the Financial System in Zambia. In 1994, she served as Board Member of the Zambia Revenue Authority, member of the Board of Directors of Cavemont Merchant Bank, and Vice-Chairperson of the Law Association of Zambia. Her sterling qualifications led to her appointment as Consultant to the Zambia Privatization Agency in 1995.
Nyambe’s impressive legal career has been recognized by a multitude of international organizations. She was awarded a Letter of Recognition as an Outstanding Participant to a Foreign Investment Negotiation Seminar by the International Law Institute in 1985. In 1989, she was awarded a Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Services by the International Biographical Centre and was nominated International Woman of the Year 1991/92 by the same organization. In 1999, she received Letters of Recognition from two Judges of the ICTR.
The President of the Republic of Zambia in 2005 honored Judge Nyambe with the rank and dignity of State Counsel. Judge Nyambe has also made significant contributions to legal discussions. She has organized and participated in symposia across Africa, Europe, and the United States on the rights of women and children, gender-based war crimes, and integration of international standards in national structures.
In an interview for the project Voices of the Tribunal, Nyambe stated “We have to accept the totality of the judicial function, the guilty are found guilty, the innocent are found innocent”. Judge Nyambe played a pioneering role at the ICTR in establishing a reliable international criminal justice system and producing a massive body of jurisprudence on genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and forms of individual and superior responsibility. She was part of a team at the ICTR which delivered verdicts on genocide, defined rape in international criminal law, and recognized rape as a means of perpetrating genocide.
Nyambe remains a part of a team of judges of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, created by the UNSC to address residual matters arising from the ICTR and ICTY working remotely.
On September 2, 2019, she was appointed to the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) Governing
Board by the President of the Republic of Zambia. Nyambe’s illustrious career is replete with
several contributions to international law and justice with a focus on the rights of women and
children. Her works serve as a guide and inspiration for people around the world.