PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Solomy Balungi Bossa
Judge, International Criminal Court (Uganda)
Michele Lynda Mugenyi
Justice Solomy Balungi Bossa is a Ugandan judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC). She was born on April 14, 1956 to Stanley Walusimbi Ssesanga and Florence Nanfuka Bayita in Nsambya, Kampala, Uganda. Bossa’s father was a lawyer with a private legal practice while her mother tended to the home. She lived with both of them until the age of four when they separated and she was sent to live with her grandparents, Tito and Monica Walusimbi. She stayed with her grandparents in Ndejje, about 40 kilometers from Kampala, until she started secondary school. Bossa is a mother of four and was married to the late Joseph Fred Bossa, the former party president of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC).
Bossa received most of her education within Uganda. Having grown up with a father who was an attorney and a paternal uncle who was a chief magistrate, the legal field was not a foreign concept to her, and she often credits her father for influencing her career goals. After completing Advanced Level Qualifications, she studied Law at Makerere University and received her Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree with honors in August 1979. A year later, she attended Uganda’s Law Development Centre (LDC) to study for the bar examination and left with a Post-Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. She was called to the bar in 1984.
Bossa began her career as a lecturer at the Law Development Center. After her father passed away in 1987, she became managing partner of his law firm while continuing to teach. Between 1988- 1994, she was one of two women to own a law practice in the entire country at the time, with most women working in government, corporations, institutions, or even private practice, but not owning law firms.
The current Speaker of Parliament Rt. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga was the first woman lawyer to establish a law practice firm in Uganda. As a lawyer, Bossa advocated for human rights and offered pro bono services to clients of the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) and the Uganda Law Society Legal Aid Clinic. She represented indigent women in courts of law, often dealing with cases of rights to marital property, marriage dissolution, separation, inheritance, and child custody. She also practiced criminal law and represented indigent accused individuals and appellants before the High Court and Court of Appeal on charges including murder, rape, and defilement. Outside of the courtroom, she served as the founding president of the East African Law Society (EALS), Vice-Chairperson of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, and the first woman president of the Uganda Law Society (ULS) from 1993 to 1995.
She was also founding chairperson of the Kituo Cha Katiba, a good governance NGO that promoted constitutionalism, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Throughout her legal career, Bossa kept a steady focus on the rights of marginalized groups. In this regard, she assisted in founding and leading the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET), which advocates for the rights of those living with HIV.
Bossa joined the judiciary on the High Court bench in 1997 at the age of 41 years. She continued her activism through her judicial decision-making. For example, Bossa adopted a broad interpretation of spousal contributions to marital property while presiding over a divorce appeal. She declared that since women indirectly contributed to household expenses through housework, they deserved an equal share of matrimonial property after separation. This interpretation was later cited and adopted in a Supreme Court case over a decade later. Rulings like these were significant because they secured property for women and expanded women’s rights in Uganda’s jurisprudence.
Bossa’s contribution to the establishment of the East African Law Society, and by extension leading lawyers as one of the civic groups to contribute to the revived East African Community. Her independent judgment and her consistent adherence to the rule of law earned her a nomination for the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) in Arusha, Tanzania – the first court she ever served on outside of Uganda. She was the first woman to join its bench after its inauguration in 2001, and she earned respect from her colleagues despite being the youngest of the inaugural bench of six judges. Earlier in her judicial career, Judge Arline Pacht, the then President of the International Association of Women Judges, encouraged her to offer herself for appointment as an international judge and arranged for her to train with other potential candidates for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Budapest, Hungary.
She missed the chance to join the ICC at its inauguration, but her interest was aroused. While in Arusha attending a session of the East African Court of Justice, she met Justice Navanethem Pillay, a South African jurist, with whom she had trained in Budapest, and who was leaving her work as Judge at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to join the ICC.
Pillay encouraged Bossa to apply for a position of ad litem Judge at the ICTR and, after requesting support from the Uganda Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice, Bossa received the nomination. She was later elected as an ad litem judge by the UN General Assembly and was sworn in during August 2003. Bossa served at the ICTR for nine and half years before returning to the Ugandan High Court in 2013, where she served in the Land Division before being appointed to the Court of Appeal/Constitutional Court in the same year.
Before she departed from the ICTR, Bossa, like other judges who had served for long durations at the ICTR, was appointed to the United Nations Residual Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT). Bossa’s experience in international courts and her practice and advocacy in human rights as well as her participation in human rights-centered organizations assisted her to secure a nomination and ultimate election to the African Court of Human and People’s Rights (ACtHPR) by the Assembly of the African Union (AU) in July 2014. At the ACtHPR, she cemented her knowledge and practice in the African human rights system and often handled judgments and cases that involved awarding reparations for injuries.
Overall, Bossa’s forty-year career has been defined by her remarkable service to the legal fraternity, the voice that she has given to the marginalized, and her adamant respect for the rule of law. She proved that she was an impartial stickler for the rules in 2014 when she was one of five judges to annul Uganda’s anti-gay law after it was passed without reaching the required quorum of a one- third parliament member vote. Despite the public backlash that she and her colleagues received, Bossa stood by the decision and justified her ruling with the law rather than bending to political or social pressure. In addition, she has proven that she can handle a wide array of cases, from divorce and child custody to criminal law and human rights.
These factors, along with her experience working in the second-highest court in Uganda, are some of the reasons why she was nominated for a position in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2017. Her nomination for candidacy came during the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa. Candidates for the position had to display a high moral character, impartiality, integrity, and have the appropriate qualifications for the highest judicial office in their home country. These qualities and her experience ensured her election to the ICC by the Assembly of the State Parties in New York in December 2017.
She took her oath of office in March 2018. She currently serves in the Appeals Chamber (AC) with four other judges. The quorum requirements dictate that she and her colleagues sit in every case that is filed in the AC. Outside of the courtroom, she continues to serve as a member of the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), and as an honorary member of the International Commission of Jurists.
In short, Justice Bossa has built an extraordinary career for herself in private legal practice, as a judge in seven courts of different jurisdictions, and as a human rights activist. For her exceptional contributions to legal and judicial practice, she has received numerous awards including the Sudreau Global Justice Commitment to Justice Award in March 2018 at the Women in Leadership Conference held in Kampala and the esteemed Senior Counsel Award in April 2018 for her contributions to the Uganda Law Society as a former President.
With all of these accomplishments, it would almost be easy to assume that Bossa’s success was effortless. Yet she has never insinuated that her road to success was a smooth one. In an interview with the New Vision’s Carol Natukunda in 2018, Justice Bossa observed that women have to double their efforts to be welcomed into the same spaces as their male counterparts. Furthermore, once they make it into those spaces, women have to continue to work twice as hard, lest their colleagues should think that they are taking them for granted. This double standard is only one example of the struggles women face in the legal and judicial professions. Despite these challenges, Bossa’s career is an example of how African women are capable of overcoming and taking up space at the local, national, and international levels. When asked what advice she had for young women, Bossa said that women should believe in themselves and keep trying in order to reach their full potential. At the end of the day, how far we go is only limited by how far we are willing to go.