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Congratulations to Judge Julia Sebutinde of the International Court of Justice.

By J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.

Maame Ama Adu-Mensah


The Institute of African Women in Law extends sincere congratulations to Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda and Judge Hanqin Xue on their well-deserved re-election to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a second term respectively.

May the glass ceilings continue to shatter, one woman at a time (no, more women at a time)!

Although the recent re-election of the two women judges is commendable, more work remains to be done to ensure gender parity on the ICJ bench and in other international organizations and bodies. Having one or two women assume international positions at a time cannot make up for the years of injustice done to women due to global patriarchy at all levels. The Institute for African Women in Law therefore urges the ICJ, the UN, the AU and other international bodies to realign themselves to the UN’s commitment to gender equality, and ensure that judicial selection processes to international courts meet the highest standards of equal opportunity, inclusion and diversity, while maintaining standards of merit, integrity and professionalism.

We need a critical mass of women in international bodies and organizations. Women ought to be included in their masses simply because gender equality cannot wait!

Judge Sebutinde’s re-election took place with three other candidates who are current members of the Court, after a single round of voting conducted simultaneously but independently by the Security Council and the General Assembly on November 11 and 12, 2020. Julia Sebutinde together with Hanqin Xue (China), the incumbent Vice-President; Peter Tomka (Slovakia) and Yuji Iwasawa (Japan) were re-elected whilst Georg Nolte (Germany) is the newest addition to the judges of the Court. The elected judges are poised to serve nine-year terms beginning from 6 February 2021.

The ICJ, often touted as the “world court” is made up of 15 judges and five seats come up for election every three years. In order to be elected, a candidate must have an absolute majority in both the Security Council and the General Assembly, which often leads to much lobbying and a number of rounds of voting.

On June 29, 2020, the UN Secretary-General in a communique (A/75/129–S/2020/615) listed the names of the eight final candidates; only three were women, representing 38% of the candidate list. The three women candidates were Julia Sebutinde of Uganda, Hanqin Xue of China, and Maja Seršic of Croatia. Since the establishment of the Court in 1946, only four out of its 108 judges have been women, representing a woeful 3.7%. Thus, it came as no surprise that the percentage of women on the candidate list was terribly low.

Nevertheless, two out of the three women on the candidate list were elected, representing 40% of the elected candidates. A seeming milestone in gender representation in one of the most imbalanced courts with regards to gender parity. In an earlier post, the Institute for African Women in Law argued that gender diversity at the ICJ matters for the simple reason that women make up at least half of the global population; women have the qualifications and merit for international judicial positions, as such, they must be given equitable opportunities at all levels.

Judge Sebutinde made history in 2012 becoming the fourth woman to be elected to the bench of the ICJ in over 60 years of the Court’s existence. She is the first African woman, having been preceded by fourteen male judges from Africa. Her re-election however was fraught with uncertainties since by common practice, the African Union endorsed the re-election bid of incumbent judges contesting for a second term, but in Judge Sebutinde’s case, the AU did not formally endorse her due to the politics of judicial appointments. Although the endorsement of the AU does not necessarily mean an automatic election, it would have been remarkably symbolic of the organization’s commitment to ensure gender equality in representation.

In spite of the foregoing, Judge Sebutinde was re-elected garnering the fifth highest votes after Japan’s Yuji Iwasawa, Georg Nolte (Germany), Hanqin Xue (China) and Peter Tomka (Slovakia). The other two African contenders - Emmanuel Ugirashebuja (Rwanda) and Taoheed Olufemi Elias (Nigeria) came in sixth and seventh respectively.

As a woman of African descent, Judge Sebutinde signifies various intersectionalities of race, gender, geographical location, and other identities that women from non-western societies must navigate. Her election for a second term demonstrates the increasing resilience of African women in global leadership across diverse sectors, the ICJ being one of many. It also gives her another opportunity to show the world, that women have the credentials, the integrity and the zeal to function effectively and efficiently in international positions. Thus, we wish her the very best as she begins her second term in 2021, which she has dutifully and competently performed for the past 8 years.

IAWL is grateful to UN Women, Gqual Campaign and other partners who helped with the campaign for the re-election of Judge Julia Sebitunde.


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