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Gambia's Fatou Bensouda poised to lead ICC

4 min

Gambian jurist Fatou Bensouda (pictured) is the only remaining candidate to become the International Criminal Court's next prosecutor. Her experience and background could help increase the legitimacy of the Hague in Africa.


Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda, currently the International Criminal Court’s deputy prosecutor, is expected to take over the institution’s top job when member countries hold an election in New York on December 12. She would succeed chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and, observers say, could help boost the legitimacy of the ICC in Africa.

The last remaining candidate for the post, 50-year-old Bensouda’s nomination was met with a chorus of praise from international rights groups last week.

"She is an experienced person, who is collected, calm and knows how to keep her cool,” said Brigid Inder, director of the Hague-based Women's Initiative for Gender Justice, a group that seeks an “effective and independent” ICC.

Ali Ouattara, another ICC advocate in Ivory Coast, said Bensouda was a “very attentive, very open and very pragmatic” lawyer. The sentiment was shared by Patrick Baudouin, honorary president of the International Federation of Human Rights (IFHR). “She’s a fine jurist. There’s good reason for the broad consensus over her nomination,” Baudouin said.

However, some isolated voices of dissent have emerged. Some observers questioned her ability to manage the non-legal aspects of the high-profile job. Once confirmed, Bensouda will take office in June for a period of nine years.

‘Maturing along with the ICC’

Bensouda, a native of Gambia, has held the post of deputy chief prosecutor for the past seven years and boasts a distinguished legal career.

The leading expert on International Maritime Law in her country, she joined the Gambian Ministry of Justice in the late 1980s and rose to become Minister of Justice in 1998. In 2002, she travelled to Rwanda to work for the United Nations-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

For two years, Fatou Bensouda investigated the genocide and war crimes that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in the small East African country. She served as the ICTR’s deputy prosecutor, as well as legal advisor and trial attorney.

Bensouda made her debut at the ICC in 2004 as Moreno-Ocampo’s deputy. “She has matured with the ICC,” said the IFHR’s Patrick Baudouin. “The court began its work cautiously, too cautiously, perhaps. But for past two or three years, it has turned it up a notch, bringing charges against [Sudanese President] Omar Bashir and [former Ivory Coast president Laurent] Gbagbo. Bensouda has emerged alongside the institution.”

While she has helped the ICC impose its authority on African strongmen, some former colleagues have questioned her firmness as a boss. “Bensouda is very intelligent, certainly brighter than Moreno-Ocampo,” said one former ICC colleague, who wished to remain anonymous. “But she is a bad manager.”

The former ICC colleague added that the chief prosecutor is constantly torn between political pressures, diplomatic necessity and purely legal responsibilities. “[Bensouda] had a tendency to skirt responsibilities in times of crisis… Moreno-Ocampo has the ability to move heaven and earth to get what he wanted - wants. Bensouda doesn’t,” the lawyer said.

The ‘African’ consensus

The comparisons to Moreno-Ocampo were inevitable, but observers said Bensouda had one clear advantage over her predecessor: being African. “There was wide consensus that the next chief prosecutor should be from Africa,” said Christian Wenaweser, the Ambassador of Liechtenstein to the UN, who chairs the ICC selection process.

The court has been accused in African circles of embodying a neo-colonial “white justice”. “Bensouda will bring some legitimacy to the ICC in Africa. Especially since she speaks English and French, there will be fewer language barriers in the continent than with Moreno-Ocampo [who does not speak French],” said Ali Ouattara.

Others, however, were less optimistic about Bensouda’s ability to win over Africans. “It’s not a question of nationality. In all the institutions where Western and African countries co-exist, relations are bound to be unbalanced,” argued Lovemore Madhuku, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Harare, in Zimbabwe.

Bensouda herself has said she would not change her established approach to chasing African war criminals. “I don’t think about the leaders we pursue,” she told the French AFP news agency on Dec. 3. “I work for the victims in Africa; those women are like me, that's who I draw my inspiration and my pride from.”

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