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International court gets first African female head prosecutor

June 15, 2012 |  2:00 pm

Fatou Bensouda was sworn in Friday at The Hague as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, the second person to hold that title, the first African to do so and the first woman.

Bensouda takes the reins at an uneasy moment in the short history of the court. Several of its staffers have been detained for more than a week in Libya after a meeting with the son of Moammar Kadafi led to accusations of spying, despite the court's  insistence that they have immunity.

African leaders have complained that the only cases the court has taken up are against Africans. Some have been loath to turn over Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, wanted by the court on charges of war crimes and genocide.

On top of those political headaches, the court probably will face a financial squeeze as the countries that accepted the court's jurisdiction scrape to survive their own economic crises, leaving it with less money to take on a growing list of cases.

Bensouda has been greeted by experts as exactly what the court needs at this perilous time. As a longtime deputy prosecutor within the court, she is a known and trusted face to the staffers. As a Gambian woman, she is better poised to rebut accusations that the court only targets Africans.

"Will she wave a magic wand and cure all the difficulties that exist at the ICC at the moment? No. Can she bring positive disposition over time to transforming the polluted atmosphere in which the institution has been operating in Africa? Absolutely," Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of the Nigerian national human rights commission, told the Guardian.

And with a softer touch than her predecessor, the firebrand attorney Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Bensouda is expected to ease the tension over surrendering war crimes suspects, help marshal financial support and guide the young institution toward greater maturity.

“She just exudes this warmth that Ocampo didn’t have,” said Michael Scharf, director of the international law center at Case Western University. “I think that will be her secret weapon.”

Moreno-Ocampo was known for starting up preliminary investigations, sometimes stirring up accusations that he was showboating to steer events in countries where he didn’t have the evidence to file charges. Though Bensouda says such investigations will remain “a key element” of what the court does, “I expect she will probably do less of that,” said John Washburn, a former diplomat who convenes a coalition of nonprofits that back the court and want the U.S. to sign onto it.

Eleven people wanted by the court are still at large, Bensouda lamented as she took the helm Friday. “Nothing short of arresting all those against whom warrants have been issued will ensure that justice is done for millions of victims of the crimes committed by these fugitives,” she said.

Those fugitives include Bashir, Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony and Saif Kadafi, the son of deposed strongman Moammar Kadafi, held in a remote mountain town in Libya. It will take diplomatic finesse to work with governments to ensure that accused criminals are turned over, Scharf said, as well as to persuade the U.N. Security Council to put more muscle behind its warrants, perhaps by threatening countries with sanctions.

"This is a major question, this matter of enforcement," Washburn said.

The question of whether to tackle reports of bloody atrocities in Syria also haunts the court, though it is still unclear whether those responsible will ever end up before it. Because Syria didn’t sign onto the court, its suspects could face charges  only if the U.N. Security Council refers the case to The Hague.

Bensouda, who has said she decided as a child to pursue law to stop domestic abuse in her community, has also stressed the importance of addressing crimes against women and children, saying she wants to find innovative ways to gather evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice while protecting victims.

"I am an African and I am very proud of that. ... I'm not going to discount it or dismiss it," Bensouda told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. "But I think it is not because I am an African that I was chosen for this position. I think my track record speaks for myself."


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Video: Fatou Bensouda is sworn in and gives a speech as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Friday in the Hague. Credit: International Criminal Court