09 Nov 2018

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda -- fighting for the victims of unimaginable crimes

Fatou Bensouda's job as Chief Prosecutor of the IOC is to hold accountable those responsible for the most horrible acts of murder, rape and violence.

Wysokie Obcasy
Magda Działoszyńska Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda -- fighting for the victims of unimaginable crimes - NewsMavens
Fatou Bensouda, Wikimedia Commons

The following fragments from Magda Działoszyńska’s article first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in September 2018.

The burden that Fatou Bensouda has taken upon her shoulders by accepting the position of Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, is hard to overestimate or even comprehend. Her work consists of meting out justice to perpetrators of the most unimaginable offenses: crimes against humanity executed in a systematic manner on a mass scale.

Ms. Bensouda, appointed to the Tribunal for life in 2002, has indicted the Ugandan insurgent leader, Joseph Kony, and the Congolese rebels, Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga. Among the atrocities that Bensouda has taken on during her term are the persecution of the Yazidis in ISIS-occupied territory, ethnic cleansings, gang rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers -- this is her daily work.

An Impossible Job

In a world that is by nature unjust, the search for justice is difficult under any circumstances. Perhaps it is many times more difficult in situations demanding a judgment concerning not just a single victim, but hundreds of thousands of victims -- taking place over many years and thousands of kilometers, and involving complex social and political situations.

An additional challenge is the question of jurisdiction, which the International Criminal Court only has in countries that have signed the Rome Statute. There are 123 in total, but some key players are lacking among the signatories, including the USA, Russia, and China. The court may take cases by request from a specific country or the UN, but only with the support of the Security Council, in which the countries mentioned above have veto power. And, so, in 2014, when the international community demanded that the Tribunal look at the situation in Syria, it did not happen, directly as a result of the intervention of Russia and China.

The forms of justice for which Bensouda has agreed to be responsible are unusually slow and stubborn. Journalists speaking with her have not failed to remind her of this: “How many years of work and only so many verdicts?” asked Al-Jazeera. “So much money spent, and only so many convictions?” asked Deutsche Welle.

Yet Bensouda has continually stated that even though she is restricted by circumstances, she is sure that the execution of justice is worth all of the effort.

The World is Watching Africa

Bensouda is driven by the hope that justice can be done. As she once told The Guardian, she has had a strong sense of right and wrong since she was a schoolgirl. And observing the world and the mechanisms that control it, she has tried to fight against lawlessness and injustice.

“The issue of justice and accountability seems to be [...] in my DNA.,” she says.

She grew up in Gambia, a small country on the western coast of Africa, which was ruled in a relatively democratic manner during the years of her youth. She was raised in a Muslim, polygamous family with many children -- typical for the region. Walking to high school in the capital of Banjul after classes, she liked to peek into the courts and watch the trials. She remembers thinking then that the law seemed to protect women and girls the least. She felt strongly that she wanted to do something about this, and she has brought this perspective to her work today.

She completed her law degree in Nigeria, then returned to her country and started to take on public positions. In the meantime, as a result of what was in truth a bloodless coup, Gambia became yet another country to fall into the clutches of authoritarianism. The twenty-year rule of Yahya Jammeh was eventually ended when he was expelled from the country after losing the election of 2016. He left of course, but large sums of public money went with him. In Bensouda’s opinion, he escaped lightly.

The world remembers his scandalous words on the subject of gays (he threatened to cut their throats and drive them from the country) and that he claimed to have found an herbal cure for AIDS. Bensouda remembers equally that he outlawed circumcision as well as the marriage of underage girls. She claims that when she took the position of Minister of Justice during two years of his rule, she was able to do her work without pressure, and regards it as “fruitful service to the country” (though when asked on camera why she accepted the job, she seemed to be embarrassed).

The Victims are the Most Important

Her familiarity with the realities of Africa -- political, social, and cultural -- should have been an important factor in the election of the chief prosecutor of the ICC in 2012. Her predecessor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and with him the institution that he represented, was often accused of bias against Africa and of averting his eyes from the crimes committed by “first world” countries.” The African Union lobbied for a change of perspective, but Bensouda says that she hopes her experience and competence (for 8 years she was Moreno-Ocampo’s deputy, and earlier spent two years working on the tribunal addressing crimes in Rwanda), and not her ethnic background determined her suitability for the position.

From the beginning of her term, the Tribunal has struggled with the impossibility of executing its decisions, (e.g., the arrest warrant for Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir), but it has also cast its eye in places it hasn’t looked before.

Bensouda has launched a preliminary investigation into the crimes that the Taliban rulers, the new Afghan government, and also the American forces presently in Afghanistan may have committed against the local population in the context of the intervention and ongoing conflict there. In September 2018, the ICC also announced that it had opened a preliminary investigation into those holding responsibility for driving 700,000 members of the ethnic Rohingya minority from Myanmar.

Bensouda does her work in the Hague in Holland, in the aesthetically attractive and modern headquarters of the main Tribunal. Those who look at the sample pictures of the bright, spacious courtrooms on the institution’s website, may find it hard to reconcile their sterility with the enormous suffering and dramas that are described here in the course of the trials of Kony or Lubanga. But it is precisely this testimony that forms the sense of Fatou Bensouda’s work.

“We perhaps take it for granted, but these victims deserve to talk about their experiences,” she told The Guardian, recalling time when she was working on the Rwanda cases, about a woman whom she had visited to take testimony.

“This was a woman who was held as a sex slave almost throughout the conflict. She was crying, so I said: ‘I am so sorry, it’s just that we have to ask these questions ...’ She said, ‘No, no no. I am not crying because you are asking these questions. I am crying because […] finally someone is listening to me.’”


Translated from Polish by David A. Goldfarb


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