By Lisa Bryant
First woman, first African and only the second chief prosecutor of the still-young International Criminal Court, The Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda left office yesterday both praised for pushing The Hague tribunal’s boundaries as court of last resort, and skewered for key setbacks under her watch.
Under her nine-year tenure, Bensouda secured groundbreaking convictions, including the first-ever indictment defining an attack on cultural heritage as a war crime.
But she also lost high-profile cases against Côte d’Ivoire’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, and former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba. Early in her tenure, Bensouda saw charges dropped against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto over post-election violence, for reasons including alleged political interference.
British lawyer Karim Khan, who defended Ruto in the case, takes over as chief prosecutor.
If Bensouda’s legacy is mixed, one thing is clear: It hasn’t been an easy ride for the 60-year-old lawyer and former justice minister.
During her tenure, several African countries threatened to withdraw from the ICC, calling its probes unfairly focused on Africa. The Trump administration sanctioned Bensouda last year over an Afghanistan probe, and analysts say the ICC’s ambitions dwarf its budget. Meanwhile, a scathing independent report described a “culture of fear,” bullying and sexual harassment at the ICC, among other problems.
Yet Bensouda has her cheerleaders.
“Bensouda’s term has been marked by a real determination to expand the reach of the court,” says Elizabeth Evenson, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, saluting the prosecutor for also defending the court’s independence.
Still, Evenson added of the court more broadly, “there have been disappointments, there have been setbacks. The ICC has not lived up to expectations.”
Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian human rights organisation based in Ramallah, lauds her courage to stand strong in the face of the United States’ attacks on her legitimacy with her mandate, and Israel-led smear campaigns to discredit the court.
Beyond sub-Saharan Africa
Bensouda’s tenure may be better remembered for cases outside of sub-Saharan Africa. She has opened or considered probes in Libya and Venezuela, into Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories, and for alleged crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
France’s leading Le Monde newspaper called Bensouda “courageous” in withstanding political pressure.
In 2016, Bensouda won a landmark case against Malian jihadist Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, now serving a nine-year sentence for leading the destruction against cultural and religious shrines in Timbuktu, a Unesco world heritage site.