Meet the world’s new chief prosecutor

Meet the world’s new chief prosecutor

While it hasn’t been made official yet, it is now clear that Fatou Bensouda will be the next prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. She will succeed the ICC’s first chief prosecutor, Argentina’s Luis Moreno-Ocampo, when his nine-year term expires next year. Bensouda, who hails from the Gambia, has been serving since late 2004 as the court’s deputy prosecutor. Before that, she worked as  a trial attorney with the international tribunal for Rwanda and held an array of senior posts in the Gambia.

Bensouda’s elevation is not a surprise. She has long been the leading candidate for the top job. Formally, she was competing with three other finalists identified by a search committee, but none of her rivals had much of a shot. In addition to broad African support, she enjoyed strong backing from the French, who have been quite involved in the work of the court. From what I’ve heard, the selection process was not acrimonious and featured almost none of the national horse-trading that often characterizes the election of international organization officials.

Bensouda’s smooth ride to the top derived from a confluence of competence, experience, and geography. She is expert in international criminal law and knows the inner workings of the ICC. She is a known quantity to the states most interested in the ICC’s work and shows no signs of unpredictability. At the same time, she is acceptable to the influential human rights groups that assiduously follow the court’s work. 

Perhaps most important, she is African and her election may ease one of the court’s most significant public relations problems: the oft-heard complaint that it is a fundamentally Western institution that only has eyes for Africa’s sins. With all current ICC investigations taking place in Africa, the African Union all but demanded that the next prosecutor be from the continent and officially backed Bensouda’s candidacy. The other African finalist, Tanzania’s Mohamed Chande Othman, never gained much traction.

Bensouda will likely bring a quite different style to the prosecutor’s job than her predecessor. She appears to be significantly less garrulous than Moreno-Ocampo, who occasionally raised diplomats’ blood pressure with his public statements. Her lower public profile may suit well the current phase of the court’s work. The institution faced severe doubts about its viability when Moreno-Ocampo took the reins in early 2003. Then, the United States was engaged in a global campaign to curtail the court’s reach. Eight years later, the court has established itself as a going concern with a subtantial caseload.  Twice it has been handed cases by the UN Security Council, an important recognition of the court’s place in the international system. The United States is reconciled to and even supportive of its work.  The task of the ICC now is more consolidating its gains–and finally completing some trials–than fighting for survival, and Bensouda may be well suited to the task.

More: An insightful reader adds another element:

One element that I missed in your discussion above: Bensouda is a woman.
While gender may seem an irrelevant consideration for this job, the fact of the matter is that large-scale sexual violence is increasingly seen as a war crime. The ICC made some important steps in developing a body of legal precedent concerning mass rape as an international crime. Most victims of these crimes are (African) women, so Bensouda’s upcoming election as prosecutor will probably also signal increased attention to this topic.