By Tafi Mhaka

Much has been said about the role of the International Criminal Court.

The court, which is based at The Hague in the Netherlands, has been accused of a bias towards prosecuting African leaders.

In 2012, for example, the ICC sentenced Thomas Lubanga, a former warlord from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to 14 years in prison for war crimes relating to using child soldiers.

The court also successfully secured the convictions of Congolese rebel Germain Katanga and the country’s former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba.

124 countries are parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; the treaty which established the ICC. Worryingly, the USA, China and Russia – three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – have refused to endorse the ICC, as have India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel.

The ICC prosecutes individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Although the court has international jurisdiction, it doesn’t have the capacity to arrest perpetrators, as it doesn’t have a police force. So it relies on the goodwill of national police forces.

Little known is the fact that the chief prosecutor of the ICC is a woman: An African woman.

Fatou Bensouda, a former justice minister of The Gambia, has served as chief prosecutor of the ICC since 2012. She is the first African and woman to hold the position.

Prior to her appointment Bensouda had served as ICC deputy chief prosecutor of prosecutions for 8 years.

Bensouda was born into a polygamous Muslim family from Banjul in the Gambia in 1961. After completing her high school studies in The Gambia, she obtained a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) degree from the University of Ife in Nigeria.

Then she attained a Barrister-at-Law qualification from the Nigeria Law School.

Bensouda served in Yayeh Jammeh’s government as an adviser and justice minister, but was fired in 2000.

She joined the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as a legal adviser in 2002.

Two years later, she was elected Deputy Prosecutor of Prosecutions at the ICC.

Many observers say her elevation to the top post at the ICC in 2012 was meant to assuage strongly held fears the court was bent on prosecuting Africans only.

Many African states, including South Africa, have in the past refused to carry out an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the President of Sudan.

The ICC has accused President Omar al-Bashir of committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the volatile Darfur region.

In 2012, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and his deputy William Ruto were indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity after 1,200 people died in post-election ethnic violence in 2007-08.

Even though the court acquitted President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2014 charges against Deputy President William Ruto are still pending.

The African Union is one of the ICC’s fiercest critics. “Elsewhere in the world, many things happen, many flagrant violations of human rights, but nobody cares,” Chad president and African Union chairman, Idriss Déby said at the close of an African Union summit in February.

Bensouda strongly refutes allegations of bias against African leaders. “So I wouldn’t say that I regret that we are working in Africa, because of the fact that the victims also are African victims. If certain people are looking to shield the alleged perpetrators of those crimes, of course they will say we are targeting [African nations]. But … the victims deserve justice, the victims are Africans, and in the absence of the ICC nobody else is giving them justice.”

Bensouda – who’s married to a Moroccan-Gambian businessman, and has two sons and an adopted daughter – would like the ICC to focus on crimes against women and children. “I have sent very loud and clear messages that we will do whatever is in our power and in our mandate to address sexual violence in conflict. Because as you know, in these conflicts, unfortunately the most vulnerable groups are women and children. Whether they are taken as sexual slaves, or forced labour, or the children are recruited to fight wars that they shouldn’t be fighting – this happens.”

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