THE HAGUE, Jun 14 – Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda takes over Friday as the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, determined not to cave in to pressure over the pursuit of African heads of state for war crimes.
The 50-year-old, the first woman and African to head the Hague-based team of prosecutors, has served as Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s number two since 2004.
During the Argentinian’s nine-year term, the ICC has either opened investigations against or prosecuted 25 suspects – all from Africa.
The list includes Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi while Ivory Coast’s toppled leader Laurent Gbagbo is awaiting trial in the Netherlands.
But Bensouda insists that anyone expecting that change at the top will mark a radical departure from the Moreno-Ocampo era is about to be disappointed.
“We clearly have different styles and different approaches,” Bensouda told journalists this week in a round-table discussion at the ICC’s headquarters.
“But I have worked with Luis Moreno-Ocampo for almost eight years… and it is my responsibility to ensure that we consolidate on what has been built.”
Several African heads of state and even the head of the African Union’s executive body Jean Ping have criticised the ICC as an institution applying double standards.
Bashir has been a guest of a number of his African peers since an arrest warrant for genocide was issued in 2010, while an AU summit last year rejected an ICC warrant against Gaddafi which was issued before his killing.
Bensouda’s message however to African critics was unequivocal.
“One thing must be clear, the prosecutor’s office has never been driven by geographical considerations,” she said.
“I will open new investigations in Africa if I have to, but I will not hesitate to open investigations elsewhere if the criteria of the Rome Statute are met. Being African or not is not the issue here.”
Elected by the state parties which has signed up to the Rome Statute – the court’s founding document – Bensouda will be sworn in during a brief ceremony held at the ICC’s courtroom 1 at 11:00 am (0900 GMT) on Friday.
Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s first chief prosecutor, was sworn in on November 3, 2003, and served a nine-year-term – the same mandate as Bensouda.
Back then, said Bensouda, the number of staff in the prosecutor’s office could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Now she will inherit a 300-strong team.
The prosecutor’s office of the world’s first permanent court to try those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, is now investigating cases in seven countries, all of them African.
The ICC’s judges, at the prosecution’s request, has issued 20 arrest warrants, but only six suspects have been arrested so far.
Some have openly defied the court, such as Sudan’s Bashir, who continues to travel abroad despite an arrest warrant being issued for his alleged role in genocide in Darfur.
The ICC does not have its own police force, but relies on the goodwill of the countries that have ratified the Rome Statute.
Bensouda said she was frustrated that those wanted by the court remained at large.
“There is a sense of frustration when the likes of Omar al-Bashir and Joseph Kony,” continued to walk free, Bensouda said in reference to the Ugandan leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, who became the subject of an intense Internet campaign calling for his arrest earlier this year.
But said Bensouda: “We have done our duty.”
“We had to investigate, prosecute, seek arrest warrants and present proof in all cases, which we did.
“The issue with the ICC is that we are a judicial institution operating in a political environment and this sometimes becomes a challenge.”
She said the ICC constantly remained the subject of criticism from many fronts.
“One of our major challenges is that we have to continue to act within the law and strictly apply the Rome Statute,” she said.
“If we remain transparent, the court will retain its credibility.”