, THE HAGUE, Dec 1 – Standing in the shadow of the high-profile lawyer she is expected to replace, Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda says she is proud to work for Africa’s victims as the prospective new chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Backdrop to her office, the faces of Omar al-Bashir, Jean-Pierre Bemba and the late Moamer Kadhafi stare down at her from a large poster displaying all 25 suspects wanted, or tried, by the Hague-based ICC for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
All are African, like Bensouda, who is expected to be formally named Thursday in New York as the Argentinian Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s successor by countries which ratified the court’s founding Rome Statute.
“It certainly does not make it difficult for me,” Bensouda, the world war crimes court’s deputy prosecutor since 2004, told AFP in an interview.
Her thoughts are not with those leaders indicted by the court.
“I am working for the victims of Africa, they are African like me. That’s where I get my inspiration and my pride,” she said.
Her first brush with mass crimes came in Rwanda, when she worked for almost three years at the Arusha, Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), before her departure for The Hague.
It was in the Rwandan capital Kigali where she cut her teeth, working with investigators, interviewing witnesses to the 1994 genocide which claimed 800,000 lives.
“You just try to understand why this happened at this level,” she said, “you do a lot of soul-searching”.
Daughter to a civil servant and a housewife, she grew up in the Gambian capital Banjul, the tiny English-speaking west African country of 1.75 million people wedged between Senegal territory.
The question whether she has any brothers or sisters makes Bensouda laugh.
“I come from a big family, let’s say it that way,” she replied before explaining “my father is polygamous”.
She studied law on a Gambian scholarship in Lagos, Nigeria, before returning to join her country’s justice ministry in 1987 as a deputy public prosecutor.
She rose through the ranks of Gambia’s justice system to be appointed in 1998 as Gambian attorney-general and justice minister.
Following that, she opened her own law firm before becoming general manager at a commercial bank — a position she held for just a few months.
“It was not my thing. I missed the court,” and she left for Rwanda and the ICTR.
“Ever since I can remember it’s something that I wanted to do. I want to see justice done,” added Bensouda, elegantly dressed in black trousers and a sweater under a black-and-white jacket, her hair done in African braids.
The mother of two sons who have completed their studies in architecture and finance, one living in Banjul and the other in the United States, also adopted a sister’s daughter, Saddy, 27.
“She studied law in the United Kingdom and looks up to me as her role model,” Bensouda said flashing a smile.
Now living in The Hague with her businessman husband, she has led the ICC’s prosecution division for the last seven years.
This saw her speaking at hearings and leading the work of prosecution teams before and during trials.
It also entailed travelling to regions and countries subject to ICC investigations, or where the court said it was likely to open probes.
“Darfur, Guinea, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo…” she listed.
“I do go first. Sometimes it is higher profile and everybody knows and sometimes not. It is just to open the doors and to see how investigations can be done,” she said.
Sometimes too, she warned heads of state: “I was there for the elections in Guinea to say if they commit crimes, they have to hold people accountable, or the ICC will come.”
To those accusing her of standing in the shadow of her high-profile boss Luis Moreno-Ocampo, her answer is simple: “I am his deputy.”
Asked if she likes her job, she replied: “I love what I am doing. In this position I am able to give victims the voice they need.”