, THE HAGUE, Jun 14 – A one-time attorney in mainland Africa’s smallest nation, Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda reaches the pinnacle of international justice Friday when she becomes chief prosecutor of the world’s war crimes court.
The 50-year-old has already carved out a reputation in legal circles for her dogged investigations of atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide and the use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now she will be the public face of the International Criminal Court, the Hague-based tribunal that was established a decade ago with a brief to bring those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.
The court has been the target of widespread criticism from within Africa as every one of the 25 suspects who have been the target of investigations or prosecutions to date have hailed from there.
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 currently awaiting trial in the Netherlands.
But, rather than worrying about the status of the suspects, Bensouda says she sees her task as an opportunity “to give victims the voice they need”.
“I don’t think about the leaders we are pursuing,” she told AFP in a recent interview.
“I am working for the victims of Africa, they are African like me. That’s where I get my inspiration and my pride.”
Bensouda has spent the last eight years as the number two to Argentina’s Luis Moreno-Ocampo, most of that time heading the ICC’s prosecution division.
She first came to prominence in international legal circles as a trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, and later as its senior legal advisor.
Since her election as the ICC’s deputy prosecutor in August 2004, she has been involved in some of the court’s most high profile cases.
Her CV includes the ICC’s first successful prosecution in March when Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga was found guilty of abducting children as young as 11 and forcing them to fight.
The daughter of a civil servant and a housewife, Bensouda grew up in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, a tiny English-speaking west African country which borders Senegal.
She graduated from the Nigerian Law School in Lagos, returning to Gambia to begin a career in 1987 as a public prosecutor.
In 1998, she was appointed Gambia’s justice minister and attorney-general before quitting to run the International Bank for Commerce as its general manager in Banjul for two years.
But she pointed out: “It was not my thing, I missed the court.”
Bensouda entered the international justice arena in May 2002 as a trial attorney for the ICTR prosecutor’s office, taking to task those responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which some 800,000 people were slaughtered.
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, Bensouda also adopted a sister’s daughter, Saddy, 27.
Her own father was polygamous. Asked how many brothers or sisters she has, she replied: “I come from a big family, let’s say it that way.”