Four women at the top of the International Criminal Court – an international first

Something happened last week that almost seems to have slipped by unnoticed: the International Criminal Court (ICC) has become the first international court entirely headed up by women. On Tuesday March 11, just days after International Women’s Day, the judges of the ICC elected from among their midst the court’s first female President, Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi from Argentina. Not only that, but she is joined by two women in the rest of the presidency; is Judge Joyce Aluoch from Kenya has been elected First Vice President, and Judge Kuniko Ozaki from Japan has been elected Second Vice President. And since 2012 Fatou Bensouda, from the Gambia, has held the office of Chief Prosecutor, meaning that now all the leading positions of the court are held by women.

Women have presided over international courts before; Gabrielle Kirk McDonald was the first woman to preside over an international criminal tribunal at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), Navi Pillay presided over the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and Dame Rosalyn Higgins presided over the International Court of Justice from 2006 to 2009. However there have never been this many women in the top positions of an international court. At one point the ICTY had women presiding (Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald), as Chief Prosecutor (Louise Arbour) and as Registrar (Dorothee de Sampayo Garrido-Nijgh), however it has always had a vast majority of men on the benches.

The importance of having women in these leading positions is evidenced by the fact that some issues to do with gender violence have only come to the forefront in decisions influenced by women such as Navi Pillay, later judge at the ICC (under whose inspirational guidance I was privileged to spend some time as an intern) and recently retired UN Human Rights Commissioner. During her time at the ICTR, it was the attention she paid to evidence being presented about acts of sexual violence targeting Tutsi women, that led to the inclusion of rape as an act of genocide in the well-known Akayesu judgement. She has stated that she recognised the evidence as representing something more serious and specific than the way in which it was characterised by the prosecutors.

Indeed, this International Women’s Day the ICC pubished a press release reaffirming “its commitment to accountability for perpetrators of sexual and gender-based crimes.”

However there was no celebration nor even mention of this important, perhaps historical election of an all-female presidency in the ICC’s own press release naming Judge Fernández de Gurmendi as the new President. The fact that it has also gone unnoticed in the media is disappointing. The only media statement I could find highlighting this was from the Hirondelle News Agency, based in Arusha, Rwanda and focusing on issues of international justice.

One could see this in a positive light: in the press release, Judge Fernández de Gurmendi speaks to her commitment to live up to the trust the judges have placed in her, and no attention is drawn to her gender whatsoever. Perhaps it should just be assumed that there is nothing remarkable about 4 women leading the Court, just as there is nothing remarkable about the maleness of their predecessors. Perhaps Rosalyn Higgins was right when she stated during her presidency of the ICJ that it was simply a matter of time before there were more women in her role – and though the current president of that court is a man, there are now three women on that international bench.

But I am not convinced it is only a matter of time, nor am I convinced that there is nothing unremarkable about the gender of the four leading positions of the ICC. The ICC is unique in requiring a 50% quota of women to be elected to the bench, alongside the requirement of geographical representation among the judges. It would seem that these quota are part of what has led not only to this all-female leadership at the Court, but also to a remarkable departure from the predominance of Western judges and prosecutors at international courts. We now have Latin America, Asia and Africa represented at the helm. It would seem that diversity can only truly rise to the top if there are institutional structures in place to encourage equal participation.

So while the ICC has not yet made any fuss about that fact, and while the media has not even noticed it, I for one am celebrating the four-fold leadership at the Court and hope that it ushers in a trend rather than an exception.


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