You could be excused for not noticing that the International Criminal Court just elected an all-female presidency—the news, after all, did not garner many headlines. Given the continuing under-representation of women in positions of leadership and power throughout the world, however, we might do well to pay more attention.
As of March 11, the ICC’s new president is Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi of Argentina. Kenyan Judge Joyce Aluoch has been elected first vice-president, and Japanese Judge Kuniko Ozaki, who was born in Hiroshima in the aftermath of World War II, will serve as second vice-president. These three women have been elected to helm a genuinely global institution comprised of 123 member countries, many of which face significant and deep-rooted hurdles to women’s equality.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about the fact that all three members of the presidency are women is that, to many in the profession, their election hardly seemed extraordinary at all. It was, in fact, entirely in keeping with an exemplary tradition of women in international criminal law.
If the International Criminal Court is still an awkward adolescent—set to celebrate its 13th birthday this summer—the broader field of international criminal law is a post-war baby boomer, surprised to find itself in its seventies. As it has fought its way along a difficult and never quite linear path, many of its most dogged advocates and successful leaders have been women.
Their contributions began early. The United Nations War Crimes Commission of 1943-1948, one of the first multilateral international initiatives to undertake widespread investigations into war crimes and prepare prosecutions, counted several female representatives amongst its leaders. Women represented their nations both at the Commission headquarters in London as well at their respective national offices.
Legal professional Elizabeth M. Goold-Adams, represented the government of Belgium from 1947-1948 in London. She also played a leading role in documenting the work and structure of the UNWCC upon its closure and served as the editor of the Commission’s official history. Mademoiselle Claude Capiomont, who served with the French Red Cross during the war, represented the French government on the Commission’s Committee on Facts and Evidence from 1946-1948. Women also represented the governments of Norway and the Netherlands at official committee meetings.
Katherine Fite, a Yale graduate and lawyer with the U.S. Department of State, helped to draft the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and was a leading lawyer in the Office of U.S. Chief of Counsel Robert H. Jackson. Fite was instrumental in analyzing and assembling evidence to build the U.S. case against senior leaders of Nazi Germany.
International criminal law was largely quiet in the years following the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, but was reborn 50 years later with the response to conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Louise Arbour was appointed Chief Prosecutor of both the Yugoslavia Tribunal and the Rwanda Tribunal in 1996. Her bold, sure-handed leadership oversaw the indictment of Slobodan Milošević, then an acting Head of State, and charted a new course for the tribunals and the entire field of international criminal law. When Ms. Arbour left to take up a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada—later to become the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and then President of the International Crisis Group—she was replaced by the determined Swiss prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who oversaw the prosecution of Mr. Milošević and a series of other landmark trials. It was the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals that blazed the trail for the ICC.
The election of an all-female presidency for the International Criminal Court follows the 2011 election of accomplished Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda to the position of ICC Chief Prosecutor. Ms. Bensouda had previously served as the Attorney General and Minister of Justice in The Gambia before joining the Rwanda Tribunal and then the ICC. As the head of the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, she is responsible for deciding whether and when to open new investigations and for overseeing the investigation and subsequent prosecution of all accused offenders at the court.
The ascendancy of Judge Fernández de Gurmendi, Judge Aluoch, and Judge Ozaki to the ICC’s Presidency can and should serve as another bellwether along the road to gender equality in workplaces around the world – not to mention a source of pride. The contributions of these women should not go unnoticed by the international community.
Despite these notable strides on the international stage, however, the national legal systems of many of the ICC member states continue to lag badly behind. Populations around the world still fail to recognize the equal status of women in the workplace and in society at large, and women everywhere still experience disturbing levels of gender-based violence. For women to occupy these senior leadership positions at the ICC, a powerful institution to which the governments of these states are beholden, is an important step. This achievement is more than merely symbolic; the responsibility inherent in the ICC’s Presidency is very real. As they carry out their duties as elected leaders of the Court, we hope that President Fernández de Gurmendi and Vice-Presidents Aluoch and Ozaki will seize the opportunity to continue to uphold the rights of women around the world.
Shanti Sattler is the Assistant Director of the War Crimes Project at SOAS, University of London, and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
Eliott Behar was a war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and is the author of the new book Tell It To The World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo.