UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Member states of the International Criminal Court elected Fatou Bensouda of Gambia as its next chief prosecutor on Monday, in part to counter perceptions in Africa that it unfairly targets the continent.
Bensouda, 50, will succeed the high-profile Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, whose term of office expires next June. She is currently his deputy.
Bensouda was elected without a vote at a meeting in the United Nations of the 120-nation Assembly of States Parties to the ICC, which is based at The Hague in the Netherlands. She will serve a nine-year term starting June 16.
A search committee had drawn up a short-list of four candidates in October. The field slimmed down to two last month after the states parties decided the job should go to an African, eliminating Britain’s Andrew Cayley and Robert Petit of Canada.
Diplomats said the other African candidate, Mohamed Chande Othman of Tanzania, subsequently withdrew from the race, leaving Bensouda, who had long been the favorite, as the only contender.
Bensouda was named deputy prosecutor of the ICC in 2004 and previously worked as a legal adviser and trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.
As chief prosecutor, she will step into the full glare of publicity and controversy that has surrounded the world’s top warcrimes court since it came into being in 2002.
While the number of signatories to the Rome Statute that created the ICC is steadily growing, key countries remain outside it. They include the United States — which fears it could be used against the U.S. military — as well as Russia, China and most Arab states.
The ICC is mandated to try cases of warcrimes and crimes against humanity that national justice systems cannot or will not prosecute.
The tough-talking Moreno-Ocampo has won praise for his role in promoting the work of the ICC. He has launched seven formal investigations, issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir and begun three trials.
The ICC indicted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi before his death in October, as well as his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. Moreno-Ocampo has said, however, that he will not demand that the captured Saif al-Islam be handed over to The Hague.
In the latest development involving the ICC, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo was flown last month to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity.
The court is also pursuing cases in Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Some African politicians, including African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping, have charged that the ICC focuses excessively on Africa. The AU has told its members to ignore the arrest warrant against Sudan’s Bashir, who has visited ICC signatories Chad and Kenya without being detained.
But Bensouda said after her election she disagreed with that view. “I think ICC is working for Africa and with African victims,” she told reporters. “I don’t think any of us can deny that the crimes, the atrocities that are happening in Africa are crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC.”
Botswana President Seretse Khama went further in a speech to the meeting that elected Bensouda, blasting what he called the “increasing failure by (some African states) to honor their obligations under the Rome Statute.”
“The reality is that atrocious human rights abuses and other serious crimes that merit ICC’s attention have and continue to be committed in Africa,” he said. “And in the majority of situations, it is Africans themselves who invite the intervention of the court.”