“Law is the power we have to protect the weak and oppressed against the strong,” Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the United Nations, told a crowded Hewlett Auditorium on Wednesday, June 27.
As chief prosecutor for the ICC, Bensouda serves in a division of the United Nations that prosecutes international criminals for offenses such as genocide, mass rape and crimes against humanity. She is only the second chief prosecutor in the court’s history and the first woman to hold the position.
The ICC seeks to provide “one standard for all states, parties and the people under its protection,” Bensouda said.
“Wars and conflicts are no longer the opposition of two states or two armies,” she said. “We are no longer confined to our town or regional or national borders.”
Originally from Gambia, Bensouda studied and practiced law in her home country, and was elected deputy prosecutor of the ICC in 2004. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2012.
The United States has had a “schizophrenic” relationship with the ICC, according to Helen Stacey, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Stacey introduced Bensouda and asked several questions after her presentation.
Former President Bill Clinton signed the treaty establishing the ICC as he was leaving office, but the decision was quickly reversed when George W. Bush withdrew in 2002. Barack Obama has pursued “engagement” with the ICC, but the United States has yet to join as a member state. Membership is a contentious issue, as the ICC has jurisdictional authority to investigate and prosecute citizens or residents of member nations for international crimes.
While taking strong stances on issues such as criminal prosecutions and international justice, Bensouda tactfully replied to questions about the United States’ involvement.
“As an officer of the court, I do not question why any government or any state would not join the ICC,” Bensouda said. “I think that even without the United States joining the ICC, I think the ICC has already come to be one of the relevant players in the world in settling these international conflicts and bringing accountability for these crimes.”
Bensouda’s reluctance to enter the political debate surrounding member states is part of a wider mission to remain apolitical, which Bensouda said is critical to the ICC’s integrity.
“The ICC is a powerful new tool to prevent crime, deter crimes and promote national proceedings,” Bensouda said, “but it will only be successful if we never yield to political considerations.”
The issue is complicated, however, because the ICC has no enforcement power and relies on the armies and police forces of member countries to take actions on warrants.
Bensouda praised the now-famous “Kony 2012” video several times for the contribution it made to raising awareness about the crimes of Joseph Kony. The ICC issued a warrant for Kony’s arrest in 2005, but Bensouda said it was not until Invisible Children’s video came out that people began to know who he was and what crimes he had committed.
Stacey pointed out the inaccuracies in the video, and Bensouda readily acknowledged it was not perfect but said she felt the positive impact outweighed the negative.
Several audience members asked about atrocities the ICC wasn’t currently investigating in China, Syria and Mexico. While Bensouda acknowledged the massacre and atrocities in Syria, she said the ICC has no authority to investigate non-member countries such as Syria and China unless asked to do so by the United Nations Security Council.
Unlike those two countries, Mexico is a full member of the ICC and thus subject to investigation. In November 2011, the ICC was asked by Mexican human rights activists to investigate then-President Felipe Calderon for his actions in the war against drug cartels. Bensouda’s predecessor and former boss said the ICC would not hear the complaint.
When asked by an audience member whether crimes were being investigated in Mexico, Bensouda said the court is monitoring the situation but no current investigation is underway.
“We have not started actively engaging, but we also are receiving information,” she said. “We have been receiving a lot of information from everywhere about Mexico.”
“I think that’s code for ‘watch this space,’” Stacey added.
The presentation was the keynote address for the Stanford Summer Human Rights Program’s lecture series.