Why Gender Diversity Matters at the International Court of Justice for Africa and the World

Women from Africa are increasingly demonstrating their resilience in global leadership, financial institutions, international criminal law, the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Criminal Court to name a few. But there is more to be done – the election on 11 November 2020 on the bench of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) provides a unique opportunity for member states of the African Union to once again show their support for gender equality by supporting the candidacy of Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda – the first and only African woman to serve on that court.

Currently, women represent only 20% of the judges on the bench of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As the ICJ is ready to celebrate its 75th anniversary in April 2021, it is noteworthy that out of the 108 judges since the inception of the court, historically only four have been women. This editorial argues that gender parity at the ICJ should be of concern not only to Africa but also to the world. To date, the United Nations’ chief judicial body remains one of the most unbalanced international courts in terms of gender equality. This imbalance has led to scholars and advocacy groups such as the Gender Equality Campaign (GQUAL) to advocate for the diversification of the ICJ bank.

On November 12, 2020, elections will be held to fill five judicial positions across the ICJ. Of the three women currently sitting on the ICJ bench, two can be re-elected – Julia Sebutinde from Uganda and Hanqin Xue from China. On 29 June 2020, the UN Secretary-General listed in a communication (A / 75/129 – S / 2020/615) the names of the eight final candidates; only three are women, representing 38% of the candidate list. The three female candidates are Uganda’s Julia Sebutinde, China’s Hanqin Xue and Croatia’s Maja SerÅ¡ic. As one of the key organs of the United Nations, member states must ensure that the selection processes at the ICJ are in line with the abundance of efforts under the UN to achieve gender equality. Gender diversity at the ICJ is important for the reason that women make up at least half of the world population; women have the qualifications and merits for international legal positions, and women must be given equal opportunities through transparent nomination processes at national level and election at international level.

In 2012, Judge Julia Sebutinde made history as the fourth woman to be elected by the court on the bench of the ICJ in more than 60 years. The election of Sebutinde was notable for reasons beyond her gender: she was also the first woman from mainland Africa to be elected to the ICJ, compared to the 14 African judges who sat before her in that court. As an international reviewer, the appointment of Sebutinde indicates the intersections between race, gender, geographical location, and other identities that women from non-Western societies must navigate. Sebutinde’s journey to the ICJ was a combination of an unwavering ambition to become an international judge, and professional experiences that stretched over 41 years, after serving as a judge and jurist at national and international level, including judge of the Supreme Court of Uganda and the special court for Sierra Leone.

Sebutinde’s multiple and intersecting identities of race, gender, geography, as well as her professional experience, reflect her journey to the international bank, a journey she describes as’ different threads woven into a kind of cloth, the kind of cloth that I am now ‘(quoted in Judge Julia Sebutinde: An Unbreakable Cloth, “in International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives (Josephine Dawuni & Akua Kuenyehia, (eds.) (Routledge Press, 2018)).

Sebutinde’s journey as the first woman from an African country to sit on the ICJ is symbolic of the growing number of judges in Africa who have been sitting in international courts since 2006. As one of the most gender-balanced international courts, the forthcoming election in November was the five vacant seats on the bench of the ICJ provides a unique opportunity for the African group of States to support the nomination and election of a strong candidate – which coincidentally is a woman!

Julia Sebutinde rated

On merit
Judicial selection processes at international courts seek to meet the highest standards of merit, integrity, professionalism, equal opportunities, inclusion and diversity. Julia Sebutinde has a total of 41 years of experience as a judge and jurist at national, regional and international level. Her expertise extends to international international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights, maritime law, environmental law and international criminal law. Since 2012, as a judge at the ICJ, he has contributed to 40 rulings, 65 court orders and an advice. In addition to her judicial functions, she has served on the court’s essential committees, including the Chamber for Summary Process, the Budget and Administrative Committee, and chair of the Court’s Information and Communication Technology Committee. As a judge, she has experience in the internal operations of the court. She initiated important internal reforms that helped strengthen the ICJ internally, including internal justice for staff members and the modernization of court processes.

Judge Sebutinde wrote many statements and separate opinions that were added to the ICJ’s rulings, thus contributing to its case law, including a separate opinion on Chagos’ advice, in which she elaborated on the right to self-determination in the context of decolonization. with under international customary law the obligatory status (jus cogens), where no deviation is allowed.

Sebutinde has delivered several papers and public lectures and holds several international awards, including two honorary doctorates, in recognition of her contribution to international peace and justice. Judge Sebutinde has been serving on the ICJ Bank since 2012, bringing together the knowledge and skills of a sitting judge who has shown that she understands the internal workings of the court and has contributed to international law through her judicial opinions.

On trial

Fourteen male African judges preceded the arrival of Sebutinde as the first Afrikaans female judge at the ICJ. The practice was that the African Union (AU) endorsed the re-election of the current judges contesting a second term. Judge Julia Sebutinde is the first and only Afrikaans woman in court, and the first judge whose bid for a second term was not formally endorsed by the AU, but disputed by two male competitors. Although the endorsement of the AU does not necessarily mean an automatic election, the fact that the first female candidate’s re-election is not yet endorsed by the AU calls for further reflection on promises of gender equality in representation.

The revised rules for the candidates for Africa within the international system in the AU, require the parties to submit the parties names of prospective candidates within the set time frames and according to a specific format. With the forthcoming election, there were irregularities in the nomination and endorsement processes. For example, despite the initial approval of Sebutinde by the AU Ministerial Candidate Committee in Niamey, Niger, in July 2019, the endorsement was withdrawn by the AU headquarters without giving any reasons. More worrying is the failure of the Ministerial Committee on Candidates to endorse the current candidate for the post of ICJ judge, despite the repeated request of the Executive Council and the summit. The AU must make the endorsement processes transparent to all candidates. In this case, the lack of transparency is exacerbated by the unexplained withdrawal of the initial approval by the Ministerial Committee for Candidates. The AU must respect the usual practice of supporting current candidates for re-election by openly supporting the re-election bid of the current candidate that happens to a woman in the same way.

On gender equality

Gender equality does not mean that women should be nominated or endorsed at the expense of men. The notorious historical report of the ICJ as one of the most gender – balanced courts in the world requires deliberate action to address this inequality.

All the former male African judges of the ICJ received the AU’s approval, and each served two terms (unless they died in office or resigned voluntarily). Why does the AU refuse to endorse the first and only Afrikaans women judge? The AU is trying to hide by refusing to openly endorse the first Afrikaans women’s judge on the bench of the ICJ. The lack of endorsement by the AU should send a cold signal to all member states, international organizations, civil society groups, women’s organizations and all individuals interested in gender diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities for all genders.

The AU must reaffirm its obligations regarding gender equality in various legal instruments at regional and international level. The election of international court judges should be of concern to all members of the international community. As the most important judicial body of the United Nations, the bank of the ICJ must symbolically reflect the world’s gender diversity. The AU must remain true to the progress within the AU system with the election of female judges to the ACtHPR. In electing judges for the ICJ, the AU and individual African states must comply with the global calls for gender equality, equality, inclusion and diversity. The African Union must meet its proponent of gender equality by endorsing the re-election of the current candidate – who has the merits, has a wealth of international legal experience and happens to be a woman!

J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D. is executive director of the Institute for African Women in Law


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