The next chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court pledged Tuesday to strengthen efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of sexual and gender crimes.
A day after her election by the 119 countries that support the tribunal, Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda said too often gender crimes go unreported and unpunished and the victims are trivialized, denigrated, threatened and silenced, which enables the abuses to continue unimpeded.
In its first cases, she said, the ICC has sent the message that this is no longer acceptable and must stop.
The International Criminal Court, which began operating in 2002, is the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. It is a court of last resort, stepping in only when countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
At the moment, the ICC is dealing with cases from Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda involving the Lord's Resistance Army, the Darfur conflict in Sudan, the recent Libyan uprising, and post-election violence in Kenya and Ivory Coast.
At present, crimes such as rape, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution and pregnancy are alleged in some cases before the court in all of these situations except Libya, where an investigation of alleged gender-based crimes is still under way.
Bensouda, who will become the first woman and first African to hold the top prosecutorial job when she takes over from Luis Moreno Ocampo in mid-2012, said it was important to give the first speech following her election at Tuesday's launch of a Gender Report Card critiquing the court's work on gender-based crimes at a New York hotel attended by women's rights activists, U.N. officials and diplomats.
"This office, under my tenure, will continue and will make sure that these crimes that they have suffered will be punished _ their perpetrators being arrested and prevented from committing additional crimes," she said. "This is a commitment that I make to all of you today."
Bensouda said that throughout her legal career as justice minister in her native Gambia, trial attorney at the tribunal prosecuting key figures from the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and as the ICC's deputy prosecutor since 2004, "I have always placed a big emphasis on addressing and prosecuting sexual and gender crimes."
She paid tribute to women's rights groups working in conflict areas who are often the only support for victims of gender violence and pledged that as chief prosecutor her office will strengthen cooperation with them "to support their efforts and to continue our efforts to reach out to more victims."
The 352-page Gender Report Card prepared by the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice, an international women's rights group that advocates for gender justice at the ICC and elsewhere, contains many recommendations, including strengthening the court in assisting victims and enabling their participation in court proceedings, and increasing funding to effectively prosecute gender based crimes.
Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women's Initiative, said the ICC statute contains the most far-reaching and forward-looking provisions for prosecuting gender-based crimes, but its prosecution record so far shows there is still work to be done.
"While gender-based crimes are regularly charged by the ICC, they continue to be the most vulnerable category of crimes addressed by the court," Inder said. "A high proportion of these charges are dismissed before the trial phase due to quirky judicial decisions, insufficient evidence or incorrect characterization of the facts regarding sexual violence."