Murungi, Bensouda: The female lawyers tasked with Ethiopia conflict probe

Former ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • They are part of the newly created International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia.
  • They are tasked with establishing "the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses”.
  • Ms Murungi and Ms Bensouda, 61, will work alongside law professor Steven Ratner.

Kenyan lawyer Betty Murungi and former International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made headlines last week after landing high-profile appointments by a UN body.

The two will now be at the heart of the probe into the Ethiopian conflict, which has seen millions displaced. The UN Human Rights Council last week appointed them to probe human rights violations in the Tigray region.

Ms Murungi and Ms Bensouda, 61, will work alongside law professor Steven Ratner.

They will now be part of the newly created International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia tasked with establishing "the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses”.

They will be required to collect and preserve evidence; identify those responsible, where possible; and make such information accessible and usable in support of ongoing and future accountability efforts.

The aim of the probe is to identify, to the extent possible, those responsible for the violations to face prosecution.

The Council president, Ambassador Federico Villegas, announced the appointments. Bensouda will head the team.

Ethiopia's war broke out in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray to topple the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Ahmed said the move was in response to the rebel group's attacks on army camps.

So far, more than six million people have been affected by the conflict, and 2.2 million of them displaced, including almost one million women and girls.

So, the team has its work cut out for them.

But who are the women handed the high-profile roles?

Bensouda

She hails from the Gambia and came into the limelight in Kenya when several leaders, including President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, were charged at the ICC in 2012 in relation to the 2007 post-election violence.

Former ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Bensouda then served as the ICC chief prosecutor, a position she held from 2012 to 2021. The lawyer, who reached the pinnacle of international justice when she became chief prosecutor, has a reputation as a resolute investigator.

She became the first woman and the first African to head the team of prosecutors after serving as deputy to her predecessor, Mr Luis Moreno-Ocampo, from 2004.

Bensouda first came to prominence in international legal circles as a trial lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, and later as its senior legal advisor.

She is an alumna of the Nigerian Law School, Lagos, where she graduated with a law degree before returning to the Gambia to begin a career in 1987 as a public prosecutor.

She ventured into the international justice arena in May 2002, working for the ICTR prosecutor’s office. During her stint at ICTR, she took to task those responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which some 800,000 people were brutally killed.

Between 1987 and 2000, she served as a senior state counsel, principal state counsel, deputy director of public prosecutions, solicitor general and the country’s legal secretary.

She also served as the Gambi’a attorney general and minister for justice, during which she was the chief legal advisor to the country’s president.

Ms Bensouda also took part in negotiating the treaty of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the West African Parliament and the Ecowas Tribunal.

She holds a Master’s in International Maritime Law and Law of the Sea and as such is the first international maritime law expert in the Gambia.

In a past interview with the Guardian, Bensouda said she has always been interested in the pursuit of justice. “The issue of justice and accountability seems to be ... in my DNA,” she said.

In 2017, she received an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Dundee in Scotland, United Kingdom, in recognition for her work.

Murungi

The Kenyan lawyer has been a leading human rights and social justice advocate and has an impressive profile.

She has practised law at the national, regional and international levels, and in the management and governance of non-governmental and non-profit organisations.

Former Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission Vice Chairperson Betty Murungi during a public lecture on Justice in transition debate at a Nairobi hotel on June 7, 2010.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Ms Murungi has served on the board of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice at the ICC, The Hague, Netherlands, and is a past board member of the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya.

From 2009 to 2013, she served as vice-chairperson and commissioner of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya and as the Africa representative to the Board of Directors of the Trust Fund for Victims at the ICC.

Besides working in Kenya, Murungi has worked in South Sudan, Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, and Liberia.

In 2018, Murungi was appointed as a member of the Commission of Inquiry into the 2018 protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

She has also served as a consultant and legal advisor on rights and democracy on gender-related crimes at the ICTR.

Ms Murungi has received several awards for her work, including the Kenya National Honour of the Moran of the Burning Spear for her efforts in human rights activism (2003).

In a past media interview by one of the local TV stations, Ms Murungi said she had never decided to become a lawyer.

“I never decided to be a lawyer. It was by default. I got high marks and went to law school. When I was young, I thought that I would become a doctor, but science did not agree with my reasoning and ability,” she said during the TV interview.

Murungi studied law at the University of Nairobi before proceeding to the Kenya School of Law. In 2005/06, she was a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.

In 2005, she was awarded the International Peace Advocate Award by the Cardozo Law School, New York.

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