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(Brussels) - The swearing in of the new International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, comes at a time when expectations for international justice are growing, Human Rights Watch said today. Bensouda will be sworn into office on June 15, 2012, as the current prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, reaches the end of his nine-year term.

Bensouda is taking over an established office with an already sizeable caseload. The office has opened investigations in seven countries and is conducting preliminary examinations to determine whether to open an investigation in at least seven other countries. The transition in leadership nearly coincides with the 10th anniversary of the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, on July 1.

“In Syria and other strife-torn countries over the past 10 years, the ICC has come to symbolize the last, best hope for justice,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “We look to Bensouda’s leadership to advance cases, build bridges with victims, and push countries to support its impartial application of the law to get the job done.”

Bensouda has served as deputy prosecutor of the ICC since 2004. She was elected to be the ICC’s next prosecutor by the court’s member states in December 2011. 

Among Bensouda’s many difficult tasks will be bringing new prosecutions in country situations already before the ICC, while remaining responsive to demands in new country situations, Human Rights Watch said.

The court’s successes have led some countries to seek to use it for political ends rather than to support its independent, judicial mandate, Human Rights Watch said.  

“Some governments seem to think that the ICC is a light switch that can be turned off when justice becomes inconvenient,” Dicker said. “Bensouda can push back against those seeking to politicize the court by signaling a clear commitment to delivering justice in the courtroom.”

Some ICC member countries are insisting on zero growth in the court’s budget, even as its caseload has expanded. While many countries are facing challenging economic circumstances, this approach risks depriving the court of the resources it needs to carry out its mandate, Human Rights Watch said. By setting out plans for progress in cases, the office of the prosecutor may also help shift attitudes of countries that want to limit the court’s resources.

To help her with meeting the demands of an expanding caseload, Bensouda and the court’s states parties should make it a priority at the November meeting of all ICC members to elect a deputy prosecutor who has demonstrated excellence in dealing with complex criminal cases and institutional management.

There have been problematic past practices by the Office of the Prosecutor, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, and Central African Republic (CAR) situations, the absence of charges against government officials without a clear explanation has undermined perceptions of the court's independence, Human Rights Watch said. The perceived failure to pursue allegations against all sides in these countries has fed concerns that the prosecutor is yielding to pressure for “victor’s justice,” damaging the court’s credibility. 

The court’s current investigations are in the DRC, Uganda, the CAR, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, the Darfur region of Sudan, and Libya, the latter two referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council. Preliminary examinations concern Guinea, Colombia, Afghanistan, Georgia, Honduras, Nigeria, and South Korea– for acts committed by North Korea on South Korea's territory.

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