WASHINGTON – The President of the International Court of Justice spoke for a banquet room full of women and men yesterday when he said, “I am just here to share in the joy of my colleagues.” The colleagues of whom ICJ President Peter Tomka spoke were Judges Joan E. Donoghue, Julie Sebutinde, and Xue Hanqin. The three women received the Prominent Women in International Law Award during the Women in International Law Interest Group luncheon, a highlight of every American Society of International Law annual meeting. As a special treat, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dropped in to congratulate what she called “the women’s division” of the World Court bench.
Each of the honored judges made brief but inspiring comments.
Judge Donoghue, a career U.S. State Department lawyer before she joined the ICJ in September 2010, focused her comments on gender disparity in international law. In a recent three-year period, “93 percent of the arguments judges of the ICJ heard came from men,” Donoghue said, citing “A Study of Lawyers Appearing before the International Court of Justice, 1999-2012,” a forthcoming European Journal of International Law article by Cecily Rose and Shashank Kumar. In calling for greater diversity, Donoghue reasoned:
‘We are a world court, and international law in the main is for the world.’
Flashing a broad smile, Judge Xue said, “Indeed, this is a great honor and privilege to receive this award. It’s really like an Oscar.” Xue, a former diplomat and law professor in China, is senior to Donoghue on the court by a few months. She recalled two women who had preceded both of them – Dame Rosalyn Higgins (right), whose service from 1995 to 2009 included a term as the ICJ’s President, and Suzanne Bastid (left), an ad hoc judge in the 1980s. Xue said:
‘Today we have so many women on the court not because today women are so much more intelligent, but because many international lawyers, men and women – I want to stress, men and women – have fought so hard for women’s rights.’
She accepted her award “as a tribute to all women legal professionals working in the field of international law, in recognition of their dedication to international peace and development.”
Having three women on the bench, Judge Sebutinde said, “is indeed a pinch-yourself moment for me.” Sebutinde’s pre-ICJ career included service as a judge in her homeland of Uganda and on the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Sebutinde thanked her colleagues Donoghue and Xue, stating, “I don’t think I would even have had the courage to apply if they were not there.” Sebutinde urged the court to increase public outreach. It is particularly important in her own region: “It is no secret I come from eastern Africa where there has been a lot of conflict for decades. The first thing that nations think of for settling their differences is war. It is never the International Court of Justice. So it’s a great responsibility, especially for judges who come from Africa, to sell the court to our part of the world.”
Adding their own words were audience members – judges, law students, law professors, law librarians, and practicing lawyers – who took part in WILIG’s introduce-yourself tradition. Among them was International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who recalled that as a young girl in Gambia, she had felt “helpless” after trying in vain to get police to protect a relative who was suffering domestic violence. “That is why I went to law school,” Bensouda said, and added with reference to her current work, “There must be accountability for those crimes, those who perpetrate those crimes. There must be rule of law.” Meanwhile, Washington-based attorneys Lucinda Low and Jennifer A. Hillman (a former member of the World Trade Organization Appellate Body) urged “constant vigilance” to ensure that once earned, gains in women’s participation are maintained.
A University of California-Davis Law student who hails from Kazakhstan summed up the celebratory spirit. Aigerim Dyussenova, known to her new WILIG friends as Aika, proclaimed:
‘This is the happiest day of my life.’
(In photo at top by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, WILIG Co-Chairs Clara Brillembourg – a cardboard cutout of Eleanor Roosevelt behind her – and Christie Edwards address the luncheon audience. Looking on are, from left, Judges Xue Hanqin, Joan E. Donoghue, and Sebutinde, along with Justice O’Connor. Cross-posted at IntLawGrrls and ASIL Cables)