Fatou Bensouda on Global Women’s Issues at the Crossroads: Assessing Progress

Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Melanie Einzig/CFR
Fatou Bensouda

Chief Prosecutor, International Criminal Court

Debora L. Spar

President, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

This is the keynote session of the Women in Foreign Policy symposium. 

Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), discusses her career at the ICC, the obstacles she has faced in her profession, and the challenges that still exist in integrating women into high level foreign policy positions.

To commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, this symposium convenes leading experts on global women’s issues to analyze the status of women worldwide and evaluate their contributions to governance, economic growth, and conflict prevention and resolution.

HAASS: Well, good morning. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations, and as I look around the room, just another typical morning at the Council on Foreign Relations, so—

I’m Richard Haass, and I just want to welcome each and every one of you to this symposium, and this is not just an everyday symposium. It’s the 15th anniversary of the CFR’s Women in Foreign Policy program. We’ve got a great set of speakers and a great set of panels, and you’re going to hear all about that in a moment, but first you’re going to hear from me.

When the Council launched this program in 2002—and I can’t take credit for it because I didn’t show up until 2003—it was done under the leadership of Isobel Coleman, who we’ll see here later today, and it was the first of its kind in the policy community. And when we started it and when we decided to keep it and grow it, it was based upon hard thinking: that elevating the status of women in society is not in any way, quote, unquote, “a soft issue,” nor is it exclusively a human rights issue, though as I see Mickey (sp) there—not that there’d be anything wrong with that—(laughter)—but it’s also an important national security topic.

And the status and role of women touches on a broad range of economic and security issues. There’s all sorts of evidence that women’s participation in the economy reduces poverty and grows GDP. Investment in health and education of girls and women is probably the single best thing you can do if you want to invest in economic growth and development. There’s a whole lot of studies showing if you have one dollar in your wallet and you want to contribute to development, invest it in girls’ literacy and that, over time, you will get more return on investment than any single other thing you might—you might do with that dollar.

And more recently, from here, there’s been some very interesting work done about the role and contributions that women make in conflict resolution and peacekeeping. I’m not talking simply about general sort of contributions—excuse me—but that there seems to be, at times, different outcomes.

So I think—and we think—it’s critically important that organizations such as this one focus on this set of issues, and today is just one way that we can do just that. And what we can do is showcase some of the work done by scholars here and elsewhere over the past 15 years.

Let me say one or two things about this organization. The Council on Foreign Relations was created in 1921, nearly a century ago, but women were not admitted as members for the first half century of this organization. The first woman was admitted as a member in 1970, literally 49 years after the Council was established.

Since that time, there has been a slow—but I would describe it as steady—progress. Women now make up roughly a quarter of the membership of the—of life members, and among the term members—those who become members for five years between the ages of 30 and 36—women now make up 40 percent of membership, so we’re not where we want to be, we’re not where we should be, but we’re making progress, and I think it augers well for the future. The arrows are finally pointing in the right direction.

The Council is known for its production and dissemination of ideas, but another thing we do is we also develop talent. One of the ways we develop talent is through our international affairs program. What this does is give people in government a year out, a kind of sabbatical, and it gives people who are not in government a year in.

We’ve had over the years some 600 people take advantage of this year. More than a quarter, close to 30 percent, have been women, including two named Condoleezza Rice and Samantha Power. This was their first opportunity and experience in government. And now we’ve reached a point where roughly half of our international affairs fellows in any given year are women. In our in-house think tank, the Studies Program, more than half—roughly 60 percent—of the staff, including fellows and research associates, now are women as well. So, again, we’ve got lots of work to do, but finally I’m glad to say we can point to some real progress.

This symposium today is one part of the work we’re doing with and by and on women here at the Council. And our goal—and we’re actually in something of a fundraising effort—is to make this a permanent part of our intellectual agenda here at this institution.

So let me now turn to the person who is better-positioned than any other to talk about the symposium. She’s the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is—also directs the Program on Women and Foreign Policy, Rachel Vogelstein. (Applause.)

VOGELSTEIN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Council’s 15th Anniversary Symposium on Women and Foreign Policy.

I want to begin by thanking Richard for his leadership and support for CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. As he noted, in 2002 the Council became the first to establish a program to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives. And while I’m pleased that others have since followed suit, I’m proud that the Council paved the way.

I also want to thank the visionary leaders who helped to found and sustain this program as part of CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Advisory Council. Many of these leaders are here in the room today, and we are grateful for their efforts and support.

Like Richard, I’m delighted to welcome Ambassador Isobel Coleman, our program’s founding director, back to CFR. The legacy that Isobel created is one that my colleagues and I are privileged to carry forward. And many of my esteemed colleagues will also be here with us today, including senior fellows Gayle Lemmon, Jamille Bigio, Catherine Powell and Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, each of whom produce scholarship that’s at the cutting edge of the field.

Over the past 15 years, as the recognition of the relationship between women’s advancement and stability has grown, so too has an unprecedented policy framework aimed at integrating global women’s issues into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy. During this time period, the United States created its first national action plan on women, peace and security and enacted legislation to codify its requirements into law.

Our government established an Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department and created the position of U.S. ambassador at large on women’s issues to elevate our work in this area.

Our foreign-assistance agency has, for the first time, required a gender analysis for all U.S. development programs. And our ambassadors to the United Nations led the adoption of multiple groundbreaking Security Council resolutions focused on women, security, and stability.

The past 15 years have also produced extraordinary improvements in the status of women and girls around the world. During this timeframe, a record number of countries have put laws prohibiting discrimination and violence against women on the books. The rate of maternal mortality, which previously stood at half a million women each year, has been cut in half. And the gender gap in primary schooling virtually closed on a global level, meaning that an entire generation of girls now has access to educational opportunities that their mothers and grandmothers didn’t enjoy.

And yet, despite these improvements and the important policy changes we’ve seen in the United States and around the world, serious gender gaps remain that undermine U.S. interests in prosperity and stability. Over the past two decades, women’s participation in the labor force has actually dropped from 57 to 55 percent globally, notwithstanding evidence showing that women’s economic participation fuels growth.

Female political participation remains stagnant, with women occupying only a quarter of parliamentary seats globally and serving as heads of state in only 18 out of 193 countries, despite the positive outcomes we know are associated with women’s leadership. And although research shows that women’s participation in peace processes makes peace agreements more likely to endure, women continue to be excluded from security processes, comprising only 8 percent of negotiators around the world.

Our symposium today affords an opportunity to take stock of the gains we’ve made and evaluate the gaps that remain as we chart an agenda on women and foreign policy over the next 15 years. And we have three dynamic sessions to help explore the way forward.

Our first will assess progress on women’s leadership, featuring Fatou Bensouda, the first female chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Our second session will address barriers that continue to inhibit women’s economic participation and evaluate reforms in the public and private sectors to spur progress. Our third session will assess efforts to advance women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution, a timely discussion in the wake of the recent passage of the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017.

We have a stellar roster of panelists and moderators at the Council today, and we’re grateful to each of them for sharing their expertise with us.

As we get under way, I’d like to offer a special word of thanks to my CFR colleagues who have put together today’s event, including Stacey LaFollette, Katie Mudrick, Anna-Sophia Haub, and the Women and Foreign Policy Program staff.

And finally, I’d like to remind everyone that today’s conversation will be on the record.

With that, please join me in welcoming to the stage Fatou Bensouda and Debora Spar. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

SPAR: Good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to be here today to help get the morning started, and particularly delighted to be engaging in a conversation with Fatou Bensouda; as you just heard, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

You have Fatou’s full biography in your materials, but let me just briefly remind you of some of the highlights of her career to date. Fatou was elected in 2011 and sworn in to her current position in 2012. She worked previously as a deputy prosecutor at the ICC; prior to that was legal adviser and trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and served as the chief legal adviser to the president and cabinet of the Republic of Gambia.

She has served as a delegate to the U.N. Conference on Crime Prevention and the Organization of African Unity’s ministerial meetings on human rights. And she has a Master’s degree in international maritime law. So an incredibly accomplished and wonderful person to help get us launched this morning.

My name is Debora Spar. I am currently the president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and prior to that was the president of Barnard College, which, as you may know, is the all-women’s college uptown here.

So let me start here—and it was lovely to hear Rachel giving us some good news, but I’m going to start with some bad news on a dreary Tuesday morning.

So, Fatou, you and I are roughly the same age. I won’t reveal either of ours, but we’re roughly the same age. And I don’t know what it was like when you were growing up, obviously, in Gambia. But when I was growing up here in the United States in the 1960s, it was a time of great excitement about women’s rights. Feminism, in retrospect, was probably at its peak. And there was great anticipation that if girls were smart and worked hard and were ambitious, they could kind of achieve whatever they wanted. Folks from roughly that generation may recall that this was the era when Barbie briefly was an astronaut, somehow capturing the excitement on various fronts.

And yet here we find ourselves, 50 years later, and pick up the front page of any newspaper and the world doesn’t seem particularly hospitable to women right now. We are bombarded with cases of sexual harassment on a daily basis. The percentage of women in political participation in this country is actually declining, although current races could change that. And in your world, rape as a tool of war, we know, is rampant.

So let me ask you the unanswerable big question: What went wrong? (Laughter.) We’ll get more positive later, but let’s start there.

BENSOUDA: We’re still trying to figure out what went wrong. And it is unfortunate that until now women continue to face these problems. It’s the same with us back home. I know that women have made great strides to improve our condition. But we still have problems. We still have to get to where we should be. And this is important.

But, at least coming from Africa, coming from The Gambia, where I grew up, I also know that the setup that we have in terms of social setup that we have, and the belief that you—that the man has priority over you, that the boy has priority over the girls—even at the very young age, you know, going to school, most of the house chores, for instance, it’s girls who do it. When the boys have the opportunity to study, you have to do the chores before you go to study. And basically, how we are set up, what we are meant to believe, what we are led to believe, has not helped—has not helped.

But what I see has been happening over the years is that women are standing up for themselves. We are recognizing these disadvantages that we have growing up. And there are quite a few women in Africa today, in Gambia, where I can at least give concrete examples, that have, I would say, shattered the glass ceiling, because for me that’s what I always say. They put a glass ceiling over you, but it’s meant to be shattered. And women are taking that step and trying to be part of the community, and play their role in community. We have—we have that role. Unfortunately, if we do not do it by ourselves, if we do not go forward and try to find these opportunities and equip ourselves to have these opportunities, it would not go anywhere.

We are not yet there. Many changes have happened over time. We’re not yet there. But I believe that we can get there if we, as women, take the—take this forward ourselves. It is—it is important that we do that, because I don’t believe that any country, any government can develop to its full potential with only half its population. The women are the other half. So they need to be part of that. Part of that development.

SPAR: Yeah. So I want to pick up on a piece of that in a moment, but let me first just ask you to talk a bit about—a bit about Africa. Because—you know, if we just look at some of the data, there are a couple of countries in Africa where the percentage of women in the political leadership is actually much higher than it is in Europe and the United States. So, are there lessons from Africa, countries that you’re familiar with, that we might want to look at in more depth in the U.S. and Europe?

BENSOUDA: I believe so. Rwanda is an example that I can easily cite, where you have the participation in government. In parliament you have women – more women than men. It’s really one of the few countries, if not the only country—I’m not so sure—that in Africa, and maybe even in the world, where you have women’s participation at that level.

SPAR: I think it’s the highest level in the world.

BENSOUDA: Yes. It’s really one of the highest levels. And this is a lesson that we can learn. In the first and foremost we can—we will—we are able to see that women can be leaders and can be progressive leaders, and can actually just—I mean, they’re always thinking that as women they are so much—there are so many things that you can know, and it stops there. When it comes to leadership, there is so—sort of a certain level that you can get to, but it stops there.

But I believe that what you see in Rwanda—and I think there are many other African countries also—where in the recent past we have seen women presidents, women leaders coming up. And this is an example, to show that we can do it, and that these are lessons that can be learned. Even though we always view Africa as, you know, not—underdeveloped, not having these issues in mind. But this is an example to show that these issues are in our minds.

We also want to play that role. We also have the capacity—and this is—this is what is important—the capacity to play that role. And we have demonstrated that in Rwanda and in several other African countries. I recall that when I was serving my government, I was the—I served my government as minister of justice and attorney general. At the time, the auditor general was also a woman. The solicitor general was also a woman. I think there was another general. So they called us the generals—the women generals. (Laughter.)

But it’s also another example to show that when it comes to governance, when it comes to governing, women can play that role. And they have the capacity to be able to play that role. We really must reject this relegating us to the background, that we have to come in second after the so-called big positions and responsible ones have been taken by our men.

SPAR: Yeah, I think that there’s a question of sort of what the triggers or the catalyst might be. I think—my own view would be, in the United States, there’s plenty of women who think they have the capacity, the intelligence. But they feel stymied by force around them. So the question that always arises is: Do you need some kind of legal process? You know, do you need to mandate that 50 percent of legislators are women? Do you need to mandate that certain numbers of candidates are female? And I think Rwanda, it’s part of the law. I mean, do you think, based on your experience, has that worked, actually putting quotas or guidelines around female participation?

BENSOUDA: You know, I think—well, I believe it has worked for Rwanda. But I always think that perhaps we should not only say that—depend on quotas. This is still, in a way—I see it as not the meaning but—you know, we have to be able to take what we—what we deserve and not wait for it to be legislated for us to be able to assume that position, because it also stems, again, from the premise that you have to wait to be given before you can be someone. That is the only perspective that I really don’t like about it, even though sometimes you feel that it is necessary for us to be able to do that because when you look back in Africa, women play a big part in politics. But only to make the leaders.

We are the ones who are clapping for them. We—you know, when you really want to win a position back home, you get your—women constituency to be very strong. And we have that capacity to be able to vote you in, as a man. And I always say that that capacity to vote in the men, we, as women, can vote in ourselves. This is important. So we really should not continue to sit back and wait for laws or for quotas, or—it’s good. I’m not saying it’s not good. But I’m saying that in addition to that, we should also have that positive and proactive step towards really playing the role that we are supposed to play, that we deserve to play, in society.

SPAR: All right. So let me ask you the other sort of set of killer questions here that are totally unanswerable, but you can at least give them a shot.


SPAR: So I’m guessing that most people in this room, or else you wouldn’t be in this room, would firmly agree on the importance of getting more women in positions of power, women in legal positions, women in political positions, across the board. Does it really make a difference? So you were just mentioning that in Gambia that the women—the women generals were running, and your role now here in the ICC. What has been your sense? When women do have these positions in power, particularly in the foreign policy realm, do things operate differently? Or is it just nice to have the equity?

BENSOUDA: No, I believe things will operate differently. And I have—and we have had examples. In the field that I am in, as a prosecutor and also working in the area of sexual and gender-based crimes in conflict, I’ll just give you the example of at the ICTR and also the Akayesu judgement, which, as you know today, has really contributed a major position for the treatment for the—dealing with sexual and gender-based crimes at the international level. We had one of the judges in the Akayesu case, Navi Pillay. Navi Pillay was sitting as one of the judges.

And because of the questions that she asked, as a judge and as a woman—we all know in times of conflict unfortunately the brunt of the conflict, women and children bear it. And because of sitting there as a judge and asking these personal questions relating to sexual and gender-based crimes, prompted the prosecution to go back and to be able to try for these crimes. And we know that Akayesu is a landmark judgement when it comes to the – dealing with sexual and gender-based crimes, and charging rape as a crime against humanity, and even as genocide.

So this was critically important. And it today informs where we are. It’s one of those that contributed informing where we are at the international level, and also even at the ICC, because this has now been codified and we are able to charge as a war crime, as crimes against humanity. And I believe the Akayesu judgement has a lot to do with that. And this, as I said, it’s because—I believe, that it’s because a woman was sitting there and bringing that perspective to it.

The way that women are impacted when these crimes happen in conflict is different from what men suffer. And to be able to bring that perspective to the table is critically important. We have seen over the years that even when it comes to negotiations for peace, for conflict resolutions, that group of women, that, as I said, are differently impacted, are not at the table. We’re not talking about—they’re not brought to the negotiating table. And we see the cycle of violence. It happens over and over and over again. And I do believe that if women were able to have that chance, that opportunity to sit there and also to bring that perspective, this could make a difference. So I completely agree that when it comes to women leadership, women in positions of leadership can actually change things, because the perspective that we bring is completely different from our counterparts.

SPAR: And just congratulations on that work. I mean, that’s incredible work, and you’ve brought people to the table that needed to be, so—(applause).

BENSOUDA: Currently, as you know, with respect to the way my office is now dealing with the issues of sexual- and gender-based crimes, I really looked at the ICC statute and the great advances that have been made in addressing sexual and gender-based crimes. And I saw it as an opportunity—an opportunity to really enhance what we can do, because it’s unfortunate that after so many years we see that still, today, in conflict this continues to happen. The vulnerable groups are women and children. We’re seeing that. And looking at the statute, I said that what can we do, what can I do to enhance the investigations and prosecutions of these crimes, because I believe that if we—if it is properly investigated and prosecuted on those who perpetrate these crimes are held to account—I believe it can have a deterrent effect, at least others can learn from it.

And this is one of the things that really led me to having this policy on sexual- and gender-based crimes. It was one of the first policies I decided to publish since 2014. And really the main aim of the policy was, first, to be able to deal with this issue differently—differently in the sense that those who investigate and prosecute it should be well-equipped to deal with it.

Secondly, I also wanted to provide transparency on what the office is doing in treating the issues of sexual- and gender-based crimes. I felt that my team should be very well-equipped to be able to deal with it, because when you look at these kinds of crimes, you find that investigating them and prosecuting it is actually an extra challenge that investigators face. Already, investigating atrocity crimes of killings and pillage and murders is difficult to investigate at that level, but investigating sexual- and gender-based crimes particularly comes with its problems, with its challenges that are even different from others. So I believe it was important to have that kind of training in my team at every level. What I tried to do is to integrate the gender perspective in every stage of what we do, whether it’s preliminary examinations, it’s investigations, it’s prosecutions, appeals, even at reparations levels—which, as you know, we don’t do it, but usually the judges ask for our opinion. So all of this, for me, it was important that the office has to take a different stand towards addressing this.

And hopefully, also, we were saying that we know these crimes continue to happen even at the national level—you know, women unfortunately suffer violence within and outside of the house. So we were—I was also hoping that for those national jurisdictions that have interest in addressing this issue, but also look to the policy to get a thing or two from it, and to be able to address it more comprehensively, because this was a policy that really received wide consultation. I consulted with many experts outside of my office because I do have people who really have expertise in this area in my office. But outside of my office, we are consulted. I work very closely with my special adviser for sexual- and gender-based crimes, Bridget Inder. And we consulted academia. We consulted with states parties. We’ve consulted very widely.

And I remember I had set a deadline for myself to say that I wanted to launch this policy at a particular date, but I received overwhelming, really overwhelming support and comments and commentaries people sending in, so much so that I decided to move the deadline, because I wanted to also benefit from this expertise from outside. And I believe, in the end, we were able to come out with a very good and comprehensive policy on it, which the important part of it is the implement.

SPAR: Yeah.

BENSOUDA: And this is what the office is engaged in right now: implementing since last year. The trainings are ongoing. And I believe it has also contributed a lot in the way we have been charging in all the situations and cases that are going to trial at the moment. If you look at the case docket of the office now, I believe over the years—apart from the Al Mahdi case, which was charges on cultural property—we’ve charged—almost in every case where we could find evidence, we’ve charged for sexual- and gender-based crimes.

SPAR: Fascinating.

So let me just sort of, if I might, even broaden the scope a little bit. There’s a small but real number of countries in the world at the moment that are claiming to follow a feminist foreign policy. What does that mean, in your mind? And, you know, if more countries had feminism as part of their foreign policy, does that mean anything? Would it change the shape of diplomacy in any real ways?

BENSOUDA: One country that comes to mind, I believe, is Sweden.

SPAR: Yeah.

BENSOUDA: It’s one of those countries that really have changed their policy. So as you put it, it’s a more feminist policy than elsewhere. I believe it’s a good thing.

SPAR: But what is it? What does it mean?

BENSOUDA: Well, again, here they are—what I saw is that they’re—I cannot too much about it, but what I see is that they’re having a lot of laws and policies that are really geared towards encouraging and having more women at the helm than before. I mean, for Sweden, this has been there for some time, but they have been—in the past few years they took very concrete and proactive steps towards that, towards implementing that. And I do know that even the foreign secretary or the minister for foreign affairs, who has also served at the U.N., Margot Wallström, as the special representative for sexual- and gender-based crimes, I believe, is also very much ensuring that this is put in to practice in Sudan. I remember that so far. A couple of these—she’s organized a couple of seminars and conferences, which my office was invited to attend. So you see that it’s really being more proactive. It’s really going for it.

SPAR: I don’t mean to interrupt, but is it—I think you’ve spoken very eloquently about how having women involved in foreign policy will create inclusion around these issues of gender and gender-based violence, but would women handle a foreign policy issue like North Korea any differently? Is there a feminist policy towards North Korea, or is sort of the feminist part really just around issues of gender and gender-based violence?

BENSOUDA: I don’t know whether I should be talking about—(laughs)—

SPAR: Who better? (Laughter.) On North Korea, per se, but—

BENSOUDA: But let me just—yeah, let me just broadly say that we have to acknowledge that the perspective that women bring to different issues, including foreign policy, is different, is really different, and we should accept that. I believe that the more women are involved in these policies, in this decision-making, things could change. Maybe we are not probably at a place where we can concretely cite different examples, but I have talked about the—Akayesu and international criminal justice, and that contribution. Also, I do believe that now we have had several women in international criminal justice. I’m here thinking about Carla Del Ponte at the ICTY. There has also been Louise Arbour, also as prosecutor at the—at the ICTY, ICTR.

I just am convinced that the perspective that women bring to different issues—whether it is in IHL and international criminal justice, whether it is in foreign policy, whether it is even in domestic policy, I do believe that the perspective that women bring can change the dynamics. This is something that I’m convinced that really is a contribution that women can make.

SPAR: OK. So let me ask one final question before we open it up for broader participation. So I’m looking around this room, and this is a pretty good room, but there’s not a lot of men, right? (Laughter.) There seems to be—there’s kind of a token male at every table if I’m looking around a little—(laughter)—which is actually better than most—when you go to most rooms on women’s issues, it’s overwhelmingly women. So what is the role of men in trying to drive the agenda you’ve just described? Can women—should women at this point just do it ourselves? Or do we need to involve men in these conversations?

BENSOUDA: I believe we need to involve men. I’m strongly convinced that, inasmuch as we also have a role to play, I believe that men should also be sensitized if they are not already, because there are many men, I have to say that, who very—who are very, very sensitive to gender issues and who, I believe, are the ones that we can work with who can convince others, who can sensitize others to be able to also come onboard in this journey of empowering women. It’s important. We need to work together.

As I said at the beginning, you cannot move to development and a better place with just half of your population. So even where we women are fighting for what we really should have—deserve—I still believe that we need to involve our counterparts, and to do it together. It involves a lot of sensitization because of, unfortunately, most of the backgrounds we come from, they already have—most men already have that mindset that they’re supposed to be up there and we’re behind. It’s just the way most societies are. But in also these societies you find that there are women, there are men who have been raised differently, who have been sensitized to these issues, who are willing to work with their female counterparts to do things differently.

So when we—when we are moving forward in this march that we’re going forward, we should go forward with it together. We also have that road to include our male counterpart. I think they will—they also will contribute a lot to this.

But doing it alone can be quite challenging because I do not see it as fighting, you know, with one another. I see it as a partnership. And for them they need to recognize this, but we also need to understand that it is a partnership working together, you know, hand in hand, and moving forward to change unfortunately where we are now.

SPAR: And I think it’s—I agree with you entirely. And I think it’s one of the pieces of this conversation that gets lost so frequently, is we’ve had as women whatever it is now, 50, 60, 100 years of feminist thought, of thinking about new roles for women, new ways of raising girls, new ways of socializing people. We actually haven’t done that so much for men, and so I think we still default into raising boys kind of the way we’ve always raised boys—


SPAR: —and we haven’t created so many other models of what it means to be a good man. So I think everyone sort of defaults to man as breadwinner, male as fighter.


SPAR: And it’s fascinating to think about, if we really could work together, we need to shape male identities as we’re reshaping female.

BENSOUDA: Absolutely, absolutely. This is—it is important to take that step. Of course, we’re in this fight. It’s a fight that has taken ages. We’re getting there. We’re not yet there. But I believe that we can get there if we have along with us, going along and changing their mindset and thinking about things differently, for also as women, as you said, raising them in a different way, engaging with them in a different way. Because, unfortunately, also there are those women who maybe—I don’t know whether the term is right—the progressive women who keep fighting, but there are those women who unfortunately have accepted that this is just where I should stop. And this is—this is another part of the society that we also have to help together to sensitize and educate. So that this would be women standing together fully, but working with our male counterparts, our male colleagues to make a difference. I believe we will—we can get there. We can get there, but it really involves everybody being onboard.

SPAR: Yeah.

BENSOUDA: Yeah, everybody.

SPAR: Well, that’s a lovely point on which to stop on for a moment. And we will—we will turn now to questions from our members, and I will particularly make sure that we get a few male voices in the conversation. And I will just remind you, please, everything is on the—on the record. Put your hands up, and then please wait for the microphone to come to you, and then please state your name and affiliation, and questions end with a question mark.

Yes, ma’am?

Q: Thank you very much. That was quite inspiring. I’m Nan Keohane, Princeton University.

I wanted to go back to the question you began with, Debora: So what went wrong since the excitement of the ’60s and ’70s? And you’ve been given a very thoughtful answer, for which we are grateful, partly that there has in fact been a lot of progress—it didn’t all go wrong—and partly that there is perhaps a backlash or inertia from non-feminist and threatened men, and non-feminist and threatened women, and that the backlash is probably heavier than we expected.

But I want to suggest one more possibility and ask you both if you could say a word about it, which is that the agenda of second-wave feminism, in which I was an ardent participant, was flawed in a couple of ways. One, I think, is now generally recognized: We weren’t very inclusive. We didn’t include men. We weren’t very good at including women of different backgrounds, races, classes, nations, sexual preference.

But the other one that I want to pursue for a moment is we didn’t talk about power. You know, we sat cross-legged on the floor, and we didn’t want a leader to emerge because we were all supposed to be equal. But that’s a difficult way to make a movement, and it seems to me to make more progress women are going to have to be ready to talk about power. And I’d like to have your reaction.

SPAR: Please.

BENSOUDA: I believe it all comes to empowerment—empowerment and being in a position where your decisions and your actions can make a difference. This is very important. We have seen before that that was lacking. It’s still not there. As you’ve said, it’s still not there, this empowerment. And this is where we really need to also focus our attention to.

When I started, I talked about equipping ourselves. And when I—when I say that, is I do not believe in women being given leadership positions or—just because we have to fill a quota or just because women should also be there as much as men. I strongly believe that, as women, we need to, when I say, equip ourselves to have the skills. We have to have the skills. We have to have the opportunities to be educated. We have to be able to, when we sit in these positions, we’re sitting there not because we are women, but because we also have that experience, have that leadership, and are able to make decisions based on our experience, our qualifications, and our knowledge.

So I strongly encourage, I always say that those who are generations that are coming after us should also continue to prepare themselves, to equip themselves to go for those positions, to compete for those positions on grounds that they also have the ability, they have the knowledge, they have the experience to be able to do so.

And that empowering, sometimes, at least from where I come from, we have challenges to go there, we have challenges to do that. But it doesn’t mean you have to give up. Some of us are lucky, I would call it, to have come from homes where already the men recognize, or my father recognized that the education of women is as important as the education of men, so all the siblings were treated the same and we had that opportunity to be able to do it. But this is not what happens in most homes. I would not even just say in Africa, I think outside of Africa this also happens. So that gives us that disadvantage of equipping ourselves.

And that is what brings me back to the men being sensitized to realize the importance of, in this case, educating their girl child as much as their boy child, to give them that equal opportunity to move forward. So it’s all part of empowering.

And we can speak a lot about empowering because it’s in different aspects of life, whether it is economic or whether it is educational, and different issues. But it is really important to have that equipment, to be equipped to go forward with that leadership.

SPAR: And I think, if I could answer if briefly, Nan, as well. I think you’re exactly right, women need to embrace power and we need to acknowledge that power comes with hierarchies and structures and things that perhaps you can’t do when you’re sitting on the floor cross-legged.

And I think—and you’ve done this work at Princeton, and I hope people have seen this report. You know, at Princeton recently, as you all discovered, there were a lot of women students who didn’t want to take positions of power in things like student government. We need to make girls and women comfortable with power and hierarchy and being the boss, which means people aren’t going to like you. And how do we, you know, how do we unravel that?

I think the other thing just to throw out on the table, you know, if I were to fault second-wave feminists at all, I would also say there was a bit of a sort of a blurring of biology. You know, the fact that it’s not—women are not going to behave exactly like men because there are physiological differences. And I think when you’re starting to talk about gender-based violence and rape and these horrible things, but they are tied to the physiological differences.

BENSOUDA: Indeed, indeed.

SPAR: And I think by blurring those differences, we also lost very important conversations. But you all did a great job, so—(laughter)—we need to fight next.

Yes, right here in the front.

Q: Josephine Linden.

SPAR: I’m sorry, the woman in the red first, and then we’ll get to you. Yeah.

Q: OK, thank you.

SPAR: Oh, there you go.

Q: Great, thank you.

VOGENSTEIN: You should have seized that power moment perhaps. (Laughter.) All right.

Q: Josephine Linden. I had a question about empowerment.

SPAR: I’m sorry, your name and your affiliation, if you could?

Q: Josephine Linden, Linden Global Strategies. And I am the boss of my own firm.

SPAR: Yeah, we need a better mic for you, I think.

Q: We’ll try this again. Can everybody hear me?

SPAR: There we go. Thank you. Yes, thank you.

Q: OK. My name is Josephine Linden. I am the boss of my own firm, Linden Global Strategies.

And my question goes, again, about empowerment and really to deal with the proliferation we’re hearing right now about sexual harassment, which is clearly prevalent in so many different industries. We’re hearing about it in the states. Is it happening in other countries? Obviously, it is. We hear of situations in England and in France. How do you deal with that issue, particularly given your position and something close home to you?

BENSOUDA: I’m afraid it is unfortunate, but this is happening everywhere. It’s really happening everywhere. It’s a good thing that women are coming forward to denounce it, to talk about it publicly. But the majority of women who go through this in every society, you know, whether it is in Africa, whether it is here in America, in other parts of the world, do suffer that. It’s happening.

They have not yet, in other parts of the world, probably taken that step to publicly say it because, unfortunately, and I can just speak from where I come from, it is still taboo to talk about these things. It is still seen as you are at fault, the woman is at fault. And when that happens, when it is known that you have that kind of experience—and probably it may not even be your boss, it can even be your colleague—and when that happens and you probably want to talk about it publicly, you see the marginalization and you are the one who created the problem. And society does not help you, does not really help you. And to a large extent, this is also what is making people to be quiet about it and not talk about it. But I can tell you that it’s going on everywhere.

At the level of investigating and prosecuting these crimes, it’s also an area that we really need to think about. I mentioned briefly that there is this problem of having to have that extra training when you’re investigating and prosecuting these crimes, because in most of these conflicts it is very difficult to have women to come forward to say that this has happened because, again, as I said, when it happens, you are the one at fault. Most of the time your husband will even divorce you for having been raped in conflict. And many women prefer to keep quiet about it.

So sometimes we are not even able to get the actual numbers and the extent of the sexual and gender-based violence because maybe either it’s for reasons of society or background that you are not able to talk about it. Sometimes religion prevents you from even talking about that, because we have had situations in which we have to deal, for instance in Darfur, we have to deal with women who are Muslims and who cannot come forward to talk about it or who cannot—we cannot even talk to without the presence of a man. So those are some of the difficulties that you come at.

But I think there is hope. And I just wanted to highlight here the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba in the Central African Republic. This is one of the cases that we have handled in which the incidence of rapes and sexual violence exceeded the incidence of killings. It was so bad, it was so rampant, we decided to try Jean-Pierre Bemba as a commander. He was not the one. The evidence we had is not that he himself was there committing these crimes, committing the sexual violence, but the troops that were under him, that were unleashed on the Central African Republic society, were raping, committing violence, killings. That because he was the commander and he failed to prevent or punish those who were committing these crimes, we’ve charged him successfully with rapes as a commander. And he has been convicted by the International Criminal Court and has been sentenced to 18 years for those crimes as a commander. (Applause.)

And this is significant. This is significant. And it’s also something which I believe states can look to, to see that there is—there are possible ways of dealing with these issues. We cannot just throw our hands in the air and say, well, we cannot do anything about it. And also, I think it is an example to other commanders to know what their—what their limits are, and what they can be held responsible for, they can be held liable for.

So this, for me, is what we need to do. We really have to push it—push forward the envelope. And maybe this gives me another example of talking about another case that we’re—is current ongoing, the case of Bosco Ntaganda. I mentioned it briefly, yeah.

SPAR: Let’s keep it short so we have more questions.

BENSOUDA: Yeah. OK, I will—

SPAR: No, no. Just go. Go ahead.

BENSOUDA: Well, I wanted to mention Bosco Ntaganda because if you today look at IHL, international humanitarian law, you find that the protection that is given to women and girls, it’s towards the opposing side, that crime is being—sexual and gender-based violence is committed against the opposing camp, and then we can charge for those crimes. But what we did in Bosco Ntaganda is to, again, push the envelope, and say that those girls and women, and those who are subjected to sexual and gender-based crimes, within their own group, also deserve the protection of international humanitarian law. And we push that. We charge for that, because those girls and those women who are in the same group where they are used as sexual slaves, they are raped every day, they’re used in different forms even though they’re—firstly, it’s as soldiers.

So, when we charge that and the charges were brought before the ICC judges, and they confirmed the charges, they agreed with the office that this is a protection that they deserve. And this matter has gone to the appeals chamber. And the appeals chamber have also confirmed. The case is still on. Bosco Ntaganda’s case is still on. And we have—we are prosecuting these crimes. And if he were to be found guilty of these crimes, I believe that is also going to be a huge contribution to international humanitarian law.

SPAR: And I think, just very briefly, part of the—response to the other part of your question, I think strangely we’re seeing a parallel with what’s happening in the United States right now. Different sets of crimes, but there is clearly a moment right now where things that were accepted and pushed under the rug for years and years and years, are now being cast as crimes, bad things that shouldn’t have happened. Women are clearly becoming empowered to speak out about things. So it’s a different context, but a similar dynamic. And I think response ultimately is quite analogous. We need clarification of the law and we need due process around it, so that when claims are voiced they can be investigated. And then the perpetrators suffer a set of consequences that is legislated or put out there in rules and guidelines.

So it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment, but I am actually optimistic that by having these concerns voiced and by starting to put the right kind of due process around it, we will get to a healthier outcome. I think we have to seize advantage of this moment to put the laws and the guidelines and the precedents in place so that we can have the frequency of these things diminish dramatically. They have to.

Yes, please.

Q: Thank you. I’m Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch.

And thank you for mentioning the Central African Republic and the Congo cases. It’s very important. I’ve been at the Council for 20 years, and have seen an enormous amount of change in that time—the Women in Foreign Policy Program. But I’d also like to issue a caution. And that is that women in power can be just as repressive and abusive as men. (Applause.) And I’ll go ahead and say it, you know, Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. Sadly, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma has presided—although the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, are responsible for rapes and other terrible crimes, burning villagers out of their homes in Rakhine state.

What—my question actually takes the Central African Republic and Congo comments further, which is to say how do we get to deterrence? How do we—what—how can the message be sent to these troops, mostly men, that it is simply not acceptable to use rape as a war crime? It’s a great advance that we are now seeing these cases move forward, but it took years. And Bosco was free to roam around and terrorize for many years before he was grabbed. Thanks.

BENSOUDA: You’re very right that it’s taking years to get to these cases. But I believe that we’ve moved. We’re at a different—we’re at a different place. And what we really need to insist on is the deterrence aspect. You’ve talked about it. And accountability is a big part of that. People have to be held accountable for what they have done. I know for several years, for many times we tried to—we have tried to find a solution, especially in these conflicts, where most of the time the easier way to do is to negotiate for peace and to have golden exiles and amnesties for people to get them out of the way, and then business as usual. As long as people feel that they are not held responsible for what they have done, we will see this cycle. It will continue. But once they know that if these—if I commit these crimes I will be held accountable for these crimes, I think this is a good way of deterring, whether it is that person or people—persons who are looking at him and seeing this is actually a possibility. I believe this is one way of insisting on the accountability.

I just here want to give the example of Thomas Lubanga, which is the first case that ICC has tried. And Thomas Lubanga was charged for the enlisting and conscripting of children under the age of 15, and using them to participate in hostilities. Children under the age of 15 have no business to fight wars. But we see increasingly that this is happening. And ICC decided to put that case forward and to give this example. From at least what I have seen, is that the court was able to highlight the seriousness of this case. As I said, children don’t have business fighting wars that they have not created. But they’re used as young as eight years old to hold guns that are, most of the time, even bigger than them, and to fight. They don’t even understand the implications. So it was important for militia, as well as government, to understand that this is a war crime. This is a serious crime in which they could be held accountable. And this case was brought forward.

And today what I can say is—I mean, I cannot claim that it has stopped everybody from doing it. It’s still happening. But I think it has contributed a lot to raise that awareness. It has contributed to the fact that I remember the former SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict used it a lot to demobilize children. And in places where the ICC was not even that—like, if you talk about in Nepal, for instance. She gave the evidence that she was able to demobilize 3,000—over 3,000 children. So this is—the fact that the awareness was raised that this is a crime, because I think most of them sometimes don’t even think about whether it’s a crime or not. They’re busy trying to gain or to retain power. And they use these poor children to fight this war. So that alone, and in other parts, I believe there was some kind of empirical data. I don’t have it now in my hand. But I believe it has contributed to raising awareness in the DRC, but also outside of the DRC, in other states parties, as well as non-state parties to the ICC statute.

So accountability forms a big part of it. Of course, sensitization about this case is, again—this issue is very, very important for us. From my side, I believe that is—that is what—this is an area that we really need to look at and be prepared to make sure that those who are committing these crimes are held accountable for that.

SPAR: Yes, so around the side there, the white shirt? Yeah.

Q: Thank you. Hi, my name is Emma Stoskopf-Ehrlich. I’m with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

And I just wanted to interrogate a little bit this idea of vertical power as a vehicle to gender equality, and sort of, maybe as a way of looking at what—what hasn’t worked, and perhaps examining existing power structures and the idea that sort of a hierarchy is the way to get there. And so I’d love to hear sort of—more of a critical approach to sort of how we understand power and why we should simply just insert women into existing power dynamics, and assuming that that will inherently create gender equality. And if necessarily having women empowered translates on the ground always to a—improved lived conditions for women. So thank you.

SPAR: I’ll start while you think on that.


SPAR: And I think you—I think you’re gently raising a really crucial question here, and I think it was—the little bit of what I was getting at was what would a feminist foreign policy look like. Is it just women enacting the same policies, or is there something perhaps fundamentally different? And I think it’s—it’s deeply tempting to want to imagine a different kind of power structure, a more horizontal power structure, a more diffuse power structure.

You know, I think the tangling piece of that is we don’t have good precedent for that. It’s hard—I’m hard-pressed, unless you go really far back in history, to think of different kinds of power structures that—that—that could still serve a large and complex society. They may be out there. I just don’t know that we have very good models yet.

So being—just speaking for myself—being a realist at heart, I think my—my urgency would be let’s at least try and get more women into the existing power structures and then think about reforming them rather than try to imagine a new structure, create it, and populate it, when we don’t have a good vision of what that would look like. But if there’s good visions of that—of what an alternative might look like, I think—God knows we need to do things differently—we should certainly look at them. I just—I have a hard time personally coming up with what those might look like.

BENSOUDA: And I also don’t think that we should just be looking at it that women have to be in these positions, and then—and I come back to what I have said. It is women with the qualifications that need to be there.

SPAR: Yeah.

BENSOUDA: We have seen women, unfortunately, who have abused powers that have been given to them by acting maybe not exactly the same way as the men, but in a different way that does not really—it’s not a good example for us, as women.

I believe when we go to these positions, when we acquire these positions, and we bring our different perspective—or a novel perspective—to the positions that we acquire, it’s really to make a difference. It’s to make that difference to exhibit the leadership that we can have and to handle—handle that position that has been given in the way that it should, the way we should handle it, and not just to just pick women randomly. Women have to be up there, have to be up there, and then we—I think this is—for me this is not the idea. I strongly believe that a woman who occupies any leadership position should be deserving of that position by virtue of what you can bring to the table. This is what I—

SPAR: I think we have time for one more. Vishakha? Yes?

Q: Vishakha Desai, Columbia University, President Emerita, Asia Society.

I want to go back to this question of engendering a sense of power. Ultimately what you’ve talked about is that there are sort of two big issues that are out there. One is how do you prescribe policies, whether it’s quotas or whatever you have, and it’s the attitude—social attitudes—and how do those two come together.

And it seems to me that we’ve made a huge amount of difference in terms of where women have been in terms of women as subjects. It’s access to education, et cetera, et cetera. Where we have not made enough progress is in leadership, especially when it comes to foreign policy and international relations, except, again, when it’s around gender issues.

So it goes back to, Debora, what you were saying, and that is do we fit women as leaders in the existing structures or do we also think about the society that thinks about structures differently while we try to get into those positions. Just to give you one quick example, we know, for example, in India with the Panchayat when 33 percent women were designated—and Harvard Business School has now done the study that shows that the first time around everybody thought those women would behave more like the daughters, wives, sisters of men who put them in power, as one might say of Sheikh Hasina, or to some extent, even Aung San Suu Kyi.

However, when you had more women coming into those positions, the second time around they actually changed how they did business. So there is something about more women in more leadership position together that is different from sole women in these leadership positions.

So how do we work with our male colleagues to think about larger pools of women in position of power, whether it’s in the Senate, Congress, or in other leadership position that would actually change the attitude around the power structures themselves?

SPAR: I’ll just give a quick answer—and if any of you haven’t read this study, you should read the study of—that Vishakha was mentioning, I think some of the most interesting work out there. And I think what it reinforces—and there’s other data to support this—is the importance of having critical mass, that when you only have women representing 8 or 16 percent of a room or a power structure, they will always feel to some extent as the men in this room probably feel right now, that they are visible tokens—you have this with minorities as well—and that if they put their hand up, to extent they feel the obligation of representing the token male position in this room, the token female position in most other rooms.

Once you get to about 35 percent participation, everything shifts, and then you and I may disagree because neither of us feels like we have to represent all women.


SPAR: We’re—you know, we differ because—let’s be honest—women should have the same range of variation as men do. But we’ve got to somehow get to that tipping point, and I would agree—even though I posed the question to Fatou—I don’t think quotas work, particularly in this country because they raise all the issue you raised.

By the same token, nothing else is getting us—


SPAR: —beyond sort of the 16 percent cutoff right now, and until we get to that critical mass, you actually don’t get change.

BENSOUDA: I—just maybe one comment. You said about how do we change this. I strongly believe—and you’ve talked about this Debora, when we started—I strongly believe that we have to start from the houses, the smallest unit, how we raise our children, how we—and this applies to every society, I think it cuts across—how we see the role of girls at that very young age, how we see the role of girls and—vis-à-vis boys, in the offices, in the societies, in the countries, and finally, internationally. But that change has to take place at the very root—very grass root. It has to take place, and that responsibility is not only for us, as women. I believe that the men also have a role to play in changing that mindset from the very beginning, from the very—very, very young age, which I believe will translate in the end to society at large.

SPAR: And this is a wonderful point on which to end because this is actually something that every single person in this room can work on. So if we start with our own homes, we have some possibility of actually moving in the direction I think everyone agrees we want to go.

Thank you so much. This session is over. There is coffee outside, and come back at 10:00. (Applause.)

BENSOUDA: Thank you, Debora.

SPAR: Thank you.


Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*