The United Nations’ top court ordered Israel on Friday to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in its military offensive in Gaza and stopped short of ordering a ceasefire but what made the most news was Julia Sebutinde who voted against all the court’s rulings.
South Africa alleged that Israel’s campaign in Gaza amounted to genocide in the case and had asked the court to order Israel to halt the operation.
In the anticipated decision, made by a panel of 17 judges, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered six so-called provisional measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza. Those measures were approved by an overwhelming majority of the judges. An Israeli judge voted in favour of two of the six.
But Uganda’s Judge, Julia Sebuntinde, was the only judge who voted against all of them.
Here is what to know about her, and why she voted the way she did:
Born in February 1954, Sebutinde is a Ugandan judge serving her second term at the ICJ.
She has been a judge at the court since March 2021. She is the first African woman to sit on the international court.
According to the Institute for African Women in Law, Sebutinde comes from a modest family and she was born during a period when Uganda was actively fighting for independence from the British Colonial office.
Sebutinde attended Lake Victoria Primary School in Entebbe, Uganda. After finishing primary school, she went to Gayaza High School. She later pursued her degree at Makerere University and received a bachelor of laws degree in 1977, at the age of 23.
Later, as part of her education in 1990, at the age of 36, she went to Scotland where she earned a master of laws degree with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. In 2009, the same university honoured her with a doctorate of laws, recognising her contributions to legal and judicial service.
Before being elected to the ICJ, Sebutinde was a judge of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. She was appointed to that position in 2007.
Throughout her professional career, Sebutinde has been no stranger to controversies.
In February 2011, Sebutinde was one of three presiding judges in the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone.
The Special Court found Taylor guilty on 11 accounts, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, terrorism, murder, rape and the use of child soldiers, resulting in a 50-year prison sentence.
On February 8, London barrister Courtenay Griffiths, who represented Taylor, walked out of proceedings after judges declined to accept a written summary of his client’s defence at the end of his trial.
On February 28, a disciplinary hearing to censure Griffiths was indefinitely adjourned because Sebutinde declined to be present, withdrawing “on principle”. This decision came after her earlier dissent from the order requiring Griffiths to apologise or face disciplinary action.
ICJ case in Palestine
Fast forward to 2024, Sebutinde once again captured headlines, this time for being the only judge who voted against all measures sought by South Africa in its genocide case against Israel.
In a dissenting opinion, Sebutinde stated the following:
“In my respectful dissenting opinion the dispute between the State of Israel and the people of Palestine is essentially and historically a political one.”
“It is not a legal dispute susceptible to judicial settlement by the Court,” she added.
She also said that South Africa didn’t demonstrate that the acts allegedly committed by Israel were “committed with the necessary genocidal intent, and that as a result, they are capable of falling within the scope of the Genocide Convention”.
The ambassador of Uganda to the United Nations, Adonia Ayebare also expressed a different opinion.
“Justice Sebutinde ruling at the International Court of Justice does not represent the Government of Uganda’s position on the situation in Palestine,” he said in a statement on Twitter.