Ugandan-born Judge Julia Sebutinde ascended to the role of Vice-President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, sparking both acclaim and controversy in the global legal arena. The ICJ officially announced her election, highlighting her esteemed tenure as a Member of the Court since February 6, 2012.
Judge Sebutinde’s recent ruling against emergency measures sought by South Africa concerning Israel’s actions in Gaza reverberated across international forums igniting debates and discussions. This decision underscored her impartial approach to complex geopolitical issues, earning both praise and scrutiny.
The elevation of Vice-President Sebutinde drew congratulatory remarks from Ugandan officials with Deputy Speaker of Parliament Thomas Tayebwa commending her for embodying the pursuit of justice with exceptional qualifications and dedication.
He expressed confidence in her ability to navigate the intricate legal landscape with grace and wisdom emphasizing her unwavering commitment to principles of fairness and equity.
Prior to her tenure at the ICJ, Vice-President Sebutinde served as a judge at the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2005 to 2011, presiding over high-profile war crime trials, including the prosecution of Charles Ghankay Taylor.
Her extensive legal career includes roles such as Judge of the High Court of Uganda, where she exercised jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases, and leadership positions in judicial commissions investigating corruption and mismanagement.
With a remarkable academic background, Judge Sebutinde holds a Doctorate of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Edinburgh, recognizing her distinguished service in international justice and human rights. She earned her Master of Laws Degree with Distinction from the same institution, following her Bachelor of Laws Degree from Makerere University in Uganda. Additionally, she possesses a Post-Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Centre in Uganda.
Throughout her career, Judge Sebutinde has been actively involved in legislative consultancy, contributing to the drafting and amendment of treaties for organizations such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD).
As Vice-President of the ICJ, Judge Sebutinde assumes a pivotal role, stepping in for the President when necessary and providing leadership in the pursuit of international justice and the upholding of legal principles on the world stage.
JUDGE JULIA SEBUTINDE’S KEY POSITIONS & CASES
- Sebutinde was presiding Judge of Trial Chamber II of the SCSL (2007-2008, 2010-2011), handling several high profile war crime trials including the Prosecutor Charles Ghankay Taylor.
- Judge of the High Court of Uganda with original and appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases (1996-2011).
- Chairperson, Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Corruption in the Uganda Police Force (1999-2000).
- Chairperson, Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Mismanagement in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (2001).
- She also served as Chairperson, Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Corruption in the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) (2002).
- Chairperson, Technology Planning Committee of the Uganda Judiciary (1998- 2002)
- Legislative Consultant seconded by the Commonwealth Secretariat to the Republic of Namibia responsible for amendment and replacement of the country’s apartheid laws and training of Namibian legislative drafters (1991- 1996).
- Principal State Attorney and Principal Parliamentary Counsel, Ministry of Justice, Uganda (1978-1990) and Legislative Consultant on the multilateral committees responsible for drafting and amendment of the treaties establishing the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) (1980-1990).
- Member of the Uganda Bar and Advocate of the Courts of Judicature of Uganda since 1979.
South Africa’s Case: Israel Versus Palestine
In the recent 2024 ICJ case involving Palestine, Julia Sebutinde gained attention once again, being the sole judge opposing all measures sought by South Africa in its genocide case against Israel.
In her dissenting opinion, Sebutinde asserted that the Israel-Palestine dispute is fundamentally a political matter with historical roots, not suitable for judicial resolution.
Stating that the acts attributed to Israel lacked the necessary genocidal intent, Sebutinde contended that the conflict did not fall within the Genocide Convention’s scope.
In my respectful dissenting opinion, the dispute between the State of Israel and the people of Palestine is essentially and historically a political one,” She stated.
It is not a legal dispute susceptible to judicial settlement by the Court,” she added.
However, critics argued that she overlooked a comprehensive evaluation of the situation. Mark Kersten, an assistant professor specializing in human rights law, told Aljazeera English that genocide is a legal issue not a political dispute and both South Africa and Israel are bound by the Genocide Convention.
Sierra Leone Case: Charles Taylor Over War Crimes
Delving into Sierra Leone’s war crimes case involving Charles Taylor, Julia Sebutinde’s career has not been without controversy. In February 2011, she served as one of three presiding judges in the trial of the former Liberian President for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.
The Special Court rendered a verdict, finding Taylor guilty on 11 counts, encompassing war crimes, crimes against humanity, terrorism, murder, rape, and the use of child soldiers.
This verdict led to a 50-year prison sentence. Notably, on February 8, London barrister Courtenay Griffiths, representing Taylor, left the proceedings when judges rejected a written summary of the defense.
Subsequently, a disciplinary hearing to censure Griffiths on February 28 was indefinitely adjourned, as Sebutinde chose not to be present, citing principled reasons. This decision followed her earlier dissent from the order that required Griffiths to apologize or face disciplinary action.
JUDGE JULIA SEBUTINDE’S EDUCTION BACKGROUND
- Makerere University – Bachelor of Laws in 1977.
- Diploma in Legal Practice – Law Development Center in Kampala in 1978.
- In 1990, University of Edinburgh – Master of Laws, graduating in 1991.
- In 2009, In recognition of her body of work and contribution to international justice, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Edinburgh.