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Julia Sebutinde did not side with Israel, she sided with the law.

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Julia Sebutinde did not side with Israel, she sided with the law.

When a legal matter, in these highly charged times, is brought before the world’s top court, we want public opinion, by lay people like you and me, to carry the day. A dissenting judge is condemned for doing what an independent, competent judge must do. If the same judge votes in favour of what is popular, she is a hero worthy of celebration. If she votes against the expectations on the streets, all hell breaks loose. Anger is in overdrive. How dare she see things differently!  If we see genocide, it is genocide. To hell with the legal definition of that crime. The television images are enough for us to see that genocide is taking place. 


It is in this murky situation, that Julia Sebutinde, a judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), finds herself in the aftermath of her dissenting vote in South Africa versus Israel, the case in which the former accuses the latter of committing acts of genocide in Gaza. The noise on social media that I visit has been deafening. Judge Sebutinde has been called names, accused of betraying Africa, a puppet of Israel, and “taking orders from above”, Ugandese for doing President Yoweri Museveni’s bidding.


In fact, Sebutinde did not side with Israel or South Africa or Palestine or world opinion. She sided with the law. She most certainly did not express Uganda’s opinion, for that was not her brief. The statement by the Uganda Government, distancing itself from Sebutinde’s opinion, was unnecessary. Of course, Sebutinde’s opinion is personal to her and her alone. She does not represent the Uganda Government. She cannot represent the Uganda Government. The president of Uganda is not her  “appointing authority.” 


The ICJ itself states on its website: “Once elected, a Member of the Court is a delegate neither of the government of his own country nor of that of any other State. Members of the Court are independent judges whose first task, before taking up their duties, is to make a solemn declaration in open court that they will exercise their powers impartially and conscientiously.”


It should be noted that Sebutinde, who was simultaneously elected by the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Security Council to her first nine-year term that began on February 6, 2012, and was re-elected by the same bodies to her second nine-year term that began on February 6, 2021, was neither proposed nor campaigned for by the Uganda Government. The process of election to the ICJ prohibits State governments from proposing candidates. Sebutinde was proposed by a group that consisted of the Chief Justice, the Solicitor General, and two senior legal practitioners. 


Whereas governments informally campaign for their nationals to get elected, the Uganda Government did not use its resources to push Sebutinde’s candidacy. To his credit, Sam Kuteesa, when he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, attempted to get African countries to rally behind Sebutinde during her first campaign. However, he was unsuccessful in getting the government to throw its weight behind his effort. Sebutinde had to do it almost on her own, with the help of Duncan Laaki, a diplomat at the Uganda Mission to the UN in New York.


However, Sebutinde spent a lot of her personal money to get the job done. This included paying for the Uganda Foreign Ministry staff’s airline tickets, accommodation, and other expenses for the weeks they spent in Addis Ababa trying to get the support of African governments. It was an exercise in futility, for she did not get Africa’s collective endorsement. She was elected on her own merit. 


The campaign for her second term was conducted virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Otherwise, it was the same story. Duncan Laaki took on the challenge and worked hard to get Sebutinde support in New York. However, she got re-elected without her country or Africa putting in the work on her behalf. It is therefore dishonest for anyone to claim that Sebutinde has betrayed Africa, a continent that did not send her to the Hague. 


Anyone who believes that Sebutinde acts on behalf of President Museveni has forgotten her record as one of the most independent judges in Uganda’s judicial history. Her record as the chairperson in the judicial commissions of inquiry into corruption in the Uganda Police Force (1999-2000), the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (2001), and the Uganda Revenue Authority (2002), exposed dirt and made brave recommendations that disqualified her from the president’s favoured club of jurists.  


It is clear why Julia has been an independent voice in her long and distinguished career on the bench. Besides a solid education (Lake Victoria Primary School, Gayaza High School, King’s College, Budo, Makerere University Law School, the Law Development Centre, University of Edinburgh Law School), her work history has been driven by professional excellence and integrity, with promotions and appointments on merit, not on political connections. Uganda, UK, Namibia, Sierra Leone, the Hague – that is a rich experience for this very fine professional who, in her words, “owes no one except God, and the international community,” and serves justice with truth, conscientiousness, and independence.   


Many who are angered by her dissenting opinion in this case seem not to know what Sebutinde wrote. When I asked ten of my friends who were very disappointed with Sebutinde whether they had read the entire eleven pages of her opinion, only one of them had. It is worth reading.  It was written with great clarity, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness about a complex matter that has caused recurrent bloodshed and chronic suffering to both Israelis and Palestinians. She considered the case as presented, with specific focus on the central legal question before the Court, namely, whether Israel had committed acts of genocide in Gaza and Palestine. In Sebutinde’s well considered opinion, South Africa did not demonstrate that Israel committed the alleged acts with genocidal intent. Please check the definition of genocide.


Thank God that the ICJ has differences of opinion, guided by learned interpretation of the law, not public opinion. God forbid, but should I ever appear before a court of law, may I be judged by someone like Sebutinde, one who upholds the law, not the understandable emotions of the laymen and women on the streets. 


There is nowhere in her written opinion that Sebutinde disregarded the tragedy in Gaza. Indeed, she referred to the killings by both combatants, and rightly expressed the need for the conflict to be brought to an end through a diplomatic or negotiated settlement. She called for implementation in good faith of all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions by all parties concerned. This includes Israel. Her call for a “permanent solution whereby Israelis and Palestinians coexist” is what we should all be advocating, not an “either we win or you lose proposition” that seems to be fuelling those who blame only the Israelis or the Palestinians for the horrible death and suffering in Gaza.


© Muniini K Mulera


Level 1 (XP: 0)
5 months ago
What a pleasure to read someone who writes sense about Judge Sebutinde. She was always so widely praised for her courage and independence when it suited the views of the writers, but when that same courage and independence is exhibited in a context which doesn't suit them, suddenly her qualities have evaporated!
The world need more people of her calibre, not least on the bench of the ICJ ! If I had a baby girl now, I'd call her Julia!

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