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"Rule of Law, International Criminal Justice and Sustainable Development"
Fatou Bensouda delivers 19th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture

The former Prosecutor of the ICC and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee 2021 gave an incisive 19th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture from The Hague in The Netherlands - at an event hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, with HSF support.

In her Lecture on "The Rule of Law, International Criminal Justice and Sustainable Development" Fatou Bensouda referred to Peace, Strong Institutions and Justice - three key elements of Goal 16 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals - sharing insights, reflections and calls to action on these themes. Here are some excerpts from the different parts of her speech:


"The goal is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

I should confess that the relationship between international criminal justice, the rule of law and sustainable development has attracted and continues to engender interesting but at times, very heated and controversial debates. One of those being the classic dilemma of pursuing peace versus justice.

It is important for governments – especially democratic governments, to understand that their primary duty is to safeguard the rights of citizens – whether economic, political or social. This is what toils fertile ground for inclusive and sustainable development, rooted in values of peace and unity. In principle, any government unable to safeguard these rights has failed to discharge its primary duty. 

I dare to say that the level of greed and impunity on the African continent strongly limits our strive towards lasting peace. When leaders sabotage their own countries, do they not have future generations in mind? This short-sightedness fails to anticipate the ripple effect of their actions, not only on themselves but on the people whom they took an oath to serve. We must hold accountable the perpetrators of neopatrimonial politics and gerontocratic regimes with outdated imaginaries of the state.

Through his work and lived experience, Madiba taught us that embracing our identity should not come at the expense of humanity. He galvanised a country divided along racial lines under the umbrella of a ‘rainbow nation’. Madiba dreamt of a nation where peace and freedom formed the foundational basis of a modern democracy. Towards the turn of the century, he brought promising hope to Africa, the African diaspora, and marginalised people across the world. 

In a world where we must learn to coexist in mutual respect despite our differences, we are tasked with the responsibility not just to learn but to UNLEARN; to break generational cycles as a form of catharsis.

A new social contract would require convergence, solidarity and collaboration between government, non-State actors, and civil society. This calls for not only more institutions but better and stronger institutions: ones not riddled in identity politics, but driven by the rule of law.

While examining the relationship between international criminal justice and the broader challenges of attaining sustainable development, it is important to stress that the independent mandate of the Court and its Office of the Prosecutor must always be respected and protected. This institution, seeking justice for victims, should be shielded from political interference, resource paucity, and any other internal risks which may threaten its effectiveness and efficiency. As you may already know, some of these issues are currently being addressed by the ongoing review of the Court.

When considering the rights of future generations — those that include the long-term protection of humanity through robust and sustainable mechanisms — we must adopt a new precautionary principle, evolving from punitive law which punishes after the fact, to anticipatory law, aimed at prevention.

In a world where our struggles are increasingly interconnected and the value of preemptive measures is evident, we must engage all critical actors: governments and their institutions, international, non-governmental organisations, and civil society. 

It would be nothing short of an illusion to think that we can rely exclusively on States to uphold respect for human rights and the rule of law. When governments fail, active citizens moving in solidarity, even across borders, build new orders that propel the vision of a more just world.

The causal link between justice and sustainable development is global access to the former without prejudice. The concept of justice conflates the principles of fairness and equity. A just and equitable society is one which prioritizes among other things, equal access to education, zero-tolerance for discrimination against women and girls, non-discriminatory laws and policies, and education on human rights."


The event was followed by a huge audience - several of the main TV stations in South Africa carried it live, and it was streamed on the award-winning bespoke platform of the Nelson Mandela Foundation online.

You can watch a recording of the event here: 

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The 19th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on the theme "The Rule of Law, International Criminal Justice and Sustainable Development" was delivered by Fatou Bensouda, former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on the 25th of August 2021.

Nelson Mandela Foundation


The incisive Lecture by Fatou Bensouda is bound to be read and referred to many times. 

Find the full text here:

Annual Lecture 2021 - Fatou Bensouda's full address