International Criminal Court member states on Monday unanimously elected Fatou Bensouda of Gambia as the new chief prosecutor for the main genocide and war crimes tribunal.
The post has become more prominent with the growth of international criminal justice over the past decade and Bensouda vowed to keep up pressure on leaders who order killings and violate rights.
Bensouda, a former justice minister in Gambia, is currently the ICC deputy prosecutor. She will take over next June from Luis Moreno-Ocampo who sought the genocide warrant against Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and crimes against humanity case against late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
The new prosecutor was elected by consensus at the annual meeting of the ICC's 120 state parties at the U.N. headquarters. Bensouda said she was particularly proud of the support given by Africa.
But she said her African origin would not affect her role as the prosecutor.
"Let me stress: I will be the prosecutor of all the states parties in an independent and impartial manner," she told the meeting.
"I don't think any of us can deny that the crimes, the atrocities that are happening in Africa are crimes," she told reporters later. "We will target the perpetrators of the crimes."
All of the ICC's formal investigations are in Africa but many of the continent's leaders say Africa is unfairly targeted and an African Union summit this year decided not to carry out warrants issued against African leaders.
Bensouda called the ICC, set up by the 2002 Rome statute, "a truly unique institution."
She said the court was "changing international relations forever."
Bensouda will face immediate challenges with Bashir still no closer to answering the charges against him over the conflict in Darfur. She must also handle a sensitive case over whether Seif al-Islam, the son of Gadhafi, is tried in Libya or at the ICC in The Hague.
Bensouda was one of 52 candidates interviewed for the post. African nations had pressed for Bensouda's appointment, however, and many analysts have expressed the hope that her nomination will increase the tribunal's acceptance on the continent.
In a speech to the meeting, Botswana's President Ian Khama hit out at African leaders who refuse to cooperate with the tribunal, saying it put the continent "on the wrong side of history."
Khama particularly criticized an African Union summit decision in June to oppose arrest warrants issued for Gadhafi and other African leaders.
"This decision is a serious setback in the battle against impunity in Africa and undermines efforts to confront war crimes and crimes against humanity which are committed by some leaders on the continent," Khama said.
"Such a move also places Africa on the wrong side of history. It is a betrayal of the innocent and helpless victims of such crimes."
"We need to have the political will and the moral courage to hold accountable, without fear or favor, anyone in authority -- including a sitting head of state -- when he or she is suspected of having committed crimes against innocent people," Khama said.
Outgoing prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said the court's independence could not be taken for granted.
"National or parochial interests are providing incentives to control the court. Reality has demonstrated that the office's independent decisions have triggered conflicts of interests for states," he told the meeting.
"Leaders who are using crimes to retain power have criticized the court and managed to mobilize some international support to this end."
Moreno-Ocampo said there was a second risk of attempts to "blackmail" the court.
"Reality shows that some of the leaders sought by the court threatened to commit more crimes to retain power, blackmailing the international community with a false option: peace or justice. The efficiency of the court will depend on how political leaders and conflict managers react to such blackmail," he said.
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