Elizabeth Odio Benito – Costa Rica

Linked with Ensuring Peace through Justice, and with the International Criminal Court in The Hague ICC.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “I am an optimist. I am completely convinced that some day the earth will be a better place to live in”.

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Elizabeth Odio Benito – Costa Rica

She works for the International Criminal Court in The Hague ICC.

See her bio on wikipedia.

She said also: “If I am nominated by my country and subsequently elected as a judge on the ICC, I would devote particular attention to the progressive interpretation of the norms in the Statute, above all, to those concerning sexual crimes against women.

When I had the opportunity to serve on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Judge McDonald and I, together with the Office of the Prosecutor, undertook the task of making visible the sexual and gender violence that women suffer both in ‘peacetime’ and in international and internal armed conflicts — a task left undone since World War II. We also made visible that rape and other sexual abuses were used as weapons of war, as means of terror, as occurred in the Former Yugoslavia. Our task was supported by the Ad Hoc Tribunal on Rwanda, and the jurisprudence we produced provided the moral and legal bases for the drafting of the Rome Statute. Because of the work of women groups from all over the world and many governments, the new understanding of war crimes and crimes against humanity from a gender perspective is now reflected in the Statute.” (See Women Rights net).

Elizabeth Odio Benito (elected for a nine-year term from the Latin American and Caribbean Group of States (GRULAC), and is assigned to the Trial Division) is vice-president of the International Criminal Court in the Dutch city of The Hague. The Costa Rican law professor was one of the few female judges of the UN court in the former Yugoslavia, where she made a decisive contribution so that war crimes against women, especially rape and other forms of sexual violence, would no longer be treated as small affairs. Thanks to her commitment and that of other women, the Criminal Court’s statutes now include forms of sexual violence, rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and others as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“A world court can prevent war”.

Elizabeth Odio Benito, with her energetic short hair, soft natural face without makeup, sits in a conservative suit and pearl necklace on the fourteenth floor of the highest world court. She is vice-president of the ICC in the Dutch city of Hague. “The ICC is very important. The international community fought for more than 50 years for this court“, she says smiling, and her eyes blaze with a blue colour that one would not necessarily expect from a woman from Central American Costa Rica.

The vice-president reminds us that, since the Second World War, there have only been ad-hoc courts to judge crimes of genocide and war. These were in the German city of Nuremberg and the Japanese city of Tokyo, and many years later the courts in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. “A permanent court was a dream for which the commission on international law and many legal scholars around the world worked during four decades. In the Cold War, it was impossible to achieve, but after 1998, there was this important moment in history which made the ICC possible. So we were finally successful. “We were finally successful – that is a phrase that keeps coming up with Elizabeth Odio Benito. And then this smile, quiet but proud.

In 1994, the International Law Commission presented a first draft of statutes to create the ICC. Difficult and drawn-out negotiations with all state-members began. Upon their completion, on June 17th, 1998 the so-called Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was celebrated by 120 UN state-members in the Italian capital. The statute laid out complicated legal procedures. Among others, crimes can only be charged against those whose governments or parliaments have signed and ratified the statute. Some countries — China, Russia, India and all the Arab states except Jordan — and above all the USA have unfortunately refused to do so.The Bush administration sees the International Criminal Court as a more dangerous enemy than many of the so-called “rogue states.” It has threatened countries supporting the ICC with cancellation of military or economic support. Or it has made separate agreements with them, so that US soldiers on their territories, for example in Columbia, cannot be given up to Hague.

Other agreements assure that the ICC cannot render retroactive punishment; thus the crimes carried out before the court went into effect on July 1st, 2002 are not punishable. It only has jurisdiction if the national judicial system of a state will not prosecute the crimes in question, or if there is no functioning justice system. The first cases expected to come before the ICC during 2005 will affect African countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. The head prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, has been conducting investigations against presumed war criminals in these countries.Elizabeth Odio Benito is “full of hope that we can help victims of the many horrible war crimes around the world.” She hopes that the mere existence of the world court can help prevent wars: “If somebody knows that they won’t be punished, it’s easier for them to commit crimes. But when they know there is an international organization that can hold them responsible, that is an important deterrent. I do believe very strongly in this kind of preventive work. Fighting for peace and human rights is absolutely an optimistic work. Yes, I am an optimist. I am thoroughly convinced that one day the earth will be a better place to live in.”

The vice-president was elected by a group of delegates from all ICC treaty states, in February of 2003. Seven of the judges are women, 11 are men. This is the highest quota of women ever in an international court. The Inter-American Court for Human Rights or the International Court for the Law of the Sea are, to this day, only made up of men, and the International Court of Justice, also seated in Hague, proudly took 85 years to come up with one single female judge.

And now Elizabeth Odio is glad to be sitting here. She does not have a family with her. Her two grown foster children are in Costa Rica. It would be hard to find someone better qualified than her: an emeritus law professor, active for human rights for 40 years, co-author of the UN Protocols on the Prevention of Torture, two times minister of justice in her country, judge in the UN Court in the former Yugoslavia for five years.

She was born in 1940, in Puntarenas, a run-down port city on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, inhabited by many poor and a few privileged people. “I have always been convinced“, she says, “that poverty is a great injustice. I feel obliged to help the underprivileged and I can’t stand it when poor people live in terrible circumstances. I always react very strongly and angrily against injustice. What happens to poor people is part of this general injustice, what happens to women, also is“.

Her grandfather was a judge, her father a teacher and member of the parliament. “I received a lot of support from the men in our family, from my father, my uncles. They always told me ‘you can do anything that you want to’. But the rest of society said the opposite: ‘you can’t play soccer, you can’t swim very far; you are a girl’. I have been an ardent feminist since my late 20s. In the 1960s, there was still a lot of discrimination against women in our legislation, especially in family law. I was part of the movement that wanted to change that, and worked together with other women, and we were successful“. Then, she reported in an earlier discussion that she still believed “that changing laws would change the world. Only later did I realize that it is much easier to change laws than human habits and behaviour“.

Elizabeth Odio Benito studied law at the University of San José, the capital of Costa Rica. In 1964, she became a lawyer and university professor. “In the 1970s“, she says, “I worked with groups in the human rights movement. There was so much repression in Chile and Argentina, but also in Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, in Guatemala and Honduras. Many people fled to Costa Rica, to seek asylum, to survive. It was almost impossible not to be part of this activity. Together with Amnesty International, the Catholic support organization, the Service for Peace and Justice and other non-governmental organizations we organized actions to support victims of torture.“

After 1980, she worked for the United Nations. As a member of the U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, she denounced violations of humanitarian international law and sued for funds for the rehabilitation of victims of torture. In 1986, she became a professor at the University of San José.

Later, she taught as a guest professor in Barcelona, Leiden, Utrecht, Strasbourg and New York. And, as vice-president, at the UN Peace University in a nature reserve near San José, in the middle of screeching birds and daring monkeys. A major reason for the founding of this university by the UN General Assembly, in 1980, was the fact that Costa Rica was the first country to disband its military, after a bloody civil war in 1948. Thus, the country was able to develop itself as a positive example of a “peace dividend“. The infrastructure and educational systems are well-developed, schools are free, the illiteracy rate is only five percent, and the average life expectancy of 76 years is the highest in all of Latin America.

Elizabeth Odio Benito had three different cabinet posts in Costa Rica’s government. From 1978 to 1982 and from 1990 to 1994 as Minister of Justice, and from 1998 to 2002 she was Minister for the Environment and Energy, as well as second vice-president. Do women really have another way of governing? Elizabeth Odio Benito is sceptical: “For twenty centuries, there has been male power, and we women have long internalized it ourselves. For women, the only way to reach power is sharing it with men, taking on their behaviour and rules, being a part of the Bosses’ Club. Like Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Indira Ghandi. “Thus it is so important that political women leaders be supported by other women and women’s groups. “I tell all my friends that they shouldn’t leave me all alone here in the ICC. Send books, send articles, be here. We need the support of the network of women’s organizations.”

In 1993, she went to Vienna as head of the Costa Rican delegation to the UN Human Rights Conference. “We went with the goal of hearing a clear statement from the conference, that women’s rights are human rights. And we were successful“. But this trip changed her life for another reason. Women’s groups from around the world organized a symbolic court. Victims of domestic violence talked about the torture they had suffered, women from war zones of the former Yugoslavia reported the most massive human rights violations. Elizabeth Odio, who had also taken the symbolic role of a judge at this court, was “shocked“ and deeply shaken. Fighting back tears, she felt she was not made to be a judge.

But that was exactly what she would become. In 1993, she was voted by the UN General Assembly and Security Council as judge for the UN Criminal Court in the Former Yugoslavia. She and Gabrielle Kirk McDonald from the USA were the only female judges at the Court in Hague. Thanks to the initiative of both women, sexual violence is, for the first time, seen in international law as a separate type of crime. Also, the ICC’s Rome Statute now includes rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity – against the bitter resistance of the Vatican and Islamic countries.

At that time, as Judge Odio began her work at the Yugoslavian Court, rape was, under existing international law, in any case seen as a “crime against honour“ but not as a severe breach of the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian People in Times of War. And this was happening even though sexual violence is one of the most frequent crimes. The violence against Jewish women and non-German women in the Nazi era, mass rapes of German women by Russian soldiers at the end of the war, rape of Chinese women in Nankin by Japanese invaders in 1937, the sexual enslavement of non-Japanese “comfort women” in Japanese military brothels – all of these crimes went largely unpunished.

To change this, Elizabeth Odio Benito went into action on different levels. ”In the court we started to design rules for conducting a case. This was also a good opportunity to establish rules for the protection of the victims,” she tells us.

Raped witnesses had to testify directly in front of the Court for Yugoslavia, faced with their presumed tormentor. However, for their protection, their names can now be kept a secret and the public can be excluded, they can talk hidden behind blinds, their faces and voices reproduced on a distorted video transmission. In addition, a special department was set up to provide the safe passage and psychological care for the witnesses, in spite of the court’s inadequate funding and personnel. All this increased the number of women ready to testify before the court. Women who would otherwise have been silent about the horrors done to them, women who had tried to kill themselves, who were now unable to bear children. Testifying was the first step towards healing their trauma and was a condition for social reconciliation. “I want the whole world to know what happened,” said one witness.

The second area of work for judges Odio and McDonald was the accusations. “Both of us really had to fight very hard to be sure that what had been done to the women was reflected in the arraignments,” says Odio Benito. “The first reactions were very negative. They told us that no one wanted to talk about this topic, that it was impossible to find witnesses to testify. But that was not true. The prosecutors themselves found many witnesses who were able to come to Hague and testify“.
The third area of work was the actual negotiations. Judge Odio was, among other cases, assigned to the “Celibici Case”, which made legal history in 1998. The Bosnian Muslims Delalic, Mucic, Delic and Landzo received long prison sentences for war crimes against Serbs held in the prison camp of Celibici. The defendant Delic had raped the witness C. The court ruled that this be considered as torture, because he wanted to punish her for her husband’s actions, to make her testify about her husband, to intimidate her and all the camp inmates through spreading fear and terror. Torture, defined by the judges, is the deliberate causing of pain and suffering, with the participation or encouragement of an official, in order to get testimony, confessions and to intimidate. With this verdict, rape was codified for the first time in international law as torture and a severe violation of the Geneva Convention”.

“The work I did then”, says Judge Odio, “and my later efforts to work out a UN agreement on the prevention of torture, surely contributed to my election to the ICC“. Since 1998, she has been the president of a UN working group that wants to assure the right of international observers to inspect prisons of all state members. Again, she smiles. “And now I’m here!” (Read on 1000peacewomen).


Her nomination to the International Criminal Court;

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