Justice Florence Mumba

Judge Florence Mumba

Justice Florence Ndepele Mwachande Mumba is a Judge at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Justice Mumba has held judicial office since 1980, when she became the first woman to be appointed High Court Judge in Zambia. After eight years as High Court Judge, she was appointed to the Office of Investigator General (Ombudsman) in 1989, whilst holding this office, she served as Director on the International Ombudsman Institute Board where she was elected Vice-President of the Board until 1996.  

Justice Mumba served on the UN Commission on the Status of Women from 1992 to 1995 where she participated in the formulation of resolutions to characterise rape as a war crime. From 1994 to 2003, she served as Commissioner on the International Commission of Jurists, where she participated in drafting the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the establishment of the African Court of Justice in 1995. 

In 1997, Justice Mumba was elected Judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, where she also served as Vice-President from 1999 to 2001.  From 2003 to 2005, Justice Mumba served as Judge of the Appeals Chamber in the ICTY and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). From August 2008 to January 2011 she served as Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Prior to her appointment to the ECCC, Justice Mumba was a Supreme Court Judge in Zambia. 


What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?

While I was in secondary school in Zambia, I read an article in the newsletter that said that the former head-girl of our school was studying law in the United Kingdom. That girl is now Justice Lombe P. Chibesakunda, President of the COMESA Court of Justice. When I read that article, I said to myself, "if she is studying law, it means that there is an option for us." I have since told her that - unbeknownst to her - it was her story that encouraged me to study law. 

When I was applying to university, I inquired as to whether the law school was accepting students. They were, and I was accepted. I was excited and felt this a field in which I could have a career. When I told my friends, they said it was an extremely hard course and quite a lot of boys failed. I remember saying that I would follow the example of those who passed the exams. Fortunately, there were two women before who had enrolled in the law school prior to my going there; the male students were also supportive. In the first year class, there were 13 students. I was the only woman. 

When I started working for the Government, I realised people could not get their cases heard because they could not afford the legal fees. I moved to the Department of Legal Aid, which had been set up by the Ministry of Justice. From 1973 to 1975, I represented clients who were reliant on legal aid, overwhelmingly women. I enjoyed being on my feet in court, though some of the magistrates were not always pleasant - they would often raise issues which were not in issue in the case to test how prepared the lawyers were and make negative comments. I learned how to maintain my composure, to be polite and patient. 

In 1980, I was appointed a Judge on the High Court Judge in Zambia and was the first woman to hold such a position. I remember, when I was working as a Judge of the High Court, listening to new reports of the conflict that erupted in the Balkans. Little did I know that I would have anything to do with the former Yugoslavia. When I moved to the Ombudsman's office, I was asked for my CV by the then Deputy Chief Justice. I wondered why my CV had been requested. Initially I thought they wanted to fire some of us because we were being too vocal. I worked, at the time, with the women’s wing of the ruling party and we would discuss amending the laws - including the Constitution - to explicitly incorporate women’s rights. The country needed development and it was essential that women were part of it. We were demanding laws permitting maternity leave for women. We pushed and the government agreed. We got 90 days' paid maternity leave and the guarantee that women taking maternity leave would not lose their seniority. Similarly, in some sectors, married women did not receive the same employment rights as married male employees. We also succeeded in this argument. While we made progress, we were regarded as being "hot-headed", "impossible", and the usual negative stereotypes that are cast upon women who are fighting for equality.

I was told that my CV had been requested because the United Nations was looking for judges to serve in the Chambers of the ICTY. I told the Deputy Chief Justice, “I am not even in the judiciary anymore. Why are you looking for me? I cannot compete with those international lawyers and people like that!” He was insistent. At that stage, I did not even have a CV to hand so I had to get cracking. I drafted my CV and sent it off. The Zambian government put its weight behind me, and I received the approval of the European Union, African Union, and other groups. 

My late husband would listen to music on the radio and that is where it was first announced that I would be a Judge of the ICTY. He told me and I did not believe him. When the news announced it in a later broadcast, I heard it for myself. I was taken aback. The news said there were three judges were from Africa, including myself. I waited for the government’s confirmation. Four days later, it was in the Zambian newspapers and the judiciary formally acknowledged it. I was sworn in as a Zambian Supreme Court Judge before I left for The Hague in October 1997. This is how I moved from working in the law in Zambia to working in international law, as a Judge at ICTY. 


Can you tell us a bit about your experience presiding as a judge in the international criminal tribunals? 

When I arrived at the ICTY, there were other female Judges sitting - including Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an African-American woman who had recently been appointed as ICTY President. I was sworn in and began sitting in Trial Chamber II, alongside the late Judge Antonio Cassese and late Judge Richard May.

The first case I presided over was a guilty plea in the Simić case. I then became the Presiding Judge in the Furundžija case, which went to trial. After that I presided on several cases, becoming more confident as time went on. I noticed the gallery, when I was presiding, would be full of people, students, and more women than usual. I was aware that people were interested in the fact of an African woman presiding over an international criminal trial. To me, being a judge was nothing new. It was a job I was familiar with, and I believe I was fair to the lawyers, both the prosecution and the defense, and to my fellow Judges.


Judicial sensitivity towards sexual violence survivors is a precarious balance. How did you deal with such cases?

I was a Judge on the Kunarac case, which examined allegations of crimes in Foča between June 1992 and February 1993. Many of witnesses testified about being the victims of rape and other acts of sexual violence.When they testified, they would break down. For some of those who testified, the experience of being in a courtroom and being questioned were entirely new. Some did not understand that they would be questioned by the defense counsel or, in some cases, by the accused themselves. It was important that the process of giving testimony not re-traumatise them. At the same time, it was necessary for them to give their testimony, and have that testimony tested under cross-examination, as part of a fair trial. 

I would suggest that the witnesses be given regular breaks. Some would say that such breaks delay the trial and I would respond, “What is the use of the trial if you cannot get credible evidence in a criminal case?”. It was important to have the witnesses be in a space where they could provide their evidence, and have it tested because we had to be fair to the accused.  These witnesses would provide the details on which the Judges would base our acquittal or conviction. It was critical that the Judges parse the often emotionally charged courtroom from the evidence adduced from the witnesses.


Can you tell us more about your work on the identification of rape as war crime and your thoughts given that it is continuing today?  

I was a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women from 1992 to1993 when the war was raging in the Balkans. The Commission, in its Report, condemned the rape and abuse of children in the former Yugoslavia, which we viewed, in the circumstances, as constituting a war crime.It was obvious from the reports we had received from various UN bodies that rape was being used as a weapon of war, a weapon of terror, and a weapon for humiliating enemies. The Commission worked hard to make sure that women’s rights were protected including during armed conflict, and that there should be accountability for the crimes being committed. In particular, the Commission welcomedSecurity Council resolution 808 (1993) which established the ICTY.

It was during the trials that followed the Balkans war that the world began to recognise the scale and impact of sexual violence in armed conflict, a crime that impacted greatly on women and girls. The Kunarac case became the first case at the ICTY in which the accused were convicted of rape as a crime against humanity (and not only as a violation of the laws and customs of war). This case also marked the first time that an international tribunal had prosecuted sexual slavery.

We are continuing to see rape and sexual violence being used as a weapon of war in many places including, for example, Libya and Iraq. Justice has not yet been achieved. Nevertheless, it is being pursued: people are documenting violations, and collecting evidence. Sometimes justice takes its time. Even today we see people are on trial for crimes they are said to have committed during the Second World War. There is always hope.


What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?

The challenge to be accepted as an experienced judge was very much there. I was aware that I was under scrutiny by the lawyers in my courtroom. I prepared assiduously, readying myself for any situation or legal issue that might arise. I was not surprised by some of the reactions to me - as a female judge I was already an anomaly, more so as an African woman. I told myself, "I have a job to do and I have to do it." I was committed to doing my work to the best of my ability, and ultimately those with doubts, if their doubts came from a place of reason, would see those doubts dissipate. After a few cases, I remember my fellow Judges at the time saying that they were learning so much from my handling of the trial. I reminded them that I had been a Judge for a long time and to manage a courtroom at the domestic level is not so vastly different from handling a courtroom in The Hague.

Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?

Be clear about your vision and move towards that vision. It is important to have a vision of what you want from your life, including your professional life. As you grow, your vision will become more specific but it's still important at an early stage to invest the time to think about what you want for yourself. There will many challenges along the way. People may not always believe in you. People may not think that you can make it but you have to believe in yourself. Love yourself enough to persist with your vision. 

Be prepared. The reality is if you look different from the majority of people who make up the profession, you are going to be scrutinised in a way that others may not be. Don't worry about other people's perceptions of you. Take your work seriously and prepare diligently. Do not pay attention to the naysayers. Maybe they will change their view when you succeed; maybe not. It does not really matter. Just work towards your success.

See failures as stepping stones. Failure is inevitable. A legal decision may not go your way. You may not get the job you want. This is all part of your professional journey, of getting to where you are going. It is very important to accept that there may be failures along the way but look at them as stepping stones, and opportunities to grow. 

Show solidarity. Women are part of the world's community and we are here to participate in protecting human rights and pushing the world forward according to our values. Support each other and progress together. I will retire one day and so we need a new generation of young women to take over! 


Justice Mumba was interviewed by Monalisa. An international human rights lawyer, Monalisa has experience in domestic application of international human rights standards through community-based legal aid clinics. She has focused on gender justice with strategic litigation and worked with the government, judiciary, international and domestic NGOs. Transitioning to international litigation, she is currently an intern in the Office of the Co-Prosecutors at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. She hopes to find ways to bring in more women of color in international law.

Sareta Ashraph