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Corruption and threats as a challenge to judicial integrity of women judges 

Justice Renate Winter is an international judge at the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone. Previously, she was an international judge for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).  


Corruption seems to be everywhere, in politics, in economics, in the health system, in education and in the justice system as well. It seems to be in the DNA of humankind, and it is especially problematic, when it affects the justice system, because: “who guards the guardians”?

Once I spoke with a colleague judge from a country known for widespread corruption, and I asked him how much money he would need as a salary in order not to be susceptible to corruption. He answered: “if they come and tell me that I have to decide in a certain way and that, if I do not do it, my wife will die, I can take money from them as well, do I not?”

This is an important aspect of corruption. We all despise a corrupt judiciary, but do we ever ask ourselves why judges are corrupt? Is it not also because they are threatened, like my fellow judge? Do we expect judges to behave like heroes who risk their own life or that of their family?  Happy is the country that does not need heroes as judges!

Is the judiciary corrupt only to obtain privileges? Privileges would not be necessary if real independence, controlled only by accountability to an equally independent body, would be granted to judges and prosecutors. Happy is the country where independent judges work for the citizens!

Are judges corrupt in deciding in a way that they think their superiors would like them to in order to ascend the career ladder and earn more and work less? If every judge gets the same salary and the same amount of work, it would not be necessary to try to please superiors. Happy is the country where judges can work at the place they choose, at the instance they are fit for and in the judicial discipline they are inclined to, to serve the community best!

Are there any differences in corruption issues for female and male colleagues? There are none for the system of corruption itself but there are quite some differences concerning threats.

In some countries, women are completely excluded from the judiciary for traditional, religious or cultural reasons. As the system progressively evolves and women join the judiciary, women judges often have to make quite some compromises, to say the least, in order to keep their position. For example, women judges sometimes have to act more harshly than is necessary to show that they are not “weak” in comparison to their male colleagues. In other instances, women judges are expected to show their obedience to tradition or religion in a stronger manner than their male colleagues. Also, women judges are often exposed to specific threats that may arise in their political and cultural environment.  

In the face of both physical and psychological threats, it is especially difficult for women judges to protect women in criminal or family cases. Women judges might face stigmatization and strong criticism if they decide a case favourably towards a woman. They might be criticized that they only decided in a certain way because they themselves are women. They might also be criticized for behaving inappropriately harsh in an effort to appear strong. In other words, whatever they do, women judges might face criticism or threats irrespective of the verdict. Such situations, without the assistance of anyone, might potentially pave the way for corruption as one can buy security with bribes, with services and with obedience.