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Gabrielle Kirk McDonald

Judge McDonald is a judicial pioneer in International Criminal Law, by James G. Apple, President, International Judicial Academy; Co-Editor, International Judicial Monitor

Gabrielle Kirk McDonald is one of the first United States judges to be involved in international courts, apart from the International Court of Justice and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. She was selected by the United Nations (with the highest number of votes) as one of 11 judges for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1993, and presided over the three-judge panel that heard the first criminal trial of that international court, sitting in a courtroom of the new Tribunal building in The Hague, Netherlands.

The trial involved charges against a Bosnian Serb national named Dusan Tadic, accused of atrocities committed in 1992 in and around Serbia in northwestern Bosnia during the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovnia. That trial began in the spring of 1996 and resulted in a conviction of the defendant by the panel of judges for crimes against humanity in May 1997. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Before hearing the first case of the ICTY, Judge McDonald and her colleagues had to develop procedural rules for the Tribunal. She consulted with colleagues at Texas Southern University where she was a member of the adjunct faculty at that university’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Those consultations resulted in the preparation and adoption of the first procedural rules for the Tribunal.

Judge McDonald, so well regarded by her colleagues, was sent by the United Nations to Tanzania, in Africa, in the spring of 1997 to assist in the organizing efforts of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established by the U.N. to hear cases involving genocide in that country.

In November 1997 she was elected President of both criminal tribunals, a position she held until her resignation from that position in 1999.

She now serves as one of three American judge/arbitrators on the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague, hearing claims by Iranian and U.S. citizens, and the respective governments of the two countries, that resulted from the take-over of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 by Iranian militants and the holding of U.S. Embassy personnel as hostages.

Before her international judicial work, Judge McDonald was first a practicing lawyer in Houston, Texas and then a United States District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. She was only the third African-American woman to be selected for the federal judiciary when she was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, at the age of 37. She was the first African-American to be appointed to the federal judiciary of Texas.

She resigned her federal judicial appointment in 1988 to return to private law practice in Texas.

Judge McDonald graduated first in her class at Howard University Law School in 1966. Her first legal career position was serving as a lawyer for the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York. She was active in the U.S. civil rights movement in the southern part of the United States during her time with the NAACP.

She received her undergraduate education at Boston University and Hunter College in New York. She was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1942.

Among the honors Judge McDonald has received are election to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

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