Preliminary Examinations and the ICC: What hope for the Rohingya? (Part 1 of 3)

On this last day of the 17th Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which took place in The Hague (Netherlands) from 5 to 12 December 2018, it is fair to affirm that the 20th anniversary of the ICC witnessed a generally uncontroversial ASP. Contrary to the effervescent negotiations that took place during the 16th ASP, ultimately leading to the activation of the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, those of the 17th edition showcased global placidity and flexibility from states, thus creating an illusion of calm after the storm. Nevertheless, one important aspect of the Court’s work was at the core of many discussions, both within the Assembly and during the various side-events that took place: the preliminary examinations (PEs), carried out by the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP).

On the first day of the ASP, the launch of the Prosecutor’s Report on Preliminary Examination Activities for the year 2018 allowed members and organizations of civil society to express various concerns regarding the PEs currently carried out by the OTP. Then, various side-events through the seven-day long ASP allowed further suggestions to be made concerning ways to improve the PEs. Interestingly, the most recent PE opened by the OTP, which concerns the alleged deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, was barely mentioned. This silence is even more surprising given the fact that international community has been widely calling for the ICC to act in relation to what has been qualified by many as a genocide.

This three-part blogpost aims at filling this silence by exploring the possible outcomes of this PE in the light of the recent discussions that took place at the 17th ICC ASP. The first post will detail the legal framework of PEs before the ICC, while the second will analyze the situation in Myanmar and Bangladesh, including the legal procedures that led to the opening of the PE. Finally, the third post will provide an overview of the most salient debates pertaining to PEs before the ICC in order to feed the discussions related to the fight against impunity with respect to the Rohingya situation.

Preliminary examination and the ICC: an innovative legal framework

The preliminary examination process is idiosyncratic to the ICC. While the International Military Tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo as well as ad hoc and hybrid tribunals were given jurisdiction over specific situations (see here, p. 6), the Rome Statute does not provide for any specific situation to be considered by the ICC. The OTP holds the important power to determine whether a situation meets the legal criteria established by the Rome Statute to warrant an investigation, which could later lead to the opening of a case. This assessment is at the core of the preliminary examination process (see here, pp. 6-7).

In 2013, the OTP produced a Policy Paper on Preliminary Examinations. This Policy Paper highlights that the PEs must respect the core principles of independence, impartiality and objectivity, pursuant to Articles 42, 21(3) and 54(1) of the Statute (see pp. 7-8). To be sure, it laid down that the innovative process provided for in the Rome Statute shall be divided in four phases. First, pursuant to Article 15(2) of the Rome Statute, the OTP receives “information from States, organs of the United Nations, intergovernmental or non-governmental organizations, or other reliable sources that he or she deems appropriate”. It may also receive written or oral testimony at the seat of the Court. The OTP analyses the seriousness of the information received (see here, p. 8). The second phase marks the proper beginning of the PE: the OTP proceeds to a thorough factual and legal assessment to determine if the alleged crimes fall within the jurisdiction of the Court (see here). Phase 3 questions the admissibility of the case with respect to complementarity and gravity (see here and here, p. 8). The fourth and last phase addresses the question of the interests of justice: the OTP will not initiate an investigation if it considers that it would not serve the interests of justice, taking into account the gravity of the crimes and the interests of the victims (here).

It has to be mentioned that PEs serve additional purposes. According to the OTP, more than simply assessing whether there is sufficient basis to open an investigation, PEs also contribute to two overarching goals of the Statute (see here, p. 8). First, they contribute to ending impunity since they encourage national proceedings. Past experiences have shown that states often seek to avoid the exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction by initiating judicial prosecutions at a national level. When they do so, pursuant to Article 17(1)(a), the situation becomes inadmissible before the ICC, since the Court is complementary to national jurisdictions. Second, PEs also deter the prevention of future crimes, thus limiting the need for the Court’s intervention. The opening of PEs are very public and widely publicized, including through international and national media. Further, the annual publication of the OTP’s Report on Preliminary Examinations, which is made public and available on the Internet, contributes to share the outcomes of the ongoing PEs. Even if the dissuasive effect of the PEs is difficult to assess, as it would require measuring the prevalence of crimes that have not been committed, there is little doubt that it is real and strong in most of the examined countries.

Given the specific legal framework pertaining to PEs before the ICC, how has it been applied with respect to the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh? The second post will explain the novel jurisdictional issues that were faced by the ICC in this regard before it declared itself competent in a decision warmly saluted by civil society. However, the international community should not be too hasty with its rejoicing, as will be discussed in the third and final post.


ICC Assembly of States Parties 2018: Final Day



[photo credit: @NLatICC via Twitter]

The final day of the ICC Assembly of States Parties was marked by highs and lows.

In positive news, Assembly attendees learned that Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona had been arrested by French authorities pursuant to an arrest warrant issued by Pre-Trial Chamber II on December 7. The warrant alleges that Ngaïssona bears criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western part of the Central African Republic (CAR) between at least December 5, 2013 and at least December 2014. The Chamber was satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe that an internal armed conflict was ongoing in the CAR between the Seleka – a coalition of armed groups predominantly composed of Muslim fighters – and the Anti-Balaka – a predominantly Christian countermovement to the Seleka. The Chamber also found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that, from at least September 2013 until at least December 2014, a widespread and systematic attack was carried out by the Anti-Balaka against the Muslim civilian population and anyone perceived to support the Seleka. Ngaïssona was the most senior leader and the National General Coordinator of the Anti-Balaka.

In less positive news, the Assembly approved the 2019 budget of the ICC at €148,135,100. This represents a very small increase over 2018 of .49%. The Committee on Budget and Finance (CBF) had recommended a .6% increase, and therefore the approved budget is lower than the CBF recommendation by €150,000. For those inside and outside of the Court who felt that the CBF recommendation should represent a floor, this further cut was worrisome. The Court had requested a 2.4% increase. In real terms, this .49% increase does not keep pace with inflation, is a de facto budget decrease, and severely limits the number of preliminary examinations, situations and cases the Prosecutor can pursue on an annual basis. Ten states – Argentina, Belgium, Costa Rica, Finland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland – issued a strong statement of disappointment with the annual Assembly budgetary process as continually leading to the underfunding of key ICC roles.

States Parties also adopted the Omnibus resolution, which states:

“The Assembly of States Parties reconfirms its unwavering support for the Court as an independent and impartial judicial institution, reiterates its commitment to uphold and defend the principles and values enshrined in the Rome Statute and to preserve its integrity undeterred by any threats against the Court, its officials and those cooperating with it, and renews its resolve to stand united against impunity.”

States Parties additionally adopted the Report of the Credentials Committee and the Report on the 17th session of the Assembly. The dates of the 2019 ASP have not yet been decided, but the date and venue should be announced by January 31, 2019.

Today, Catherine Savard returns to blogging for the IntLawGrrls symposium, having also participated in 2017. Her three-part blog post focuses on the ICC Prosecutor’s preliminary examinations.

Catherine is Assistant Coordinator with the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and member of the Canada Research Chair on International Criminal Justice and Human Rights. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in international law at Université Laval (Canada) under the supervision of Prof. Fannie Lafontaine. Her research interests are international criminal, humanitarian and humanCatherine rights law. She recently represented her university at the Jean-Pictet international humanitarian law competition and will represent it again in 2019 the context of the Charles-Rousseau public international law competition. She has also been very involved with the Université Laval’s International Criminal and Humanitarian Law Clinic, for which she has completed nearly 10 research mandates. Her research focusses on modes of liability in international criminal law, sexual and gender-based violence and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

A heartfelt welcome back, Catherine!

Amazing ATLAS Advice

Just a short note to call our readers’ attention to the new profiles up on the fabulous ATLAS website.  ATLAS–Acting Together: Law, Advice, Support–started as a Facebook group of women in international law before launching an open source site. The brainchild of the indomitable Sareta Ashraph, herself a brilliant international lawyer, ATLAS has been an invaluable source of information and support for women in the field.

ATLAS is currently featuring profiles of prominent women international lawyers (yours truly is honored to be included). The most recent, by Bec Hamilton, offers another must read. Prior profiles are equally compelling:

Check it out and be sure to attend one of the ATLAS hangouts if one happens to be in your neighborhood!

Impunité et droits des victimes : Les défis principaux de la Juridiction spéciale pour la paix en Colombie

Après 50 années de conflit entre les groupes paramilitaires, guérilleros et forces gouvernementales marquées par le crime et l’impunité, un accord de paix a été signé en Colombie en 2016 pour mettre fin aux hostilités et construire une paix stable et durable.

 À la suite de cet accord, le gouvernement colombien a institué un système intégral de vérité, justice,réparation et non répétition. Ce dernier contribue à lutter contre l’impunité en combinant des mécanismes judiciaires (investigation et condamnation pour les violations des droits de l’Homme et graves infractions au droit international humanitaire) et extrajudiciaires (élucidation de la vérité, recherche des disparus et réparation). L’une des composantes de ce système est la Juridiction spéciale pour la paix (Jurisdicción especial para la paz) (JEP), qui était au cœur d’un événement organisé le 11 décembre 2018 dans le cadre de la 17eAssemblée des États Parties (AÉP17) de la Cour pénale internationale (CPI), à La Haye.

Intitulé Colombia : contexto y desafíos ¿Hacia un nuevo informe intermedio? (Colombie : Contexte et défis : vers un nouveau rapport intermédiaire) et organisé par Avocats sans frontières Canada, Humanas et la Comision colombiana de juristas (Commission colombienne des juristes), le but de cet événement était d’analyser l’état de cette juridiction.

L’inquiétude des experts présents lors de cet évènement portait sur le non-respect des standards internationaux par la JEP, notamment ceux relatifs à la responsabilité du supérieur hiérarchique (article 86-2 du premier Protocole additionnel aux Conventions de Genève et article 28 du Statut de Rome).

En droit international, les supérieurs hiérarchiques doivent répondre des crimes commis par leurs subordonnés « s’ils savaient ou possédaient des informations leur permettant de conclure, dans les circonstances du moment,que ce subordonné commettait ou allait commettre une telle infraction, et s’ils n’ont pas pris toutes les mesures pratiquement possibles en leur pouvoir pour empêcher ou réprimer cette infraction » (article86-2 du premier Protocole additionnel aux Conventions de Genève). Ce mécanisme permet de remonter la chaine de commandement jusqu’au plus haut responsable lorsque les conditions d’existence d’un lien de subordination, d’un acte d’omission et de connaissance des atrocités sont respectées.

La société civile, d’une part, et le Bureau du Procureur de la CPI dans son rapport sur les activités menées en 2018 en matière d’examen préliminaire, d’autre part, regrettent la définition de la responsabilité du supérieur hiérarchique choisie en Colombie.

Dans le cadre de la JEP, le supérieur ne peut être reconnu responsable que pour les faits commis par son subordonné dans son domaine de responsabilité, pour des activités sous sa responsabilité. Cette définition ne prend pas en compte le pouvoir d’influence qu’un supérieur peut avoir en dehors de sa zone de responsabilité. La loi prévoit également que le supérieur doit avoir la capacité légale et matérielle de donner des ordres (article24-a) et la capacité effective et directe de prendre les mesures nécessaires pour éviter ou sanctionner la commission de faits répréhensibles de ses subordonnés lorsqu’il avait connaissance de ces faits (article24-d).

Ces conditions très restrictives vont à l’encontre des standards de droit international et limitent considérablement la reconnaissance de la responsabilité des hauts responsables colombiens lorsque les forces armées du pays sont accusées d’exécutions extrajudiciaires (falsos positivos) et bénéficient d’une présomption d’innocence.

Tous ces éléments contribuent aujourd’hui à l’impunité des crimes commis depuis cinquante ans et affaiblissent le droit des victimes à la justice. À cette difficulté, s’ajoutent celles spécifiques à la reconnaissance, l’investigation et le jugement des violences sexuelles.

Justice pour les victimes de violences sexuelles

La JEP reconnait le droit des victimes à la vérité pleine et entière, la justice, la réparation, la non répétition et la reconnaissance de la responsabilité des auteurs directs et indirects des violations graves des droits humains ou du droit humanitaire commises pendant le conflit (article1).

Cependant,les panélistes de l’événement Colombia : contexto y desafíos ¿Hacia un nuevo informe intermedio? ont révélé être préoccupés parle degré de participation laissé aux victimes de violences sexuelles commises parles forces armées et paramilitaires au sein de la JEP, car si l’acte législatif instaurant la JEP inclut une perspective de genre, le constat de la société civile sur le terrain est différent.  

En effet, la société civile dénonce la difficile judiciarisation des affaires de violences sexuelles devant la JEP et les juridictions ordinaires. Ces violences ne font généralement pas l’objet d’enquêtes, faute d’organe spécialisé à la JEP dans ce domaine, et ne sont donc pas jugées.

Ce manque de moyens oblige les victimes à apporter elles-mêmes l’information nécessaire à la poursuite de leur affaire devant la JEP, c’est-à-dire communiquer le nom de l’auteur des violences et le groupe armé auquel il appartient, ce qui est extrêmement difficile pour les victimes et les organisations de la société civile qui les accompagnent.

Quand bien même les violences sexuelles sont présentées devant la JEP, rien n’indique qu’elles feront l’objet d’un jugement. Des critères de sélection et priorisation des affaires devant la JEP doivent en effet être respectés. Ils ne sont cependant pas établis clairement et ne sont pas uniformisés d’une salle à l’autre. Cette situation représente un risque pour les victimes de voir leur affaire ne pas être sélectionnée à ce stade de la procédure et de n’obtenir aucune autre chance de jugement.

Ces observations rendent compte du manque d’opportunité qu’ont les violations sexuelles d’être connues par la JEP et des conditions difficiles de participation des victimes dont les droits à la vérité, la justice, la réparation et la non-répétition sont altérés par la JEP dans ces conditions actuelles de fonctionnement. 

Bien qu’aujourd’hui, la CPI se félicite du respect du principe de complémentarité (article 17 du Statut de Rome), l’espoir de la société civile de voir les droits des victimes respectés et la lutte contre l’impunité prospérer repose sur le contrôle minutieux de ces points spécifiques par la CPI. Dans le cas où la juridiction spéciale pour la paix ne respecte pas les standards internationaux de responsabilité du supérieur hiérarchique et de participation des victimes, la CPI pourra se reconnaitre compétente pour juger les crimes les plus graves commis en Colombie. Cette conclusion n’est cependant pas recherchée par la société civile qui veut croire en la réussite de la justice transitionnelle.

L’auteure participe à la 17ème Assemblée des États Parties au Statut de Rome de la Cour pénale internationale au sein de la délégation du Partenariat canadien pour la justice internationale soutenue financièrement par le Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada grâce à un financement de la Clinique de droit international pénal et humanitaire de la Faculté de droit de l’Université Laval.

ICC Assembly of States Parties 2018: Day Six


[photo credit: FIDH. This image graces the cover of FIDH’s recently-released report, Victims at the Center of Justice: Reflections on the Promises and the Reality of Victim Participation at the ICC (1998-2018)]

Day Six of the ICC Assembly of States Parties began with a two hour plenary discussion titled “Achievements and challenges regarding victims’ participation and legal representation after 20 years of the adoption of the Rome Statute” organized by Argentina and the United Kingdom as co-facilitators. States Parties, Court officials and civil society representatives were invited to share their views on questions such as: at what stages may victims participate, which victims may participate, what does participation mean in practice, and how does legal representation work? Themes emerging from this discussion included the ethical and legal obligations owed to victims, ensuring that victims do not feel used by the ICC, calls for the re-establishment of a focal point for victims, and the streamlining of the ICC’s victim participation process. A number of side events on victim-related issues were also held today, summarized here by the Coalition for the ICC.

Following the plenary discussion, States Parties adopted three resolutions. One resolution addressed the amendment of Rule 26 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence – which addresses the receipt of misconduct complaints against ICC judges, the Prosecutor, Deputy Prosecutor, Registrar or Deputy Registrar – to make the Rule fit better with the mandate of the Independent Oversight Mechanism. The other resolutions focused on cooperation and remuneration of the judges. States Parties also discussed the budget, and introduced a draft resolution on the budget in the afternoon. States Parties additionally considered a draft of the omnibus resolution in the afternoon.

I extend a heartfelt welcome to Marie Prigent, who joins the IntLawGrrls symposium with a post on the Assembly, which she is attending with the Canadian Partnership for International Justice.

Marie holds a Master’s degree of International and Comparative Law from Toulouse 1 Capitole University in France. She studied international law abroad, at the Complutense University of Madrid and Université Laval in Quebec. She then joined Université Laval’sPHOTO CV International Criminal and Humanitarian Law Clinic in January 2018 and continues her work as a research intern. Her researches focused on transitional justice, amnesty laws, victims’ participation and rights of human rights defenders. Her fields of interest include criminal, humanitarian and human rights law. She will prepare for the Quebec bar exam from January 2019.


Three Themes from the 17th Assembly of States Parties of the ICC: New Prosecutor, Victims’ Role, and Cooperation


Assembly of States Parties Plenary

Along with other Intlawgrrls, I attended the 17th session of the Assembly of States Parties  (ASP) of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, as a delegate of the Public International Law and Policy Group. This post, which will contribute to the Intlawgrrls Symposium about this year’s ASP, will focus on events, sessions and discussions which took place during the second half of the ASP, from December 10-12.

World Forum

World Forum, The Hague

Several themes emerged during this year’s ASP.  The first (perhaps unofficial) theme included the selection process to be adopted for the search of the next ICC prosecutor.  As many of our readers know, the current prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, will complete her term as the court’s top prosecutor by June 2021.  Prosecutor Bensouda’s shoes will be large to fill, and I witnessed numerous official and unofficial discussions regarding the search process for her replacement, including a briefing by the ASP President Kwon to the NGO delegates.  It is fair to say that no definitive conclusions have been reached by anyone at the ASP regarding the timing of the search, or the composition of the search “committee.”  At the NGO briefing by ASP President Kwon, I publicly reminded President Kwon to remain mindful of the need for gender diversity when considering candidates advanced by various state parties to the court.  Many of our readers may recall that, unbelievably, the list of judicial candidates for the residual mechanism of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, recently released by the U.N. General Assembly, included no female candidates (see Intlawgrrl Leila Sadat’s post on this).  I politely reminded President Kwon of this fact and asked him to remain committed to ensuring respect for gender diversity in this important search process.

Bensouda Briefing 2

Briefing by Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on ICC preliminary investigations

The second theme of the ASP included the role of victims in ICC proceedings.  Several side events focused on the role of victims (“Realizing Victims’ Right to Reparation at the International Criminal Court,” “Victims at the Heart of Justice: Reflections on Victims’ Participation at the ICC”), and a plenary on December 11th was on “Achievements and challenges regarding victims’ participation and legal representation after 20 years of the adoption of Rome Statute.”  At this Plenary, several recommendations emerged, ranging from the need to have concrete organs and offices at the ICC dedicated to working with victims, to the idea of engaging local legal professionals and pro bono bar association to help with the representation of victims at the court, as well as soliciting victims to help the court on the operational and logistical levels in the field.  Criticisms emerged as well – one commentator argued that victims’ “success” at the court should not be tied to particular criminal defendants, and that the ICC should focus on providing justice for the victims and not on reparations (because most criminal defendants appearing before the court are indigent and because any  monetary reparations that the court could provide to victims will be very modest).


Side Event on Islam and International Criminal Law and Justice, featuring remarks by Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria 


Last but not least, a third theme of the ASP included cooperation between the court and national jurisdictions, as well as other tribunals.  A side event on December 11th focused on “Complementarity and Cooperation Revisited: What role for the ICC in supporting national and hybrid investigations and prosecutions?”  Several other side events discussed cooperation issues as well and have already been highlighted by previous Intlawgrrls posts.  In sum, the “consensus” regarding the topic of cooperation at these various events and discussions seemed to be that national jurisdictions will have to play the most significant role in the prosecution of atrocity crimes, and that capacity building of national jurisdictions will remain crucial in the decades to come.  ICC is a court of last resort- built on complementarity principles, limited in its resources, constrained through jurisdictional requirements, and designed to prosecute a small number of defendants.  ICC can and should, however, continue to engage in cooperation with national jurisdictions, as well as with other tribunals and investigative bodies (such as the relatively new Syria Mechanism), in order to ensure that the impunity “gap” is continuously narrowing.  While cooperation between the ICC and some national jurisdictions can be difficult – in particular, in cases where national jurisdictions fail to ensure due process and fair trials, and where ICC actions can actually endanger particular witnesses, victims, and/or defendants – it remains crucial to encourage cooperation where possible, and to build solid relationships between the court and national authorities.




Calling it what it is: It is time to define “sexual violence”

From 5-12 December 2018, International Criminal Court (ICC) member states are convening at the World Forum Convention Center in The Hague for the 17th annual session of the Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the Rome Statute. Serving as the governing body of the Court, the ASP meets in full plenary once a year to discuss and decide upon matters key to the future functioning of the ICC. Civil society is there every step of the way, monitoring sessions and interacting with delegates, in order to advocate for an independent, effective and fair ICC.

The issue of gender justice, and more specifically of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), takes relevance in the side meetings. In this regard, one of the most anticipated events took place on December 10, 2018, titled “What makes violence ‘sexual?’,” including the launch of the “Call it what it is” campaign and the “Gender Report Card” on the ICC 2018. The event was organized by the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice with the support of the governments of Australia, Korea, Switzerland, Argentina, Canada, United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Sweden, Switzerland, and New Zealand.

Side-event “What makes violence ‘sexual’,” including the launch of the “Call it what it is” campaign and the “Gender Report Card” on the ICC 2018 @HandlMelisa, the Canadian Partnership for International Justice

The panel was moderated by Siobhan Hobbs, Legal and Program Director Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice. The opening remarks were made by H.E. Matthew E.K. Neuhaus, Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands, who briefly talked about the challenge of dealing with the impunity of sexual crimes in conflict situations. Peter Wilson, British Ambassador to the Netherlands, also joined the opening remarks.

The side-event featured three speakers: Patricia Sellers, Special Adviser on Gender to the ICC Prosecutor; Dr. Rosemary Grey, Postdoctoral Fellow from Sydney University and author of academic analyses on SGBV; and Jihyun Park, survivor of gender-based violence and women’s rights activist from North Korea. H.E Sergio Gerardo Ugalde Godinez, Costa Rican Ambassador to the Netherlands, presented the closing remarks.

Patricia Sellers explained the genesis of how we came to conceptualize sexual violence in international criminal law, how it is addressed today, and how we want to address it in the future. She concluded by explaining that history shows us that sexual violence is something that can destroy towns, nations, communities, and can be used as means of genocide to destroy groups. Dr. Rosemary Grey stated that the ICC was the first tribunal with a statute recognizing a wide range of SGBV. However, she emphasized that the statute does not clarify the question of what makes an act sexual by nature and that, in the jurisprudence, there is no answer to what makes an act “sexual.” Dr. Grey explained that, in the Bemba case, the prosecutor alleged sexual violence was committed as Bemba’s soldiers subjected men and women to forced nudity in order to humiliate them. However, the Pre-Trial Chamber did not include those acts of forced nudity as “sexual violence” as it did not regard them to be of “comparable gravity.” In the Kenyatta case, perpetrators forced a group of people to remove their clothes and circumcised the men using rough tools and, in some cases, amputated the victims’ genitals. The Prosecutor described these acts as “other forms of sexual violence.” The victims agreed. However, the Pre-Trial Chamber characterized forcible circumcision and penile amputation as “other inhumane acts” under Article 7 (1) (k) of the Statute because it did not regard them as “sexual in nature.”

From left to right, Dr.Rosemary Grey, Patricia Sellers, Siobhan Hobbs and Jihyun Park. @HandlMelisa,Canadian Partnership for International Justice

The side event also included the launch of the campaign “Call it what is!” with remarks by H.E. Sabine Nolke, Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands. The “Call it what it is!”campaign addresses the issue of lack of accountability for sexual violence. It is a civil society campaign that aims to think about options that otherwise we would have not have been contemplated in the definition for sexual violence, expanding our understanding of sexual violence around the world in a way that is inclusive, culturally sensitive, responds to the realities around the world, and is forward-thinking. The campaign would support the Court in considering how sexual violence is understood in different cultures by “creating a vocabulary so the ICC can speak in an inclusive language.” It aims to do so by creating a definition of sexual violence in order to serve as guide for prosecutors, victims’ representatives, defense counsel, and other judicial actors to better understand what an “act of sexual nature” involves. The campaign also included the launch of a survey (available in English, French and Spanish) that mapped different cultural perceptions on sexual violence available at the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice webpage.

The Rome Statute is the first instrument of international criminal law to expressly include a wide range of crimes of sexual violence. However, jurisprudence of the ICC highlights the need for a working definition of what sexual violence could entail. Specifically, the ICC legal framework lacks a definition of “act of a sexual nature” (found in the ICC Elements of Crimes for sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and “other forms of sexual violence”).

Women’s Rights Activist Jihyun Park, sharing her experience as a sexual violence and forced marriage survivor in North Korea @HandlMelisa, Canadian Partnership for International Justice

One of the questions asked in the survey is what makes an act “sexual.” There are several characteristics that could help define and conceptualize a “sexual” act; it could be that the act involves contact or exposure with sexual body parts; that the act affects the victims’ sense of sexual identity; that the act affects the victims’ reproductive capacity; that the act is widely regarded as “sexual” in the victims’ community; that the act results in sexual gratification of the perpetrator; or/and that the act affects the victims’ capacity for sexual activity. The survey also asks participants to provide examples of an “act of sexual nature” — other than those listed in the Rome Statute — that could amount to sexual violence. Examples of such acts could include forced nudity, forced abortion, and genital mutilation, among many other. Finally, the survey asked participants to contextualize by explaining in which country, region, culture, or religion this“act” may be considered as an “act of sexual nature.”

As of this morning, there were more than one hundred responses from diverse geographical regions that will inform a civil society effort to develop a declaration on sexual violence, probably a non-exhaustive list.

Dr. Rosemary Grey explained how initial responses to the survey showed the range of thinking in this topic, including many acts such as forced nudity, sexual mutilation, forcing victims to watch an act of sexual violence, and forcing victims to rape others. One response that appeared many times is the “non-consensual circulation of sexual images” in media. Other examples also included forced virginity testing in order to check the condition of the hymen, groping, total abortion bans, forced abortion, and denial of contraception methods, among others. Some responses also referred to historical precedents: human experiments of a sexual nature, such as Nazi experiments on homosexual men and practices in concentration camps whereby homosexual men were not allowed to put their hands under their blankets under the presumption that they would otherwise masturbate, “weaponizing the victims’ sexuality against them.” Shaving the heads of women who have had sexual connection with the enemy as a way to humiliate them, unwanted or forced touching of body parts, violating a victim’s sexual privacy, and violations affecting reproductive rights and reproductive autonomy, were also among the sexually violent acts mentioned in some of the responses to the survey.

The expressive harm of denying diverse sexual-based crimes their recognition as related but distinct crimes is silencing the wide-ranging spectrum of gender-related harms that victims often experience.Victims of gender-based crimes not only experience forced penetration. There are gender-based harms that are equally or even more physically, psychologically, socially and emotionally harming than rape. Crimes such as enforced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced abortion, the transmission of sexual diseases, and forced pregnancy often provoke irreversible internal organ damage, psychologically traumatize the victims for the rest of their lives, subsume them in shame and guilt, and socially stigmatize them within their communities.

The ICC – a role model organization with a clear gender-sensitive mandate – has the capability to establish a gender perspective that can guarantee the effective investigation, prosecution and trial of gender-based crimes. No other institution in the world has such a significant power to contribute to ending the era of impunity for gender-based crimes.

This blogpost and my attendance to the 17th Assembly of States Parties are supported by the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.