I was honored last week to introduce this year’s Katherine B. Fite lecture at the annual IHL Dialogs hosted by the lovely Chautauqua Institution (the 2014 program is here). We’ve covered prior Dialogs on these pages (see here and here). Fite (1905-1989) was a career State Department lawyer. Among her many achievements, she worked in London right after World War II on detail from the State Department, aiding Justice Robert H. Jackson and others in negotiating and drafting the Charter of the International Military Tribunal. She then decamped to Nuremberg where she helped prepare the case against the indicted organizations. The Jackson Center’s John Q. Barrett and IntLawGrrl founder Diane Marie Amann have written wonderful biographical notes about Fite. (Diane’s talk on Fite at a previous IHL Dialog is available here). This lecture in Fite’s honor has become a featured event at the IHL Dialogs. In choosing each year’s Fite lecture recipient, a committee of contributors to IntLawGrrls strives to honor trail-blazing women who embody Fite’s spirit, commitment to justice, brilliance, and independence. Prior recipients include Diane Amann, Leila Sadat, and Karima Bennoune.
This year’s Fite speaker, Ms. Zainab Bangura—the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, embodies Fite’s signature qualities. (The full text of Bangura’s speech is available here). Ms. Bangura grew up in the heartland of Sierra Leone, the child of a Muslim cleric and a mother who insisted that her daughter enjoy an education even though she herself could not read or write. Although she originally pursued a career in the insurance industry, the commencement of the war in Sierra Leone inspired her to focus on advocating for peace and democracy. SRSG Bangura thus began her career in public service as founder of
- the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) and
- the country’s first non-partisan women’s rights group: Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation (W.O.M.E.N.).
In 1996, the CGG helped to catalyze the first democratic elections in Sierra Leone after 25 years of single-party rule.
During the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002), Ms. Bangura spoke out against the atrocities being committed on all sides. For her acts of denunciation, she was directly threatened with rape and murder. But she refused to be intimidated. Following the war, Ms. Bangura became involved in efforts to prosecute sexual violence as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Given her long experience as a civil society and women’s rights activist, and over the objections of defense counsel, Ms. Bangura was certified by the SCSL as an expert on violence against women and was called to testify about the various manifestations of sexual violence in the armed conflict in Sierra Leone. She wrote a brilliant and sophisticated expert report, distinguishing between
- local and traditional marriage customs—which did not necessarily involve the consent of the young women to be married but did rely on the two families acting as fiduciaries devoted to her well-being—and
- the kind of forced marriage practiced by warring militia whereby women and girls were abducted, given to a particular fighter to do his bidding, and forced to provide unpaid logistical support to her “husband” and his fighting force.
These forced conjugal associations left these women completely vulnerable to the whims of her “husband” and his superiors and alienated from her home community. Because of her testimony, the SCSL recognized the crime against humanity of forced marriage as a distinct harm separate and apart from other forms of sexual and gender-based violence in the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council case and then again in the Revolutionary United Front case. This crime is now part of indictments before the ICC (in Uganda and DRC situations) and the ECCC.
After the war, Ms. Bangura joined the United Nations team rebuilding neighboring Liberia as Chief of Civil Affairs in the wake of that country’s equally devastating civil war. In 2007, she was called back to government service in Sierra Leone
- as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and then
- as Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone under President Ernest Bai Koroma. Under her watch, the health and welfare of the populace were much improved; many of these gains have been undone by the tragedy of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
In 2012, UNSGY Ban Ki Moon appointed Ms. Bangura as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. The pervasiveness of sexual violence in armed conflict has received unprecedented attention in recent years. Such violence is no longer considered an unfortunate byproduct of, or a phenomenon peripheral to, war. Rather, we now recognize that sexual violence is deliberately employed in conflict situations to:
- Humiliate a community;
- Punish an opponent or act of resistance;
- Alter the demographics of an area through forced impregnation or sterilization;
- Bolster morale and reward fighters after battle; and
- Generally terrorize a populace.
This heightened attention is also reflected the United Kingdom’s decision to make “Preventing Sexual Violence” a central focus of its presidency of the then G8 (now G7). This effort culminated in an historic G8 Declaration condemning the practice and committing G8 members to the pursuit of accountability. These commitments were strengthened at the first ever Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held recently in London. Ms. Bangura was a central part of these multilateral efforts.
As part of her mandate, SRSG Bangura has focused on a wide range of objectives to eliminate sexual violence in conflict. Ending impunity for such violations is a central pillar of her approach. That said, and although she is a staunch advocate for justice, SRSG Bangura also understands the importance of political will and of political power. So, she has also focused on gaining more robust implementation of the suite of Security Council resolutions recognizing that sexual violence plays a pivotal role in undermining international peace and security in conflict situations. She has also stressed the importance of empowering women to be agents of change in their own communities, to reject the stigma that is all too often associated with being the victim of such acts; and to shift this stigma to the perpetrators, where it belongs. And, although she is an advocate for women, Ms. Bangura has also been instrumental in calling attention to the phenomenon of sexual violence against male victims. The extent of male sexual violence, often committed in custodial situations, still remains shrouded.
Ms. Bangura assumed her position at a critical time for this field. Conflicts around the globe prominently feature sexual violence in all its forms. In her missions to these conflict areas, she meets with governmental and rebel leaders alike as well as with local activists and victims. She is clearly not afraid to go where the problems are greatest and to confront individuals with the power to change the lived reality for women. While Ms. Bangura may be at the leading edge of this movement to end sexual violence in conflict, she always stands in solidarity with the survivors and their communities.