Once hidden and unspoken, reports of sexual violence now feature prominently in daily media dispatches from conflict zones around the world. This visibility has contributed to a new emphasis on preventing and addressing such violence at the international level.
Promoting the investigation and documentation of these crimes is a key component of the international community’s response. However, this response requires thoughtful and skilled documenters. Poor documentation may do more harm than good, retraumatising survivors, and undermining future accountability efforts.
Recently, the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI) and international anti-torture organisation REDRESS, with the funding support of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), have launched a series of country-specific guides to assist those documenting and investigating conflict-related sexual violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Iraq.
The guides (available in English, Burmese, Tamil, Sinhalese, Arabic and Kurdish on the REDRESS and IICI websites) complement the second edition of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, published in March 2017 by the FCO.
The Protocol aims to support practitioners to document appropriately by providing a “set of guidelines setting out best practice on how to document, or investigate, sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity, act of genocide or other serious violation of international criminal, human rights or humanitarian law”. It is a tremendous resource for practitioners, covering theoretical, legal and practical aspects of documentation.
However, as the Protocol itself makes clear, documentation of conflict-related sexual violence is highly context-specific. Each conflict situation and country has individual legal and practical aspects that must be considered alongside the Protocol’s guidelines.
The guides aim to fill this gap by addressing the context for and characteristics of conflict-related sexual violence in the three countries. They address legal avenues for justice domestically and at the international level, specific evidential and procedural requirements and practical issues that may arise when documenting such crimes.
The publication of these guides on the three different countries highlights some interesting comparisons and contrasts. Although the background to and most common forms of sexual violence differ from country to country, the motivations for the violence have parallels. Similarly, the stigmatisation of survivors is a grave concern in each country, influencing all aspects of daily life for them and the way that institutions and individuals respond to the crimes committed against them.
In all three countries, a landscape of almost complete impunity prevails, and in many situations survivors, their families and practitioners face significant threats to their security – often from state actors (e.g. police, military, state security). This harsh reality is borne out by the fact that although the drafting of the supplements relied heavily on the experience and input of local practitioners, due to security concerns, very few were able to be individually acknowledged for their contributions.
The prospects for justice, whether at the domestic or international level or through other accountability efforts such as official investigations, are currently very limited in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, the current investigation of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, and ongoing (if somewhat stalled) discussions on transitional justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka may open up some avenues for accountability. The use of universal jurisdiction in third countries is also a promising option.
In Iraq, while accountability may be closer on the horizon, this has led to its own challenges. As the Iraq supplement describes:
“[i]n Northern Iraq in particular, there is currently a large number of (trained and untrained, experienced and inexperienced) mandated and non-mandated actors actively documenting [conflict- and atrocity-related sexual violence] in various forms… However, much accountability focused documentation remains uncoordinated, ad hoc and without proper process and support for victims”.
A key message across the supplements is encouragement to practitioners to critically consider whether they have the necessary skills and capacity, and whether they should be documenting at all. In this context, they are asked to carefully evaluate prior to any documentation or investigation project why they wish to document, and to take great care to map, coordinate with and not duplicate existing documentation efforts.
Where documentation is carried out, it is hoped that the supplements will assist practitioners – both international and local – to effectively implement the guidelines provided by the Protocol. This approach will help to ensure that the documentation is as robust as it can be for current or future accountability purposes.
As the Protocol and supplements stress, effective documentation can be a powerful weapon against impunity for these crimes, even if accountability follows many decades later. Equally, the safety, security and well-being of survivors, practitioners and communities remain at the core of the documentation process. The supplements are intended to be living documents, to be updated by users as best practice and the law evolve (they are available in both PDF and Word versions so that users can update and adapt them as they wish). We hope that they will be useful contributions to the efforts to achieve justice for these horrific crimes.