Safeguarding women after disasters: some progress, but not enough

Hundreds of Mozambicans were killed and thousands made homelessrecently by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. Almost immediately, there were reports of a sadly familiar story: women being forced to trade sex for food by local community leaders distributing aid.

Globally, international organisations appear to be grappling with the issue more seriously than before. Yet reports about sexual exploitation keep coming. How does the aid community strategise to protect women’s safety in disaster situations?

Over the past 15 years, I have done research on sexual exploitation of displaced women in Uganda and Colombia. I have also worked with a variety of humanitarian organisations on accountability and legalisation. Through this, I have identified the factors necessary to bring justice to the victims of predatory aid workers.

Sexual exploitation must be recognised as a real and widespread problem. There must be staff and management accountability. Transgressions must be sanctioned through disciplinary or penal measures. But there are also major dilemmas that need to be understood and tackled by governments, agencies and, most importantly, local communities.

Sexual exploitation in aid

The sexual exploitation of disaster and conflict victims is a global – and longstanding – phenomenon. Over the last 25 years, there have been radical changes in the standards of global public morality around the conduct of personnel working for international organisations and NGOs when vulnerable adults and children are involved.

Nevertheless, the willingness to see sexual exploitation as an inherent feature of the international community’s intervention to bring development, humanitarian aid or peace has been much slower to evolve.

It was only 24 years ago that UNHCR issued guidelines on sexual violence and refugees that expressly mentioned international refugee workers as being implicated in sexual violence against refugees.

The sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls in several African countries by international aid workers was recently described as “endemic”. It was also noted that perpetrators easily moved around the sector undetected.

Several recent cases have been reported from Cote d’ivore, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

These have involved aid workers and peacekeepers, as well as local aid workers and government employees.

In my research on refugees, accusations concerning “sex for resettlement” registration surface regularly. I found these to be frequent while working on refugee resettlement in Kampala 15 years ago. Despite the UNHCR’s promise to reform, similar accusations keep resurfacing, most recently in Kenya. The time has come for the international community to seriously debate the power mechanisms embedded in the resettlement process that enable sexual exploitation to fester.

What will fix the problem?

The first step is to organise accountability.

Humanitarian accountability first emerged as a concern in the 1980s. It was institutionalised in the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief . The 1996 Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda was a defining moment.

That report resulted in several sector-wide initiatives. Five years ago efforts were made to streamline these in the revised Core Humanitarian Standards.

Throughout this period, sexual exploitation has been considered the worst possible behaviour humanitarian workers can be guilty of. But it has not been clear what constitutes exploitation and in which relationships it takes place. The lack of a definition, the unwillingness to articulate and enforce robust norms for professional behaviour and the absence of effective complaint mechanisms and protections for whistle-blowers have contributed to a culture of impunity for predatory behaviour against aid recipients.

Early policy responses to sexual exploitation were concerned with reputational issues. But over the past 15 years the humanitarian sector has seen a flurry of institutional initiatives to grapple with this specific issue. The effort to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse is led by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

The aid sector is now engaging in “safeguarding exercises”. These emerged after the Oxfam scandal in Haiti. The organisation was seen as failing to act on sexual misconduct by staff in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and then to have attempted a cover-up.

Safeguarding includes all actions by aid actors to protect staff from harm (abuse, sexual harassment and violence) and to ensure staff do not harm beneficiaries.

This broad definition represents both a welcome recognition of the scope of the problem and an opportunity for a comprehensive approach. But it also creates some new challenges. Three are particularly worth noting.

The challenges

Who gets a voice: There has been vocal concern about the lack of inclusiveness in how safeguarding is practised. Critics have noted that a safeguarding industry was hatched with little attention to local and national context or participation. There is a view that safeguarding is yet another Western-centric practice. I think this critique is true. But it also creates a dilemma: should global norms about sexual exploitation in international aid be up for local negotiation?

Regulation and criminalisation. In recent years, there have been calls to regulate foreign aid actors more robustly. This is understandable. Aid actors have operated with a great deal of license and even impunity under the humanitarian banner. But drawing up new laws also creates problems. This is particularly true in a context where African civil society generally is under pressure from new restrictive laws that curtail their activities.

Responding to the call to “do something”, the international community has embraced criminalisation and criminal prosecutions to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. But opting for criminal law and the courtroom rests on a deeply simplistic framing of structural power imbalances in aid. Legal strategies are costly and slow. The focus on sexual violence in disasters and conflicts also risks crowding out concern for other aspects of women’s lives.

Localisation: Since 2016 there has been a significant focus on the localisation of aid. The Charter for Change focuses on contracting, resource allocation, transparency and communication. It highlights the importance of not undermining local capacity. The process is generally painfully slow and a shockingly small percentage of international aid funding is actually allocated to local actors.

At the same time, there is a persistent call for international actors to do, control and know more about what goes on locally to limit corruption, incompetence and abuse. This call comes partly from media in donor states addressing taxpayers, but also from watchdogs within the sector.

This is also the case for sexual exploitation. In its report, Human Rights Watch demands that “international partners, particularly the UN, should ensure greater oversight of the conduct of local officials during the distribution of humanitarian aid”. This will not come for free.

The question is how a balance can be found between control and localisation – and who gets to determine what this balance should be.

This post was originally published at https://theconversation.com/safeguarding-women-after-disasters-some-progress-but-not-enough-116619. For an extended critical commentary on the rapid rise of the Safeguarding concept in the aid sector, see https://jhumanitarianaction.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41018-019-0051-1

The ICC and Côte d’Ivoire: Is Justice Being Dispatched?

In December 2010, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, then Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), warned protagonists of the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire that “[t]hose leaders who are planning violence will end up in The Hague.” In November 2011, Laurent Gbagbo arrived in The Hague, his transfer to the ICC seen as diffusing tensions after his arrest in April by forces loyal to the internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo was joined by his Minister of Youth, Charles Blé Goudé, in 2014. Having fled to Ghana, Blé Goudé was extradited to Côte d’Ivoire, which sent him to the ICC. At the time, Côte d’Ivoire was not party to the Rome Statute but the country accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction through an Article 12 (3) declaration, reconfirmed in 2010.

Yet, by the time the trial commenced in January 2016, the Ivorian justice system was functioning. Ouattara declared no more Ivorians would be sent to the ICC, insisting on trying Simone Gbagbo at home despite losing an admissibility challenge before the Pre-Trial Chamber, upheld by the Appeals Chamber.

The acquittal of Laurent Gbagbo and Blé Goudé in the ruling on no case to answer of 15 January 2019 spotlights the OTP’s investigation in the Côte d’Ivoire situation. As a written decision is forthcoming, this article will not examine the trial. Rather, it looks at the perception of the ICC at the local level and how it compares to and impacts national justice processes. 

During my research in Côte d’Ivoire, I had the privilege to interview Ivorians from different parts of the country, including victims, witnesses, judges, prosecutors, defense counsel and civil society. Views about the ICC and domestic accountability efforts are polarized. Some strongly support the ICC and maintain high expectations that may now be impossible to meet, while others are adamant Ivorians should be tried by Ivorians, however imperfect the justice.

For many, the ICC has lost credibility. Those who followed the Gbagbo and Blé Goudé trial share concerns as to how it was conducted, from procedural changes, to the OTP’s witnesses turning hostile, suffering memory loss or providing hearsay evidence with low probative weight. Further, the OTP’s sequenced approach­––necessary for securing state co-operation given the limitations of the Part 9 regime––with as yet no public arrest warrants released against supporters of Ouattara who are also suspected of committing crimes during the crisis, has increased the perception of the Court as an instrument for victor’s justice. This credibility deficit has weakened its impact. Early positive developments included domestication of the Rome Statute, with the incorporation of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide into the Ivorian Penal Code in 2015. However, as public perception decreased, related reforms important for local accountability efforts stalled, in particular, a law on witness protection; fortunately, it was passed by the National Assembly in early 2018 but is still to enter into force.

Unfortunately, there has been inadequate reverse co-operation, with requests to the ICC for the exchange of evidence to facilitate domestic investigations substantively unanswered. Further, Côte d’Ivoire lacks technical capacity for DNA and ballistics analysis, with resource limitations among the factors delaying further exhumations. While the OTP has lent some assistance, it would be mutually beneficial to go further. Domestic inquiries are also hampered by witness fatigue, with some witnesses reluctant to co-operate with a Special Investigation Unit (CSEI) after already giving testimony to the ICC and other domestic transitional justice mechanisms previously operating in parallel, including the National Commission of Inquiry (CNE), Commission for Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation (CDVR), and National Commission for Reconciliation and Reparation of Victims (CONARIV). Other ICC witnesses declined to testify in local trials to avoid media exposure.

Continue reading

Carrots, Sticks, and the ICC: Prospects for Cooperation? Part 2

The contributions discussed in part one may be used to frame an analysis of the Court’s recent request to Belarus to cooperate in the arrest and surrender of al-Bashir. The ICC has issued two arrest warrants for al-Bashir, one in 2009 and one in 2010, for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Since the arrest warrants were issued, al-Bashir typically travels to non-states parties, who are under no obligation to arrest him. Indeed, Belarus has neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute. However, he has also visited states partieswho do have an obligation to arrest, including (but not limited to) Chad, Kenya, Djibouti, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Uganda, and South Africa. Despite the Court’s request to these states parties for cooperationin the arrest of al-Bashir, national governments such as those of Chad, Jordan, and South Africa have refused to comply, using the justification that al-Bashir’s status as head of state provides him with immunity from arrest. This opinion is also promoted by the African Union, which has asked for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the issue of immunities of heads of state and government within the Rome Statute system.  

The relations between Belarus and Sudan are strengthening in several key areas. Al-Bashir and Belarus’ President, Alexander Lukashenko, signed agreements on ‘friendly relations and cooperation’in 2017 emphasizing dynamic trade and joint projects in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Al-Bashir’s speculated travel to Belarus is for the purpose of finalizing trade deals and enhancing bilateral relations. However, the link between the two countries is long(er)standing. Belarus is a Sudanese armament provider. In 2006, a military cooperation protocolwas signed by the two countries covering training, exchange of experiences, and military science. Belarus has a reputation as an arms exporter to rogue states. Since Belarus is under no legal obligation to cooperate with the ICC, the arrest and surrender of al-Bashir highly unlikely. The high probability that Belarus will ignore the Prosecutor’s request contributes to a culture of impunity and staunch criticism of the Court.  

Inasmuch as states pursue political and economic (self) interests, the UNSC expressed a need for accountability for the atrocious crimes committed in Darfur under the leadership of President Omar al-Bashir at the ICC. The majority of states agree that the gravity of the crimes covered by the Rome Statute are so abhorrent that they are an offence to humankind and should not go unpunished. It is necessary to question the elusiveness of state cooperation in the situation concerning al-Bashir and consider what can be done to facilitate a different, more just outcome. Relying on Belarus is insufficient without the political backing of the UNSC to oblige all member states to enforce their referral and facilitate cooperation by all states to this end.   

Political strategizing for the majority of states requires a balance of hard and soft power; this includes the promotion of international criminal justice and the use of international institutions, which creates a sense of solidarity among Member States. Expectations of behaviour establish trust. The rules-based order in the Rome Statute system contributes to a shared commitment to these goals. The referral of the situation in Sudan to the ICC by the UNSC signals that the perpetration of atrocious crimes is unacceptable, even for states who have neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute. Appeals to sovereign power, interests, or status as a head of state are irrelevant. This could be a significant moment for the international criminal justice project, but the transfer of political power (UNSC) to legal action (ICC) has been weak and haphazard. The lack of organizational support and state cooperation to see justice done devalues international criminal law and subjects the ICC to a serious legitimacy crisis.  

The lack of credible commitment on the part of the UNSC to enforce this referral, or to provide the necessary political support has undermined (and continues to undermine) the ICC’s ability to see justice done. The UNSC has failed to take measures against states who choose not to execute the arrest warrant, which ought to be an obligation that emanates from the referral itself. The need for the UNSC to take a bigger role in the enforcement of its own resolutions remains an important focal point in the discussion on cooperation more broadly.  

The obsequious attention paid to al-Bashir and his disregard for the indictment by the ICC has led to increasing frustration on the part of those who oppose impunity and demand justice and accountability for the victims in Sudan. The role of civil society is particularly important in this regard. Depending on states such as Belarus to cooperate with the execution of an arrest warrant in the absence of political or legal obligations is fundamentally flawed. How persuasive is a sharp carrot when the states involved have the stick? 

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

Call for abstracts

STUDYING WAR CRIMES:

The ethics of re-presenting mass violence in research

When do descriptions of harm become academic sensationalism rather than re-presentations of violent materialities? Can academic interest and engagement in mass harm ever avoid voyeurism? How can sensational violence be ethically re-presented in research? Across disciplines theorizing mass harm, a consensus is emerging cautioning against sensationalism in re-presentations of perpetrators, victims, crimes, and sufferings, seeing detailed descriptions of violence as academic voyeurism. Yet, how comfortable a read can research that has violent profusion at its core become, before the distance created by language becomes an ethical – and analytical – challenge in its own right?

This edited volume invites experienced scholars to address thoroughly the ethics of doing research on mass harm in general, and of re-presenting and describing mass violence, harmdoing, trauma, and suffering in their own research in particular. Drawing on a range of methodological approaches and empirical cases, the book will address how mass violence and war crimes are brought into research – both as an ethical, a sensational, and an analytical matter.

We ask contributors to reflect on their re-presentations of mass crimes, violence and justice, seeing re-presentations both as an issue to do with individual and disciplinary research ethics but also as a matter to do with power and material structures of academic knowledge production. The purpose is to encourage active engagement with a research ethics that goes beyond ‘procedural ethic;’ to expand the discussion on responsibility for the stories we hear, read, analyze, and re-tell; and to address in-depth the ethics of listening, seeing, and telling in research on mass violence and war crimes.

The book will be relevant for all researchers who wish to engage ethically with the study of mass violence and war crimes.

We invite abstracts that explore the ethics of re-presenting mass violence in research.

Abstracts may also cater specifically to:

  • The ethics of caring, seeing, listening and re-presenting
  • Selection and exclusion: whose stories are told?
  • Understanding harm/understanding as harm
  • “Thick descriptions” and sensationalism
  • Breaking the silence vs silence as choice
  • Emotions, positionality, and reflexivity

Submission guidelines:

Abstract of no more than 500 words to be submitted by November 30th, 2018 to editors at studyingwarcrimes@gmail.com. We only accept original contributions and the abstract needs to clearly demonstrate the chapter’s contribution to the volume.

Please include a 150-200 word bio highlighting your affiliation, work experience and credentials in the field of war and mass violence research.

Further process:

After an initial screening and by December 15th, 2018, editors will invite 8 contributors to develop their abstract into a full chapter (5-7000 words) to be submitted by April 15th 2019. We will apply for funding for a lunch-to-lunch workshop for contributors in May 2019. The final submission date for full chapters will be in August, 2019.

Routledge (Taylor&Francis Group) initiated our work with this collection, and has expressed a strong interest in publishing the book.

About the editors:

Sladjana Lazic is a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Peace Studies (CPS) at the Arctic University of Norway (UiT). She holds a PhD in Political Science from the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, on victims’ perspectives on transitional justice and legitimacy.

Anette Bringedal Houge holds a PhD in Criminology and Sociology of Law from the University of Oslo on conflict-related sexual violence, perpetrator re-presentations, and international criminal justice. She has published her research in e.g., Aggression and Violent Behavior, British Journal of Criminology and Criminology and Criminal Justice. Anette is the Head of Humanitarian Needs and Analysis at the Norwegian Red Cross.

Feminism and the Kenyan TJRC (Part 2)

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Women singing at the launch of the TJRC public hearings in Garissa (April 2011)               (Kenyan TJRC)

Addressing the first feminist critique – the failure to address systemic and structural violence that tends to affect women disproportionately – was easier for us to address compared to other truth commissions given our broad mandate and, in particular, the requirement that we investigate violations of socioeconomic rights. To better analyze systemic and structural issues, including those related to socio-economic rights, we needed to address effectively the second critique – the failure to encourage active participation of women, a failure that had already been experienced by the Mutua Task Force.

 

In addition to dedicating specific parts of our statement-taking form to capturing the experience of women; training our statement takers on gender sensitivity, and ensuring a high percentage of female statement takers (43 percent), we also conducted thirty-nine of what we called women’s hearings in each of the places where we held public hearings. Our challenge was not just to encourage women to participate and speak to the Commission, but also to elicit testimony about violations and related issues experienced by them. The experience of previous truth commissions suggests that women who are willing to speak about past violations tend to speak as witnesses and observers concerning incidents that happened to others, usually the male members of their family. The characterization of such testimony as indirect is itself problematic, as it tends to de-emphasize the secondary effects of violations on family members and community members and more fundamentally emphasize the individualistic, rather than community-oriented, aspect of violations. While women may testify about what happened to others in their family or community because they are reluctant to testify about themselves, they may also focus on violations directly experienced by their family and community members because they see themselves as part of those larger social entities and, thus, are more likely than men to see such violations of “others” as affecting them, their families, and their communities directly. Nevertheless, we were concerned that some women might feel reluctant to share their own direct experiences of violations out of fear rather than because they adopted a more holistic approach to violations and their effects.

In addition to holding women’s hearings in each place where we held public hearings, we often had a prominent woman activist from each community testify about the experience of women generally in that community. We were able to do this in part because of the strong working relationship we had developed with Maendeleo ya Wanawake, the largest women’s membership organization in Kenya. We were thus able to explore at the local level some of the broader systemic, institutional, and cultural issues faced by women. To further broaden this analysis, we devoted one of our national thematic hearings to women. The purpose of the thematic hearing was to supplement the individual stories we had heard in the field – both from witnesses as well as local activists – with a more national and even international perspective on the broader systemic issues facing women in Kenya. Continue reading

Feminism and the Kenyan TJRC (Part 1)

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Commissioners Tecla Namachanja and Margaret Shava at the launch of public hearings in Garissa (April 2011)       (Kenyan TJRC)

In 2004 a task force chaired by Professor Makau Mutua travelled throughout Kenya to determine whether a truth commission should be established to address historical injustices.  In their report, the task force observed that while their provincial hearings were “on the whole” well attended, the number of women participating in the hearings was “low.” The experience of the Mutua task force mirrored that of truth commissions generally. Female participation in truth commission processes worldwide has been low, leading more recent truth commissions to create special units to encourage the participation of more women. Kimberly Theidon discusses attempts to incorporate a greater gender sensitivity to transitional justice processes, focusing in particular on Peru.

 

Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke pose three sets of questions as part of a feminist critique of transitional justice generally.  First, where are women (both representation and participation in transitional justice design and process)? Second, Where is gender (where are the voices and experiences of women with respect to conflict, human rights violations and justice)? Third, where is feminism (referring to the feminist critique of justice and its applicability to transitional justice)?

Feminist critiques of truth commissions tend to focus on two issues. First, truth commissions ignore or do not devote sufficient attention to systemic, structural, and institutional violence that tends to affect women disproportionately. Second, truth commissions are not designed to encourage the participation of women, and thus perpetuate the silencing of women in those societies.

The drafters of the Kenyan legislation establishing the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission were sensitive to these critiques, requiring that there be gender balance among the commissioners (we began with five male and four female commissioners); requiring that the chair and vice chair be of opposite gender; including sexual- and gender-based violence in the violations we were to investigate, and suggesting that we put into place special mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of women. During most of our operational period, our CEO was a woman; and during the fourteen months when we conducted most of our external activities (statement taking, public hearings, investigations, and other outreach activities), our acting chair was a woman – in fact Tecla Namachanja Wanjala was the first woman to serve as the chair of a truth commission. Continue reading

African Court issues its first judgment on women’s rights

On 11 May 2018, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a landmark judgment in the case APDF and IHRDA versus the Republic of Mali. For the first time in its history, the Court found a violation of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. The Court held that Malian Family Code violates women’s rights as recognized under international law, and condemned the State of Mali to modify its legislation.

Two civil society organisations had lodged a complaint before the African Court in September 2016 alleging that the Malian Family code adopted in 2011 is not compatible with the State’s obligations under international law. The Court therefore proceeded to examine if the code was in conformity with human rights instruments Mali had ratified, and found that several provisions of this code are not.

The Malian Family Code permits marriage for girls from the age of 16-years. In specific circumstances, the minimum age for marriage for girls may be lowered to 15-years. Consent is not always a requirement for a marriage to be valid. The African Court found that the relevant provisions of the Family Code are blatant violations of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) under which the minimum age for marriage is 18 years for both women and men. The Maputo Protocol also provides that free and full consent in marriage must be protected by law. In matters of inheritance, Islamic law and customary practice is the applicable regime by default in Mali. This means that women only receive half of what men receive and children born out of wedlock receive inheritance only when their parents so decide. In relation to this issue, the African Court emphasized that women and natural children should be entitled to inheritance by law, and as such, the Family Code should not allow the application of rules contrary to this principle. The Court held that the relevant provisions of the Malian Family Code are discriminatory and perpetuate practices or traditions harmful towards women and children, in violation of the Maputo Protocol, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The political context in which the Malian Family Code was adopted, characterized by vigorous opposition by religious movements to a more progressive legislation, was at the heart of the arguments put forward by the State of Mali in its defence. But to the African Court, this was no good excuse for passing a law contradictory to its international obligations. It thus ordered Mali to modify its legislation as well as to take measures to inform, teach, educate and sensitize the population on the rights of women, and to report to the Court on the implementation of the judgement within a period of two years. Continue reading