Sexual violence in Syria: acting on what we know

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The Syrian people were late in joining the Arab Spring and within months after they did civil unrest descended into war. As the years go by, the range of atrocities committed in Syria appears to defy those covered by international law. There are arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in detention, and use of civilians as hostages. The most reported incidents are use of chemical and explosive weapons in civilian areas, starvation of besieged populations and the targeting of hospitals, schools and markets to force surrender.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in comparison the use of sexual and gender-based violence has received little attention. This is in part because of the inherent difficulties in documenting sexual violence – chief among them is under- and delayed reporting due to reluctance of survivors to share experiences that could lead to rejection by their families and communities. It is also because other tactics of war, like aerial and ground bombardments, are more lastingly visible and more easily documented for that reason. By and large, documentation of sexual violence, in any context, relies on victim and witness testimony. Bombardments, on the other hand, are documented using supporting material such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery that corroborates witnesses’ accounts. Crucially, witnesses of bombardments can speak without fear of stigma or feelings of shame.

Challenges in documenting sexual violence explain why it has taken so long for comprehensive overviews of the situation on the ground to become public. While as early as September 2011 reports emerged of Syrian Government forces committing sexual violence during home raids, it is only in the last year that in-depth accounts on the extent and use of sexual violence in Syria were published. In 2017, investigative journalist Marie Forestier published a report on rape as a tactic of war by the Assad regime. On the occasion of the seventh year of the uprising, the Syria Commission of Inquiry published a report covering sexual and gender-based violence by a number of perpetrators, including detailed violations by Government forces and associated militias.

Together, these reports document the use of sexual violence since the 2011 demonstrations up to last year. They show that the use of sexual violence has changed – but not stopped – throughout the conflict. Initially, Government forces conducted mass arrests of demonstrators and their supporters in their homes and at checkpoints. Most of those arrested were men and boys. When the wanted males were not found, women and girls were arrested to pressure their male relatives to surrender. Female protestors and activists were also arrested. Sexual violence occurred from the moment of arrest and throughout detention. In Government detention facilities, women and men were raped to force confessions and to provide information, with men most commonly raped with objects. Some women were gang raped, others were raped repeatedly by different officers. On occasion, senior officers raped detainees and in other instances gave permission for their subordinates to do so. There is no reported instance of officers being disciplined for their acts. Continue reading

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 BOOK LAUNCH ~~~ INTERNATIONAL COURTS AND THE AFRICAN WOMAN JUDGE: UNVEILED NARRATIVES (ROUTLEDGE, 2018)

 

The Institute for African Women in Law and the Wilson Center Women in Public Service Project jointly launched the book, International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives (Routledge, 2018) edited by Dr. Josephine Jarpa Dawuni and Hon. Judge Akua Kuenyehia (Former Judge of the International Criminal Court), with a foreword by Hon. Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald (Former Judge/President of the ICTY and Former Arbitrator, Iran-US Claims Tribunal). 

Gwen Young, Director of the Wilson Center Women in Public Service Project introduced the panel.

Dr. Josephine Jarpa Dawuni opened the discussion, highlighting her motivations for editing this volume, noting among others the importance of drawing on the theories of postcolonial feminism, legal narratives and feminist institutionalism to analyze the place of women from the continent of Africa on international courts. She noted, “Why are we looking at African women judges? Why not the fact that she is a judge, she is qualified, she can do it. Legal Narratives help us understand their trajectory to the international bench.”

 

 

Prof. Nienke Grossman discussed the work of International Court of Justice Judge Julia Sebutinde (Chapter 3 below).

 

Prof. Rachel Ellett’s chapter focused  on Judge Kellelo Mafoso-Guni of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) (Chapter 7 below).

Counsellor Christiana Tah, Former Minister of Justice, Republic of Liberia, provided remarks as a discussant. She noted;

“We [women] want to participate, we want to be a part of the process.”

“It’s important to uplift African women, but it’s not all about race, it’s about uplifting all women.”

“One of the things I always think about when discussing Africa and the judiciary is that you have to look at it as a dichotomy because of the history of colonization. How do you harmonize the two?

                                          Other Chapters in the Book Include

Chapter 1: Introduction: Challenging Gender Universalism and Unveiling the Silenced Narratives of the African Woman Judge

By Josephine Jarpa Dawuni

This chapter provides the theoretical and conceptual framework around which the book is developed. By engaging in an overview and analysis of existing scholarship on gender and judging, it questions the gaps in existing theoretical perspectives and exposes questions on gender diversity which have not been addressed. It discusses the method and structure of the book.

 

 Chapter 2: Women Judges in International Courts and Tribunals: The  Quest for Equal Opportunities

 By Judge Florence Ndepele Mwanchande Mumba

This chapter is a personal reflection on the life and journey of Justice Florence Ndepele Mwachande Mumba. The chapter traces her life growing up in Zambia, attaining a legal education and becoming the first woman High Court Judge in the Zambia. In 1997, Judge Mumba was elected to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  She served as a Trial Judge for six years. She presided over, the Prosecutor vs Anto Furundzija, IT-95-17/1; the Prosecutor vs Kunarac  et al, IT-96-23-T; the Prosecutor vs Simic et al. IT-95-9/T. Convictions in these cases included torture as a violation of laws or customs of war, outrages upon human dignity, rape as torture, enslavement, and crimes against humanity for persecution, cruel and inhumane treatment and beatings.  These were among the first convictions for ICTY where rape and sexual violence were pronounced as crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. Judge Mumba presided over two guilty pleas, The Prosecutor vs Drazen Erdemovic, IT-96-22 and the Prosecutor vs Milan Simic, IT-95-9/2. Judge Mumba’s view is that international crimes trials must be held in the territories where atrocities were committed for the benefit of indicted persons and the community. Statutory provisions for gender balance in international courts and tribunals are essential.

Chapter 3: Julia Sebutinde: An Unbreakable Cloth

By Nienke Grossman

This Chapter discusses the life story of International Court of Justice Judge Julia Sebutinde.  It highlights her determination and strength of character, while raising questions about gender, geographical background, race, ethnicity and judging, and international judicial selection procedures.  After detailing her biography before becoming an international judge, the Chapter turns to her selection to, experiences on and contributions to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and subsequently, the International Court of Justice.  The Chapter contains a section on her advice to future generations, an analysis of why her story is significant, and finally, it suggests avenues for further academic research.

Chapter 4:  Akua Kuenyehia : Leaving a Mark Along the Journey for Human  Rights

 By Josephine Jarpa Dawuni

This chapter chronicles the life and journey of Justice Akua Kuenyehia, an academic, women’s rights activist and an international court judge. Using legal narratives as a tool for centering her experiences, the chapter presents monumental developments in her life as presented sometimes in her voice and situated within existing discourse on women, gender and feminist engagement with international law.

Chapter 5: Fatoumata Dembélé Diarra : Trajectory of a Malian Magistrate and Civil Society Advocate to the International Criminal Court

 By Sara Dezalay

A high-level magistrate and prominent civil society advocate in Mali, Judge Fatou Dembélé Diarra featured among the historic first bench of judges elected to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2003. This chapter gives prominence to the voice of Diarra herself, as an exceptional individual with an acute degree of reflexivity over her own trajectory, the options she had and the professional strategies she pursued, and further, that of her own country’s post-colonial history. In so doing, however, it strives to reconstruct the structural conditions that can help explain her path, in what was still a French colony, in 1949, to the ICC. It underlines, meanwhile, how Diarra’s trajectory can prove a powerful entry-point to account for the position of legal elites in post-colonial Mali, and further, the role played by her appointment to the ICC, as a woman and as an African, in fostering the authority of the court over time. 

Chapter 6: Judge Sophia Akuffo: Balancing the Equities

By Kuukuwa Andam and Sena Dei-Tutu

Justice Sophia was sworn in as the 13th Chief Justice of Ghana on June 19, 2017. Prior to this, Akuffo had served as the first female President of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (ACtHPR) in 2012, as Vice-President of the ACtHPR in 2008 and as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Ghana since 1995. This chapter tracks Akuffo’s career from her birth in Akropong-Akuapem, in the Eastern Region of Ghana, to her appointment as the second female Chief Justice of Ghana. In particular, a selection of cases that Akuffo delivered judgments in will be analyzed as a means of contextualizing Akuffo’s legal philosophy. Additionally, this chapter will examine some of the challenges Akuffo faced as well as the lessons learnt during her legal career. In identifying the barriers that Akuffo encountered, this chapter considers the similarities between Akuffo’s experience and the experiences of thousands of female lawyers and judges working on the African continent; with a mind to highlighting avenues for increasing the participation of African women on International Courts. The chapter concludes with some observations and future research questions. 

Chapter 7: Justina Kellelo Mafoso-Guni: The Gendering of Judicial Appointment Processes in African Courts

By Rachel Ellett

Representation of women in domestic and international courts is essential to the legitimacy of those institutions. Over the last decade low representation of women judges has begun to be addressed through reform of appointment processes. However, reforming formal appointment mechanisms does not eliminate the gendered informal structures of judicial appointments. Justice Mafoso-Guni’s biography – first woman to the Lesotho High Court and the African Court of Human and People’s Rights (ACtHPR) – illustrates the pervasiveness of informal gendered institutions as an obstacle to women reaching the bench; both in Lesotho and the ACtHPR. Utilizing diachronic analysis, this chapter reveals the arch of Mafoso-Guni’s career trajectory and pauses to offer more in-depth analysis on her appointment challenges in Lesotho and to the ACtHPR.  Placing Mafoso-Guni’s appointment challenges in the broader context of increasing numbers of women to the bench more generally; her story highlights both the limitations and the gendering of individual agency in light of weak formal institutional commitments to gender parity. It further reveals the gendered power asymmetries present in the informal institutional mechanisms of both domestic and international judicial appointments. Judicial appointments perfectly illustrate the gendered institutional context in which women seek to carve a pathway to the bench.

Chapter 8: Elsie Nwanwuri Thompson: The Trajectory of a Noble Passion

By Rebecca Emiene Badejogbin

This chapter explores the trajectory of Judge Elsie Thompson from her background, to the Nigerian judiciary and onward as a Judge and eventually a Vice President of the African Court of Human and People’s Rights. It reveals the distinctiveness of her experiences and trail blazing paths, and is a demonstration of the impact of various factors such as socio-economic and political, as well as cultural location, education, contextual experiences, institutional opportunities and personal agency on the ascendancy of African women to transnational courts, and according to her, divine providence. The narration and analysis of these experiences engage a convergence of theories that touch on the impact of institutional arrangements on women, and the lingering effects of political, economic and cultural factors on women’s access to political appointments in a post-colonial context. While her experiences generally agree with literature on the subject of women’s ascendancy to these courts, this chapter closely interrogates her ascent as an African woman to a transnational court and states that not only does her presence in the court create judicial diversity, she has made ‘valuable contributions to jurisprudence and the development’ of regional laws.

 Chapter 9: Conclusion: International Courts and the African Woman Judge– Unlocking Doors, Leaving a Legacy

By Josephine Jarpa Dawuni and Akua Kuenyehia

This chapter provides a recap of the goals of this project. It summarizes the key findings, amplifies questions yet to be explored and sets an agenda for the development of future research on women and judging in Africa. It also sets a plan for maintaining the momentum made with African women’s access to international courts and tribunals.

 Copies of the book can be purchased on Amazon.com 

For speaking engagements, email: info@africanwomeninlaw.com

 

You Go ‘Grrl

sue harris rimmer

To celebrate International Women’s Day, IntLawGrrl Sue Harris Rimmer has a terrific post on the Elgar blog about her life journey.  Here’s just a tidbit, but I encourage you to read the entire post:

I finished high school living on my own in a caravan park in a small Australian town at the bottom of the world, living hand to mouth and uncertain about my future. Last year I shared a panel discussion with Angela Merkel in Berlin. I am proud of both these facts.  I can now talk about the economic rights of women from a place of bitter experience and utter conviction, as well as an intellectual base. And I better understand my own position of privilege as a white woman from a developed country, who benefited from a welfare system.

Among her many accomplishments, Sue and her co-editor Kate Ogg are completing the final steps on the Handbook on the Future of Feminist Engagement with International Law, an edited volume forthcoming from Edward Elgar (to which yours truly contributed a chapter).  Keep an eye out for book launches at ANZIL, ASIL, and ESIL in 2018 and 2019!

Launching the Winter 2018 Issue of the Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper Series on SSRN

Elise Ketelaars and Catherine O’Rourke

We are delighted to present a new issue of the Ulster University Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper Series on the Social Sciences Research Network. The issue broadly addresses the fields of peacebuilding and transitional justice in Northern Ireland and Latin America. Each of the papers emphasize, in their own ways, the importance of in-depth case study research in enriching their fields of scholarship. Moreover, the issue once again highlights the strong and durable relations that TJI scholars have maintained with practice and activism within and outside Northern Ireland. The issue displays the value of these ties in creating both impactful and innovative approaches to peacebuilding, humanitarian work and justice in societies in transition.

Cath Collins’ report summary on disappearance and enforced disappearance in past political violence in Latin America neatly illustrates the importance of scholar-activism-policy ties. In addition to being a professor at TJI, Cath Collins is the founder and director of the Transitional Justice Observatory at the Universidad Diego Portales, Chile. In her contribution, she collates and synthesises the results of three stimulating dialogues between law, social science and forensic (natural) sciences that took place in Santiago de Chile and Lima, Peru in 2017. The dialogues were organized to inform efforts to give domestic effect in Chile and Peru to the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance. The challenges addressed in the dialogues resonate across many other transitional contexts and confirm the value of disseminating this unique case study research.

The other three contributions concern the Northern Irish context in single case study and comparative research. The paper of Monica McWilliams and Jessica Doyle exemplifies the ongoing engagement of the authors and the TJI with understanding gender based violence in transitional settings. The paper explores the links between intimate partner violence and violent conflict based on findings from more than 100 in-depth semi-structured interviews with women victims of IPV from across Northern Ireland. The paper combines findings from McWilliams’ 1992 study on domestic violence in Northern Ireland with new data she and Doyle gathered during the course of 2016. The paper thereby presents a rare empirically grounded insight into the impact of transition from conflict to peace on intimate partner violence.

Kris Brown’s paper examines the impact on peacebuilding of partisan political commemoration. The paper’s salience is undeniable in light of Northern Ireland’s current ‘Decade of Centenaries’, which encompasses the foundational years in modern Irish history of 1912 to 1923, This paper, in addition to McWilliams and Doyle’s, is an output of the DFID-funded Political Settlements Research Programme, a unique North-South, scholar-practitioner consortium of five institutions (University of Edinburgh Global Justice Academy, Ulster University Transitional Justice Institute, Conciliation Resources, Rift Valley Institute and the Institute for Security Studies).

Finally, we are delighted to present a contribution on the role that ‘wild nature’ can play in peacebuilding, or ‘peace cultivation’. The paper was presented by TJI/INCORE’s Brandon Hamber and Alistair Little and Wilhelm Verwoerd at the 29th Annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Little and Verwoerd belong to ‘Beyond Walls’ which organises ‘the Journey through Conflict’ process in the framework of ‘Sustainable Peace Network’. Between 2004 and 2011 they have facilitated peacebuilding activities through immersion of participants in ‘wild nature’ in the Scottish Highlands and South Africa. The role of nature in peacebuilding activities has been underexplored. Through the continuous monitoring of the experiences of the over 100 individuals who participated in ‘the Journey through Conflict’ over the years, however, this paper gives a fascinating insight into the role of nature-based activities in peacebuilding. This joint intellectual effort between Hamber and the practitioners from Beyond Walls once again demonstrates how strong and sustainable ties between academia and practice create fertile ground for innovative contributions to scholarship.

 

Achieving Gender Parity in International Courts and Bodies: Does Diversity Matter?

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Conference Attendees

From October 3 to 5 2017, women’s rights advocates, feminist scholars, Ambassadors, Heads of Government, policy practitioners and supporters of women’s rights convened in the beautiful city of Den Haag in the Netherlands. Viviana Krsticevic, Maria Noel and the entire team at the GQUAL Campaign organized this conference which had a twofold purpose; first, to celebrate the second-year anniversary of the GQUAL Campaign, and second, to bring together participants under a conference theme “Changing the picture of International Justice.” The highlights of the three-day event included an exciting plenary session with speakers like Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, the current President ofthe International Criminal Court (ICC).

ICC President Judge Fernandéz de Gurmendi and Prof. Josephine Dawuni

Judge Fernandéz de Gurmendi, while acknowledging the gains made in achieving near gender parity on the ICC bench, cautioned participants and feminist advocates that such gains could easily be reversed. The ICC reached a high of eight women judges out of eighteen in 2003, which reduced to six out of eighteen by early 2017. With the  ICC elections in December 2017, women took five of the six available seats. Out of the five women elected, two were from the continent of Africa, Judge Reini Alapini-Gansou of Benin and Judge Solomy Balungi Bossa of Uganda.

 Another highlight of the plenary session was the speech by the current Vice President of Costa Rica, Her Excellency Ana Helena Chacón. While reflecting on her experience in the parliament of Costa Rica and now in the office of the Vice President, Mrs. Chacón hinted at the fact that women have to work together to push women’s equality forward, noting further that “together we can and we should change the face of international quality; democracy is real if we leave no one behind.” Dr. Theresia Degener, Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), gave moving remarks on the imbalance in the UN body, noting in particular the challenges she has had to face as the only woman in the Committee at one point during her tenure. She called for more efforts to nominate women. The rest of the conference was filled with insightful panels and workshops aimed at addressing central questions such as why equal participation of women matters, the international obligations of states in promoting gender equity on international courts and bodies, and strategies on how to achieve gender parity on these bodies.  The conference concluded with the adoption of an Action Plan to achieve gender parity.

The overall goal and theme of the conference, was to acknowledge modest gains, while mapping a strategy for moving the campaign forward. The question that remains to be answered is how do we move this agenda forward? I provide a few strategies, which I believe are important for the overarching goal of changing the picture of international justice with the goal of achieving gender parity on international courts and bodies. In the first place, it is important to acknowledge, celebrate and develop a conscious effort to embrace all forms of intra-group diversity. To borrow from the acclaimed poet, Maya Angelou, “we all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” The global feminist movement has come under attack for tendencies to reproduce the very gendered and privileged hierarchies which it purports to fight in the first place. For Black feminist scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, developing the concept of intersectionality provides a new prism through which feminist scholars can begin to question the multiple and intersecting layers different women face in their struggles against patriarchy and other forms of dominant discourse.

 

The call for acknowledging diversity has also come from what some call “Third World Feminists”. Scholars like Chandra Talpade Mohanty has criticized the western notions of womanhood and the incipient tendency at “othering” non-western women in her powerful piece “Under Western Eyes.” African feminist scholars such as Filomina Steady, Amina Mama, Oyeronke Oyewumi and Akosua Adomako Ampofo have increasingly called for a recognition of African notions of womanhood and the impact of imperialist and globalist layers of oppression in challenging the traditional notions of womanhood and women’s agency. Chicana feminist such as Gloria Anzaldúa, and feminist scholars from Asia such as Trinh Minh-ha, each remind us of the need for the global feminist movement to accept, celebrate and embrace a truly diverse global ethos of feminism.

So, how can the plethora of feminist voices be incorporated in the global agenda for more women on international courts in order to create an all-inclusive bench? The answer is simple; that in adopting strategies to increase gender parity on international bodies, these efforts  should focus on adopting all-inclusive strategies that advocate for the “best woman candidate”, irrespective of national origin, geo-political affiliation, sexual orientation or other identity marker. This sounds like a simple suggestion; however, it requires that feminist scholars develop an understanding of the historical, social and political context from which different women come from. No doubt the domestic politics of judicial nominations will have to be examined as well. Ascribing personal agency to some women from particular regions of the world and not to others­— which has tended to plague the global feminist movement, will need to be addressed in the global efforts demanding the nomination of more women. If indeed, feminist scholars and advocates are interested in achieving gender parity, it must be a gender parity that fully embraces intra-group diversity. The multilayered and intersecting identities women come with, will need to be fully recognized, acknowledged and accepted.

Another important strategy for the success of the GQUAL Campaign will be the cross-pollination of ideas and strategies. In other words, there is the need to learn from one another in terms of what has worked in some places and not so well in other places. Let me pause by noting that I am fully aware of the plethora of different variables at play here—the different legal traditions, the different political systems, the multiplicity of selection methods and the varying levels of political will to name just a few. Nonetheless, as I argued in my presentation at this conference, based solely on my research findings from the continent of Africa, women across the African continent have done relatively well, within a relatively short time period in not only accessing the judiciaries, but rising to the top as Chief Justices. At the international level, women from across the continent of Africa have made immense gains as international judges—both permanent courts and ad hoc tribunals.

Though the gains are not uniform across the continent—and that should come as no surprise for the second largest continent of 54 nation-states, yet certain patterns are evident. The success of African women as judges on international courts at the global and sub-regional levels in the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights are noted in a recently published edited by Josephine Dawuni and Akua Kuenyehia—- International Courts and the African Woman Judge (Routledge, 2018). Using legal narratives, this book presents the lived experiences of seven women judges from Africa. It challenges exiting notions of gender and judging, it elevates the voice of the woman judge and it leaves a legacy for the future through the voices and lives of these remarkable and accomplished women judges. Documenting the experiences of women who have blazed the trail in the international judiciary is important for raising awareness not only to stakeholders, but also to future generations that “yes, women can!” Documentation through theoretically grounded research and the development of context relevant epistemology, such as the matri-legal feminist theory I have argued elsewhere[1] is important for moving the gender equality agenda forward.

IMG_9821Other speakers at the conference spoke about developments that have taken place within the African context. Osai Ojigho highlighted the developments within the African Court which led to the current situation with the African Court being the most gender balanced international court as of this writing. In an earlier post, I highlighted the African court as a roadmap for achieving gender parity and encouraged other courts to follow suit. The African experience provides many lessons which the rest of the world can learn from. To think that in its eleven-year history of existence, it has achieved gender parity, a goal and aspiration which the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights are yet to attain. Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea highlighted the developments that have taken place within the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights where women have made gains as Commissioners.

Lastly, it is necessary for the survival for a movement, or campaign like GQUAL, that  scholars and policy makers engage in research as a tool and mechanism for awareness raising. Justice Mary Mamyassin Sey, a Justice of the Supreme Court of The Gambia and first woman judge in The Gambia discussed her experiences across multiple jurisdictions, spanning The Gambia,  and as a Commonwealth judge in Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Liberia and Vanuatu. While discussing the challenges of working in different cultural contexts and often being the “first” and often “only woman”, Justice Sey noted that her call to duty, integrity and personal work ethics contributed to her success in these multiple arenas. Indeed, being at the intersection of multiple identities has come with its own costs, for instance with the threat on her life and threat of deportation for her decision in the Vanuatu Supreme Court that led to the conviction of 14 members of parliament.

The foregoing summary is my personal de-briefing from the wonderful conference in The Hague. Many strategies and action plans were adopted during the workshops held over two days. We look forward to more engaged, vibrant, diverse and theoretically relevant and practically plausible strategies that will be developed out of this conference. Many questions abound, such as the issue of setting aspirational targets as posited by Professor Nienke Grossman. For other practitioners such as Osai Ojigho who poignantly

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(L-R )Josephine Dawuni, Nienke Grossman and Osai Ojigho at the foregrounds of the ICJ.

asserted “why walk when you can fly?”, quotas should be used as a necessary strategy to achieve gender parity, Ojigho further argued that “women should not be shamed into thinking that quotas or affirmative action lacks merit.” Gender equality matters not because it is a women’s issue, but because it is a human issue. Together, we can make gender equality on international courts and bodies a reality! Join the movement by signing the GQUAL Campaign Pledge!

 

 

[1] See, Dawuni, Josephine. (2018). Matri-legal Feminism: An African Feminist Response to International Law. In Ogg, Kate and Rimmer, Sue Harris (eds.). Feminist Approaches to International Law. Edward Elgar Publishing. (Forthcoming, 2018).

 

Moving from Rights Eroded to Rights Realized

In 2017, a women’s rights watchdog group reported that 25 women were killed for their human rights work, a decrease from the 37 women human rights defenders (WHRDs) killed in 2016. These deaths are an outrage, but represent only the most extreme form of violence and repression that human rights defenders around the world are confronting.

We are witnessing a growing trend of “closing space” for civil society actors – a term which refers to restrictions that authoritarian and right-wing governments are imposing to obstruct and limit oppositional voices. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders receives complaints from activists world-wide about closing space, and reports that one-third to nearly one-half of which concerned WHRDs in the years from 2004 to 2014.

Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI*) human rights defenders the world over are targeted in the closing space phenomenon both for who they are as well as for the work they do. These defenders are targeted because they are often “perceived as challenging accepted sociocultural norms, traditions, perceptions, and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.” Yet, only limited analysis has been made of their experiences of closing space.

Rights Eroded Blog Photo

In response, the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) of Berkeley Law and the Urgent Action Funds for Women’s Human Rights (UAF) conducted a review of the laws and their impacts on WHRDs in 16 countries. Our report Rights Eroded: A Briefing Report on the Effects of Closing Space on Women Human Rights Defenders offers a window on the challenges women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders face as well as their resistance strategies and recommends action international and state authorities as well as donors should take to protect these front-line activists.

Women and LGBTQI* human rights defenders interviewed for the report spoke of their experiences of structural and social discrimination, targeted efforts by the State to hinder their work, gendered forms of harassment, and criminalization of their activities. They described a climate in which States have moved to restrict their access to the funds essential to their work. Governments have applied a complex web of rules including anti-money laundering and national security legislation to ensnare organizations engaged in legitimate human rights work. They emphasized how social stigma and targeted campaigns by the State to delegitimize their work undermine public support for their activities and limit the resources available to them. Activists revealed the ways in which they self-censor to avoid confrontation and abuse from State actors. And, importantly, they cataloged the strategies that they employ to resist closing space through alliance building with other human rights activists, leveraging media attention, and adopting new funding strategies. Continue reading

Prosecuting Sexual Violence at the Special Court for Sierra Leone

On 13 December, I organized a side-event at the International Criminal Court Assembly of States Parties titled “Prosecuting Sexual and Gender-Based Violence at the Special Court for Sierra Leone”. The event was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Sierra Leone and Canada, UN Women, the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and Western University (Canada).

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Valerie Oosterveld & Sharanjeet Parmar, Photo Credit: CPIJ

At the event, Sharanjeet Parmar discussed her experience as a prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). I presented conclusions from a UN Women-funded project to gather best practices and lessons learned from the SCSL in its investigations and prosecutions of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Fannie Lafontaine, Canada Research Chair on International Justice and Human Rights, moderated the event, which was opened by Ambassador Amadu Koroma, Deputy Permanent Representative (Political),  Permanent Mission of the Republic of Sierra Leone to the UN, and Catherine Boucher, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN.

In this blog post, I will briefly explain the UN Women-funded project and some of the best practices that emerged. Over the past year, I, along with a small team consisting of Wayne Jordash, former SCSL defence counsel, Maxine Marcus, former SCSL prosecutor, and Fannie Leveau, gender issues consultant, interviewed over 30 individuals who had worked with the SCSL during that court’s 2002-2013 lifespan.

We spoke with individuals with a wide range of experiences – as investigators and prosecutors within the Office of the Prosecutor, as outreach workers, psycho-social support staff, and victim/witness protection staff in the Registry, defence counsel, judges and Chambers staff, and civil society members who worked closely with the SCSL. All had been involved in some way in investigating, prosecuting, defending or considering crimes of SGBV, or in supporting victims and witnesses who had experiences of SGBV.

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Fannie Lafontaine, Photo Credit: CPIJ

Those interviews revealed a number of best practices. First, the investigation and prosecution of SGBV was a key priority of all of the chief Prosecutors. This priority was originally set by the first Prosecutor, David Crane, at the outset of his mandate. Among his earliest hires were two investigators trained in SGBV and human rights, both experienced in gender analysis and both of whom had deep knowledge of the Sierra Leone conflict and familiarity with Sierra Leonean culture. They entered the Office with existing links to Sierra Leonean civil society (including women’s groups). Later, another gender advisor was added. These experts were integrated into multi-disciplinary investigation teams comprised of male and female international and local staff, with a combination of security, country, child rights and financial crimes experts. This meant that, from the beginning, the investigations were multifaceted and contextualized, with an understanding of how SGBV fit into the larger crime pattern. This translated into the collection of strong evidence on SGBV – in the context of all of the other crimes – for the prosecutors to use and apply in the indictments and trials.

Second, the large number of Sierra Leoneans in the SCSL – a proportion which increased over time to become a majority – meant that there was a deeper understanding of customary and traditional practices than there would be if the staff was mostly or entirely international. This strengthened the ability of those participating in the judicial process to understand witness narratives, including on SGBV, and the context within which the crimes were alleged. This was particularly important with respect to the forced marriage, rape and sexual slavery charges.

Third, the Registry contained an expert psychologist, whose work was directly linked to the SGBV and child soldier charges. The psycho-social support staff were Sierra Leonean. Together, the psychologist and her staff provided psychosocial support to SGBV survivors, among others, and adapted that support to fit the realities of the types of trauma experienced in Sierra Leone. This support helped to make victims feel comfortable enough to participate in the court process. Staff working with witnesses were provided with additional training on psycho-social support. However, it is important to note that the protection of, and support and outreach to, SGBV victims was limited by the lean budget of the court.

Fourth, outreach to the community throughout Sierra Leone was a priority within the court from the very beginning, despite the lack of budgetary support for this activity from the SCSL’s Management Committee. Outreach – including on SGBV crimes – commenced before the formal investigations began, first carried out by NGOs and thereafter directly by the SCSL. Staff were dedicated to outreach, making it happen despite the lack of budget. Eventually, the European Union agreed to fund the outreach.

The OTP was the first organ of the court to engage in outreach to women and girls in the field, with direct involvement of the Prosecutor. Responsibility was later shifted to the Registry, with the outreach program involving gender-sensitive Sierra Leoneans with connections to affected communities, including SGBV survivors. Outreach was organized and largely conducted by nationals, and that outreach included women’s groups, as well as organizations representing victims.

Principals of the SCSL travelled regularly to locations throughout the country to answer questions, explain the mandate, receive feedback and respond to concerns. They answered questions about SGBV crimes directly and openly, encouraging discussion of the issue. The outreach continued throughout the mandate of the court, and included updates on trials involving SGBV charges. That said, and in spite of the relative success of the SCSL’s outreach in comparison with other international tribunals, our interviewees indicated that more could have been done on SGBV outreach. For example, more confidence-building could have been done with those subjected to forced marriage, who were worried that they would be prosecuted by the SCSL because of their simultaneous victim-perpetrator status (as many of them were also forced to support or fight with the rebels).

Fifth, the fact that SCSL was based in Sierra Leone was a key factor in the court’s ability to successfully investigate and prosecute SGBV crimes. Interviewees indicated that localizing the court in-country facilitated access to SGBV evidence in a manner sensitive to the communal context. It also led to greater understanding of the links between SGBV and customary/traditional belief systems, as well as increased the understanding within the court of the context of the SGBV crimes. Location in-country also strengthened engagement with Sierra Leonean police services and organizations in witness protection activities and allowed for more effective risk assessments. Finally, being located in Sierra Leone allowed the court to more easily consult with community members, including consultations by the Office of the Prosecutor with a wide variety of women’s groups on the forced marriage charges.

There are many other best practices, as well as lessons learned, identified by our interviewees, which will be included in our final report, which is in the process of being drafted. If any IntLawGrrls readers have experience in the consideration of SGBV in the SCSL and wish to be interviewed for this study, please feel free to contact me at vooster@uwo.ca.

Thanks are extended to UN Women and the European Commission for funding Phase 1 of this study.