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

Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 2 of 2)

National Prosecutions based on Universal Jurisdiction: the cases of Germany, Sweden, and “France”

Last June, Germany’s chief prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, head of Syria’s powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate, and one of Syria’s most senior military officials. This move comes as a 2017 Human Rights Watch report mentioned [p.36] that, so far, very few members of the Assad government had been the subject of judicial proceedings in Europe based on universal jurisdiction.

At the time these charges (based on command responsibility) were filed with Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, Patrick Kroker (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, hereinafter “ECCHR”) commented that this moment was“historical”, adding: “That this arrest warrant has been signed off by the highest criminal court in Germany shows that they deem the evidence presented to the prosecutor is strong enough to merit urgent suspicion of his involvement.”

N.N., a Syrian activist present at the side-event held today mentioned in Part 1 of my post, underlined several times the importance of these arrest warrants. Until their issuance, he said, many Syrians never would have thought that high-level representatives of the Syrian regime would have charges laid against them. For many this is a great sign of hope, a demonstration that we are “not only listening to stories but also doing something about it.” He mentioned this point in part as an answer to a participant at the event who wondered what it could mean to the people still in Syria to see prosecutions happening in Europe, but not in Syria or before the ICC.

Mr. Patrick Kroker, Legal Advisor& Project Lead for Syria at the ECCHR (Berlin) explained the work done by his organization to initiate prosecutions in Germany linked to the Syrian conflict. With regard to Germany, the progress over the past few years has been spectacular: 11 cases have been brought to trial. As well, three were brought to trial in Sweden, one in Switzerland, and another in Austria (for an excellent overview of proceedings linked to Syria, see the Amnesty International page “Justice for Syria” here).

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Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 1 of 2)

Credit: Lynsey Addario

As of July 2018, more than 500 000 people had been killed as a result of the conflict in Syria, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. With the UN Special Envoy for Syria having recently resigned, signs of hope seem dire for many Syrians and their supporters, there and abroad.

A side-event held today, on Day 3 of the 17th Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the International Criminal Court, brought distinguished panelists together to discuss the role of prosecutions held in Europe through universal jurisdiction for international crimes, using Syria as an example. More than only about accountability, the resounding message about these prosecutions was that their role was to give out and to inspire the people to be strong, fight for justice and, maybe, eventually, be able to move on.

Earlier this week, during a keynote address at a reception held before the launch of the ASP, Ms.Catherine Marchi-Uhel aptly said that the ICC is the center piece of the international justice system. However, she also reminded the audience that the role of the international jurisdiction as a springboard for national prosecutions is often overlooked.

Yet, despite the hopes, symbolism and assistance to the rebuilding of judicial institutions that national prosecutions can bring (as I mentioned in my previous blog post on Quid Justitiae in the context of the present ASP), the political context may simply not allow it and, in the case of Syria, there is obviously no need to elaborate on why prosecutions at the national level are not possible.

In the case of Syria, one of the worst situations since World War II, as Ms Marchi-Uhel underlined, the pathway to the ICC is blocked, as a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution to refer the case to the ICC was vetoed in 2014. With the ICC option gridlocked, Marchi-Uhel said that the international community needed to be creative to find new strategies to supplement the Rome Statue system: there was a need to think outside the international justice box. This is why, in 2016, the UNGA decided to create the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) to collect and analyse evidence of international crimes committed in Syria (see the IIIM official website here). Not a court or tribunal, it is “a building block for comprehensive justice” and can “turn limitations into opportunities”. This was definitely a smart move, as the call for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres did not seem to have resonated any more than previous attempts made through the UNSC.

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Human Rights and the U.S. Gun Violence Crisis: A New Approach

With the most recent mass shootings at Thousand Oaks Bar in California and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Americans are once more reeling from the shock and horror of seeing their compatriots mowed down while undertaking normal daily activities. Innocent men, women, and children have been killed or injured whilst worshiping; enjoying a concert; spending an evening out with friends; attending school; or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each time shots ring out, the media is full of conversations about “gun rights” and the Second Amendment. But what about human rights? What about the right to life; the right of association; the right to health; the right to safety and security; the right to attend school and receive an education?

11.02.2018- Gun Panel Photo by Mary ButkusOn November 2 and 3, more than 150 people attended a conference at the School of Law entitled, The U.S. Gun Violence Crisis: An Interdisciplinary and Human Rights Approach. Co-sponsored by the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law, the Washington University Institute of Public Health, The Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series, and the American Branch of the International Law Association (International Human Rights Committee), the event brought together leading scholars and experts in the fields of law, psychiatry, sociology, medicine, and public health policy to focus on new approaches to the U.S. gun violence epidemic.

11.02.2018- Gun Panel Photo by Mary ButkusMike McLively, director of the Urban Gun Violence Initiative at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, opened the conference by highlighting the scope and scale of the U.S. gun violence epidemic. He noted that more than 30,000 people die each from gun violence – violence that is, for the most part, easily prevented by simple and common sense regulation or even executive action. He noted that more than 60 percent of those killed by gun violence have committed suicide with a gun; deaths that were largely preventable through simple measures like waiting periods to purchase firearms. Others noted the disproportionate impact of gun violence on communities of color and young people, as well as the exportation of the U.S. gun violence crisis to third countries through the trafficking of weapons from the United States. The usefulness of international human rights regimes in reframing thinking about this issue, and the important work already being done on this issue by U.N. bodies was noted by several participants. Barbara Frey, in particular, has worked on this issue for many years at the U.N. in her capacity as the alternate U.S. member of the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and as Special Rapporteur to the Sub-Commission on the issue of preventing human rights abuses committed with small arms and light weapons.

Epstien_WLM_0156Lee Epstein, Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor, spoke insightfully about the history of the relationship between the Second Amendment in the U.S. Supreme Court and the evolution of conversations around gun rights. Professor Epstein noted that the relatively recent emergence of an individual right to bear arms can be traced to a flurry of recent law review articles advocating for this position. She suggested that further social science research and legal research could therefore contribute to the solution of the current crisis.

alpers_wlm_0227.jpgFinally, Philip Alpers, founder of GunPolicy.org, concluded by offering a comparative analysis of the crisis and its resolution in Australia as a result of legislative action, gun buybacks, and a change in legal and popular culture with respect to guns and gun ownership.

During the second day of the conference, speakers met to discuss the conference, as well as a Report on the topic prepared by Harris Institute Fellow Madaline George and myself. The Harris Institute’s Report, which concludes that the U.S. government has failed in significant respects to adequately protect the human rights of individuals living in the United States from gun violence, will be published in the coming months. The papers from the conference will appear in a special symposium issue of the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy in 2019. The Institute has already presented testimony on the U.S. Gun Violence Crisis to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and is working on testimony before other human rights bodies as well.

To learn more about the Harris Institute’s Gun Violence Initiative, visit our website.

Experts' Meeting at Washington University School of Law

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.

Will the new crimes against humanity treaty protect women and LGBTI persons?

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               Photo courtesy of Groundswell.

If you haven’t heard about the new treaty on crimes against humanity that the United Nations has in the works, you’re not alone. Most haven’t.

What you should know is if this treaty goes forward for adoption in its current draft form, only some—not all—people will be protected from crimes against humanity like massacres, rape, torture and persecution. This is because the treaty adopts an outdated definition of gender that some states will inevitably use to shirk their responsibility for addressing gender-based crimes.

We need this treaty, first of all, because it could help bring such atrocities to light and perpetrators to justice. The only permanent court in existence for prosecuting such crimes, the International Criminal Court (ICC), doesn’t have a mechanism for interstate cooperation, and few states have crimes against humanity incorporated into their domestic legislation.

The problem is that the draft treaty adopts the definition of gender from the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, stating: “it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society.” On its own, the definition does not make clear who is protected. While it’s understood to be inclusive of all gendered crimes that meet the threshold of persecution, there has never been a successful prosecution at the ICC. Not surprisingly, since the Rome Statute’s codification, such a definition has never been used again.

To understand how this definition of gender came about we have to go back about twenty years. During the 1990s in Rome, women’s rights advocates rallied for the term “gender” instead of “sex” to be listed alongside race, ethnicity, religion and the other the protected groups from persecution. A small, socially conservative opposition objected, fearing the term “gender” would more broadly affirm LGBTI rights as human rights. They also wanted to limit the scope of women’s rights.

Since Rome, two decades of international human rights law has solidified the definition of gender as a social construct across UN Agencies and human rights mechanisms. The term sex is left for biologists. However, while this “footnote” to the term gender is understood to be inclusive, there are states that would gladly use this opaque definition as an excuse to ignore conflict-related gender-based crimes.

So how does an outdated definition to a protected group get adopted into a new crimes against humanity draft treaty?

Bensouda Photo

             Photo courtesy of CUNY Law School

While oodles of rights and protections were taken into consideration during the dialogues on the draft treaty, no one thought to discuss gender. Perusing through the comments over the last four years of discussions and debates by states and experts partied to the drafting process, not one mentions the outdated definition that was cut and pasted into the draft. While issues concerning everything from the rights of witnesses and victims to the cooperation between states have been discussed in great detail, there’s no mention of women, gender, LGBTI people, or even sexual violence. 

At the beginning of the drafting process, a small handful of legal advocates pointed to the definition and called for the drafters to either not include it¾since no other ground of persecution required one¾or adopt a clearer definition as used by the UN. Valerie Oosterveld, an international criminal law professor who was a pivotal delegate at Rome, raised concerns about the problematic nature of adopting a definition into the CAH treaty that was drafted to be deliberately ambiguous (“constructive ambiguity” in diplomatic parlance) in order to resolve polarized positions during the Rome Statute negotiations. Considering she’s one of the foremost experts on the issue of gender under international criminal law, it’s astonishing her ideas were dismissed.

Part of the problem stemmed from the fear that the controversy surrounding the definition twenty years ago would resurface and tank the treaty if the debate on gender were reopened. Some states and drafters have expressed the need to get the treaty passed expeditiously and to keep the original language from Rome intact.

But does a new treaty that codifies an outdated definition of gender serve the interests of justice?

Fighting for recognition of gender-based violence is not new. Sexual violence crimes were not taken as seriously as other crimes in the early years of international criminal tribunals. Feminists had to struggle tirelessly to secure the recognition of rape as a form of torture in certain contexts.

In the 1990’s the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic of CUNY Law School, (known then as the International Women’s Human Rights Initiative Clinic) served as the secretariat for the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, a global coalition of women’s rights activists working to address gender gaps in the draft Rome Statute. Just as there was push-back against the term “gender”, there was also great opposition to recognizing sexual violence as a serious international crime.

A key component to their success was combining advocacy with legal strategy. Gender strategies in the tribunals grew from the notion that “women’s rights are human rights.” Today, advocates are calling for a “gender equal world.”

This is a pivotal moment in history to affirm our understanding of discrimination, including where gender-based oppression dictates narratives for sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. What we do now will affect people’s rights for generations to come.

It’s time for the international community to take a stand. A treaty meant to protect people against the worst atrocities imaginable by its nature should protect all of us.

 

Female Voices at the 12th International Humanitarian Law Dialogs

I had the pleasure to attend the 12th International Humanitarian Law Dialogs in Chautauqua, New York, from August 26-28.  This post will brief highlight notable female contributions to this year’s conference.

Catherine Marchi Uhel

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of IIIM (Katherine B. Fite Lecture, 12th IHL Dialogs)

As usual, Intlawgrrls sponsored the Katherine B. Fite lecture; this year’s lecturer was Catherine Marchi-Uhel, the recently appointed Head of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM).  Catherine Marchi-Uhel is a French national who began her career in the French judiciary, and then held several different posts at the United Nations, including in Bosnia, Kosovo, New York, and at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.  In addition and as usual, Intlawgrrls sponsored a porch session.  This year’s porch session was on the topic of “Victims and International Criminal Tribunals.”  The session was moderated by yours truly, and included Professors Jennifer Trahan, Yvonne Dutton, and Valerie Oosterveld as speakers.

IntlawGrrls Porch Session

Intlawgrrls Porch Session: Professors Oosterveld, Sterio, Dutton, and Trahan (from left to right)

Other notable lectures and panels by female professors included the “Year in Review” lecture by Professor Valerie Oosterveld, a lecture on “Legal Limits to the Use of the Veto in the Face of Atrocity Crimes” by Professor Jennifer Trahan, and the “Ferencz Issues Panel: Is the Justice We Seek the Justice They Want?” moderated by Professor Leila Sadat (panelists included Zainab Bangura, Binta Mansaray, and Catherine Read).  The recipient of the Heintz Award this year were Allyson Caison, North Carolina Stop Torture Now, and Christina Crowger, North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

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Recipients of this year’s Heintz Award: Allyson Caison and Christina Cowger 

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Professor Leila Sadat, moderating the “Ferencz Issues Panel”