Colombia’s Constitutional Court issues landmark decision recognising victims of reproductive violence in conflict

A month ago, on 11 December 2019, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued an important decision recognising that women and girls who suffered forced contraception and forced abortion by their own armed groups should be recognized as ‘victims of armed conflict’. The decision is one of very few in the world to specifically recognise reproductive violence as a form of harm committed against women and girls in times of conflict. It thus sets important legal precedent in recognising a form of gender-based violence that has long remained invisible. Although the full written decision has not yet been made available, a summary of the decision has been published. In what follows, I analyse this summary.

Helena’s case

The case was brought by Women’s Link Worldwide on behalf of Helena (pseudonym), a young woman who had been forcibly recruited into the FARC at the age of 14. While with the FARC, she was forced to take contraceptives (injections) and forced to undergo an abortion when she became pregnant. She suffered significant and long-lasting health consequences as a result of the unsafe conditions in which these procedures were forcibly carried out. Continuing to suffer negative health consequences, Helena fled and was in hiding for many years until the peace deal with the government was signed. In 2017, she submitted an application to be recognised as a victim and to seek reparations under Colombia’s Law on Victims and Land Restitution (Law 1448). This law, adopted in 2011, recognizes victims of the armed conflict and confirms their rights to truth, justice and reparations. It includes provisions on the restitution of land and other reparations, and requires that special attention be paid to the needs of specific groups and communities, such as women, survivors of sexual violence, trade unionists, victims of forced displacement, and human rights defenders.

The agency charged with the registration of victims under this reparations framework (UARIV), however, subsequently denied Helena’s claim for victim status. In doing so, UARIV had relied upon an article in Law 1448 that denied victim status to members of illegal armed groups (Article 2(3)), and held that, in any case, Helena’s claim was submitted outside of applicable timelines set out in Law 1448. Helena fought this decision; while the first instance court did grant her access to government-provided medical support, her claims for recognition as a victim and for reparations under Law 1448 were dismissed in both first and second instance. She thus appealed her case to the Constitutional Court, who heard the matter in 2019, and issued this landmark decision at the end of last year. Importantly, Helena’s case was selected for review by the full panel of nine judges, rather than being decided upon by a panel of three judges. This illustrates the importance the Constitutional Court attached to the issues.

Constitutional Court’s decision

In its December 2019 decision, the Constitutional Court firstly found established that Helena was the victim of grave violations of her fundamental rights. The Court subsequently held that in dismissing her application to be registered as a victim of the armed conflict, UARIV violated Helena’s fundamental rights on two grounds. Firstly, UARIV had violated Helena’s rights as a victim by failing to interpret the applicable rules in accordance with established constitutional principles of most favourable interpretation, good faith, pro personae, and the primacy of substantive law. Secondly, UARIV failed to properly substantiate its decision by neither acknowledging the acts of forced abortion and forced displacement Helena suffered, nor by recognising that Helena’s specific circumstances constituted force majeure, preventing her from submitting an application within designated timelines.

The Court acknowledged that, on its face, Article 2(3) of Law 1448 allowed for the denial of victim status to ex-combatants who demobilised as an adult, and that, under this interpretation, Helena would have to seek reparations through other mechanisms, not including Law 1448 (as Helena fled the FARC after she turned 18). However, the Court also questioned whether this exclusion in Article 2(3) was consistent with Colombia’s obligations towards victims of the armed conflict, noting in particular the coercive nature of the practice of forced contraception and abortion within the FARC and that these acts were often perpetrated upon girls under 18, or upon young women who had only just reached the age of maturity.

According to the Court, denying Helena the right to be recognised as a victim under Law 1448, therefore, would violate her rights to access justice and to timely and adequate protection measures. Noting the principal obligation on the state to recognise victims of sexual violence as victims in such a way as to guarantee their rights to integral reparations, the Court also held that as a victim of sexual violence committed within an armed group, Helena would not have access to other avenues of reparations beyond Law 1448. As such, for the Court, registration in the Register of Victims constituted her only available avenue to adequately repair her fundamental rights.

Importantly, the Court held that the exclusion stipulated in Article 2(3) could not become an obstacle to reparations for victims of sexual violence who, as ex-combatants, were forcibly recruited into those illegal armed groups at a young age. Such a rigid interpretation of Article 2(3), according to the Court, would thus create an unconstitutional lack of protection and vulnerability. The Court also reiterated the state’s obligation to provide immediate, comprehensive, gender-sensitive and specialised health care to all victims of sexual violence by armed actors for such time as deemed necessary to overcome the physical and psychological health consequences of such violence.

For this reason, the Court relied upon the principle of declaring a ‘constitutional exception’ (la excepción de inconstitutionalidad) as provided for in Article 4 of Colombia’s Constitution to overrule the applicability of Article 2(3) of Law 1448 to Helena’s case. Pursuant to this principle, when faced with a conflict between an ordinary legal norm and a constitutional norm, the Court may declare a constitutional exception to preserve rights guaranteed by the constitution in a specific case. In this case, the Court held that relying upon this principle was the only way to guarantee Helena’s fundamental rights and to find an adequate balance between Colombian law and Colombia’s international legal obligations under international humanitarian law and international criminal law. Not doing so, the Court stressed, would give rise to consequences that it held to be unconstitutional. As such, the Court rendered Article 2(3) of Law 1448 inapplicable to this specific case.

The Court thus ordered:

  • that the decision by UARIV not to include Helena in the Register of Victims be declared void;
  • that within 10 days of the date of its decision, UARIV admit Helena to the Register of Victims on the basis of her having suffered forced recruitment as a child, sexual violence (including forced use of contraceptives and forced abortion), and forced displacement;
  • that within 15 days of the date of its decision, UARIV reinstate the provision of psychosocial and medical assistance to Helena to address the emotional, mental health and physical effects of having suffered sexual violence;
  • that in the provision of integral reparations to Helena, UARIV take a gender-sensitive approach to ensure her fundamental rights; and
  • that the health services provide and guarantee access to Helena to immediate, comprehensive, gender-sensitive, specialised care for as long as necessary to address the physical and psychological consequences of the violations she suffered.

Significance of the decision

In finding in favour of Helena’s registration as a victim of the armed conflict, this case establishes that ex-combatants who were forcibly recruited into illegal armed groups and suffered sexual violence, as well as reproductive violence, within those armed groups may seek victim status and thus have access to reparations under Law 1448 – a right they did not have before – regardless of the age at which they demobilised or fled. Beyond the significance of this finding for the claimant in this specific case, therefore, this decision also sets important legal precedent in recognising that victims of sexual and reproductive violence within armed groups are victims of armed conflict. This follows earlier jurisprudence by the International Criminal Court in the Ntaganda case (here and here; see also this 2017 post by IntLawGrrl Rosemary Grey). The Colombian decision is also one of very few in the world to specifically recognise reproductive violence as a distinct form of harm committed against women and girls in times of conflict.

As part of the case, the Court received 17 expert briefs from national and international human rights organisations, women’s rights organisations, academics and international experts, including one from the author of this blog post (written jointly with Ciara Laverty). In our amicus request filing, we offered the Court a comprehensive overview of the way in which reproductive violence long remained invisible in international law, how it is increasingly being recognised, and why it should be recognised as a specific and distinct form of harm, including when committed within armed groups.

Reproductive violence is a widespread yet understudied phenomenon that occurs in times of both conflict and of peace. It can have serious physical, mental, emotional and other consequences that persist long after the violence has occurred. It is a form of victimisation connected to but also different from sexual and other violence, due to the distinct harm it inflicts and the underlying value it is said to violate, i.e. reproductive autonomy. Although reproductive violence affects individuals of all genders, there are distinct forms of harm and violence that are inflicted only upon women and girls because of and directly targeting their sex-specific biological reproductive capacities, such as forced contraception, forced abortion and forced pregnancy.

Historically, however, there have only been few instances where such violence has been independently recognised and considered. This left reproductive violence relatively invisibilised in international law. Nonetheless, current developments reflect a growing recognition that reproductive violence constitutes a distinct form of violence that should be independently recognised as violating specific, individual rights and may also constitute (international) crimes in certain circumstances. This decision by the Colombian Constitutional Court recognising the specific victimisation of female ex-combatants through forced contraception and forced abortion thus contributes to providing greater legal recognition to a form of gender-based violence that has long remained invisible in international law.

Importantly, in addition to claiming her rights as a victim through the constitutional action that was the subject of this decision, Helena has also requested participation as a victim in case 007 before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. As such, further jurisprudence, including on individual criminal responsibility for acts of reproductive violence such forced contraception and forced abortion, may be forthcoming in Colombia.

Stay tuned!

The Legality of the United States’ Strike on Soleimani

On January 2, 2019, the United States carried out a drone strike at Baghdad airport in Iraq in which Qassem Soleimani, a high-level Iranian military leader, was murdered.  This post will analyze the legality of this particular United States’ use of force under international law as well as under U.S. domestic law.  Moreover, this post will discuss (negative) policy implications of this strike.

International Law

By launching an air strike on the territory of a sovereign nation (Iraq), which targeted a top-level military official of another sovereign nation (Iran), the United States used force against two other sovereign nations.  Such use of force is prohibited under Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, and the United States thus violated its international law obligations under the Charter, unless the United States can demonstrate that the military strike was conducted pursuant to a Security Council authorization or in self-defense.  In this case, the United States acted alone, without seeking Security Council approval.  Thus, under international law, the only way that the United States could justify the drone strike and the resulting killing of Qassem Soleimani is through self-defense.

The traditional law of self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, allows a state to use force in self-defense if it has been subjected to an armed attack.  Moreover, the use of force in self-defense must respect the requirements of necessity and proportionality.  In this instance, even assuming that Soleimani was planning activities which would have been harmful to the United States’ national security interests, the United States had not suffered an armed attack by Soleimani/Iran and cannot rely on the traditional law of self-defense.  More recently, scholars (for a good recap of the law of anticipatory and pre-emptive self-defense, see here and here) and some states (United States in particular) have advanced more aggressive variants of self-defense, including preventive self-defense, pre-emptive self-defense, and the “unable or unwilling” standard.  The George W. Bush administration argued that force could be used in self-defense in a pre-emptive manner, against both terrorists as well as countries which harbor terrorists.  The strike against Soleimani could potentially be justified under pre-emptive self-defense, especially if evidence demonstrated that Soleimani was engaged in activities which posed a threat toward the United States.  However, pre-emptive self-defense is not a widely accepted interpretation of the international law of self-defense; it is not part of treaty or customary international law; even subsequent United States’ administrations have adopted different views on self-defense.  Thus, pre-emptive self-defense remains a controversial interpretation of the international law of self-defense.  The Obama Administration adopted a different approach by arguing that the United States could use force in compliance with the international law of self-defense against a state which was unable or unwilling to control non-state actors operating from within its territory, if such actors posed an imminent threat to the United States. Under the Obama Administration view of the right of self-defense, the United States’ strike against Soleimani cannot be easily justified because, even if Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the United States (it remains to be seen whether Soleimani was presently engaged in activities which would have posed an imminent threat against the United States), he was not a non-state actor, but rather an Iranian military official. It is thus questionable that the strike was lawful under the Obama Administration paradigm of self-defense paradigm.  Finally, the United States could possibly claim that it was acting in collective self-defense pursuant to Iraq’s request for help- that Iraq had requested assistance from the United States in acting against Soleimani/Iran.  As of now, there is no evidence that this was the case.  The U.S. troops were in Iraq to lend support in the fight against ISIS, and it appears that the United States launched this attack without Iraq’s knowledge or approval.  In fact, in response to the Soleimani strike, the Iraqi Parliament has voted a resolution which would expel U.S. troops from Iraq.  Thus, the collective self-defense argument has no merit for now.  The only way in which the Soleimani strike can be possibly justified under self-defense would be through the Bush Doctrine/preemptive self-defense.  As argued above, pre-emptive self-defense is not part of well-accepted international law as of today, and the Soleimani strike is illegal under international law.

Domestic Law

Under United States’ law, the President can use force against another sovereign nation pursuant to his constitutional authority as Commander-in Chief, or pursuant to specific congressional authorization to use force.  Congress has not authorized the president to use force against Iran.  Congress did authorize the president to use force against those who planned the September 11 attacks in 2001 (2001 AUMF), as well as to use force against Iraq in 2002 (2002 AUMF).  It is very difficult to link Soleimani to Al Qaeda/Taliban terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks.  It is equally difficult to claim that Soleimani was operating in Iraq, and that the strike against him would somehow support the U.S. troops present in Iraq pursuant to the 2002 AUMF. Thus, the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs did not authorize the president to use military force in this particular instance.  The relevant question therefore becomes whether the president had inherent constitutional authority to act.  Although considerable debate exists about the scope of presidential power regarding the use of military force without congressional authorization, the executive branch, through several Office of Legal Counsel memoranda, has argued that the president has the authority to use force when: 1) there is an important national security interest in doing so; and 2) the use of force falls short of “war” in the traditional sense.  The executive branch has thus advanced the view that “military operations will likely rise to the level of a war only when characterized by ‘prolonged and substantial military engagements, typically involving exposure of U.S. military personnel to significant risk over a substantial period.’” Pursuant to this view, the executive branch has opined that the U.S. military activities in Haiti in the 1990s, the military strikes in Libya in 2011, as well as in Syria in 2018, did not cross the “war” threshold.

Moreover, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 imposes an additional limitation on the president’s authority to conduct military operations without explicit congressional approval.  The War Powers Resolution specifies that the president may introduce U.S. armed forces into hostilities only if there is a 1) declaration of war; 2) specific statutory authorization; or 3) a national emergency created by an attack against the United States.  The War Powers Resolution also requires that relevant military operations be terminated after a defined period of time (60 days), unless Congress specifically authorizes further military action, as well as that the president report to Congress within 48 hours of engaging in hostilities.  In this instance, the Trump Administration has actually provided a classified report to Congress under the War Powers Resolution, two days after the drone strike which killed Soleimani.  As of now, the report is classified and it is impossible to know what type of rationale the administration has provided to Congress. Presumably, the Trump Administration believes that the strike falls within the War Powers Resolution limitations on presidential authority to conduct military attacks as the Administration has provided a post-strike report to Congress.

In light of the above, the strike against Soleimani would be legal under U.S. domestic law only if the strike was in the U.S. national security interest, if the strike did not constitute “war,” and if the strike did not lead U.S. troops into “hostilities” under the War Power Resolution.   It is debatable whether the strike was in the U.S. national security interest now – although many experts agree that Soleimani had been a threat to the United States, it is unclear if he was presently involved in planning attacks against the United States.  Moreover, it is uncertain whether the strike falls short of “war.”  In addition to the executive branch test mentioned above (“prolonged and sustained military operations”), Office of Legal Counsel memoranda have suggested that the use of force may constitute “war” if such force is used against another sovereign nation without such nation’s consent, and if there is a high likelihood of escalation.  In this instance, the relevant question to ask is whether the strike is likely to lead U.S. troops to enter prolonged and sustained military operations with a high likelihood of escalation (the strike was clearly conduct4ed without Iraq’s consent).  If the answer to this inquiry is positive, then the president’s action would be illegal under U.S. law.  Finally, it is unclear whether the military strike against Soleimani constitutes a “hostility” under the War Powers Resolution.  The Obama and the Trump administrations have taken the position that providing aerial refueling and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen falls short of introducing U.S. troops into “hostilities.” It may be argued that the killing of another nation’s military leader is an action much more likely to lead U.S. troops to enter “hostilities” than an action conducted to provide aerial refueling or intelligence support.  In sum, it is debatable whether the military strike which killed Soleimani is legal under domestic law.  In order to reach this determination, one would have to conclude that the strike was in the U.S. national security interest, that it did not amount to war, and that it would not lead U.S. troops to enter into hostilities.  In light of the ongoing crisis with Iran, and the fact that Iran is state with a strong military, as well as with developing nuclear technology, it is likely that the strike will lead to an escalating military conflict.  Thus, it is more than reasonable to conclude that the strike was not conducted pursuant to domestic legal authority, because the president did not seek requisite congressional authorization and did not have inherent constitutional authority to act.

Policy

Finally, even assuming that the strike was lawful under international and domestic law, the strike did not amount to good policy.  First, the strike may portray the United States as a rogue actor in the Middle East, willing to carry out assassinations against those whom its perceives as enemies.  This image of the United States may limit its ability to build strategic alliances with other countries in the Middle East as well as with other global partners.  Second, the strike may provoke revenge and retaliation by Iran.  Iran could attack Americans in the Middle East, could pursue attacks or other aggressive actions against Israel, an important U.S. ally, and could act through various proxies to destabilize the Middle East.  Iran will likely  re-initiate its nuclear weapons development programs, as it has already announced that it is abandoning the Nuclear Agreement which it had signed with the United States and several European countries; this will pose an additional threat in the region.  Third, the strike has already caused a backlash from other countries and non-state/terrorist actors.  As mentioned above, the Iraqi Parliament has voted to expel U.S. troops from Iraq.  United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed “deep concern” over the U.S. strike against Soleimani; Russia has condemned the strike, and several Americans were killed in a terrorist attack in Kenya.  Fourth, it is unclear how the strike furthers United States’ national security and foreign policy.  As mentioned above, there is no credible information to suggest that Soleimani was engaged in present-day terrorist activity against the United States, and his elimination does not protect the United States any further, nor does it advance any particular foreign policy in the Middle East.  In fact, the strike is likely to cause conflict in this already volatile region and to potentially drag the United States into another war.  In sum, the strike is illegal under international law, very likely illegal under domestic law, and definitely bad policy.

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.