Interview with Professor Mallika Kaur

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia including post 9/11 violence, racial discrimination, farmer suicides, and transitional and transformative justice. She is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.  She writes regularly for online and print media as well as academic publications; her work has been published in Foreign Policy, Washington Post, California Law Review among others. We would also like to take this as an opportunity to thank Mallika for all the work and efforts she has contributed to INTLAWGRRLS over the past several years.

Her book titled “Faith, Gender and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper” was published by Palgrave Publishers a few months ago. I had the honor of interviewing her with regards to her new book. The interview is transcribed below.

Question: What was your motivation behind writing this book? Why did you specifically choose to cover Punjab’s human rights movement?

Answer: I did not in fact set out with the motivation of writing a book. It was not a part of any academic project or research agenda. It was something that came out of my own journeying. I grew up in Chandigarh, Punjab, having been a part of a community of folks who read their news in English, discussed it perhaps in Punjabi, and largely did not talk to their kids about the armed conflict at all. A seminal year in the conflict history was the Indian Army’s attack on Punjab, epicentered at Darbar Sahib (akin to Temple of David or Mecca) in June 1984. This provoked a visceral reaction from Sikhs, indeed even many non-Sikhs. Yet, within months—I was a toddler still—the justified necessity of the June massacres had taken hold in the non-Sikh psyche of India. Since then, any demands for truth-telling–about that June or the decade of mass violence that followed—have been considered suspect by the majority community and the successive governments of India.

As an adult, my legal and international human rights interest was around courts and commissions and possibility of a regional mechanism for South Asia. I was initially interested in those questions but eventually what I landed on in my work was how powerful stories are in unwrapping things that have been largely silenced for a very long time.

Punjab has been a laboratory of several nation-building projects in India: the Partition in 1947, the not so revolutionary Green Revolution in the 60s-70s, and various attempts at stifling dissent in the 80s and 90s. But these multiple upheavals that contextualize Punjab’s present have seldom been woven and written together, much less by a Sikh woman.

Through this book, I have tried to fight against this idea that the Punjab conflict was just about violence against violence with men combating on both sides. I tried to find stories of people who were non-combatants but chose the dangerous work of human rights defence. The book is trying to re-shift focus from “leaders,” combatants and an obsession with violence to a more nuanced and inclusive approach. Instead of just Indira Gandhi and other perpetrators, the book hopes the limelight comes to rest on women leaders like Paramjit Kaur Khalra, Kuldeep Kaur, Amar Kaur, unnamed women like the police officer who secretly helped inmates in one of Punjab’s many torture centers, and Baljit Kaur, who you see on the cover of the book. Within this marginalized conflict, I am looking at further neglected gender issues. For the men’s stories, I highlight the dangerous tendencies that were conveniently ascribed to all turbaned and bearded Sikh men, and then the general prohibition society imposes on men that makes it quite impossible for them to admit many emotions, much less speak about sexualized torture.

Question: How did you approach and research this topic?

Answer: The story-collection, writing, having the subjects of the story read it, all happened over many years, which was fine because this writing did not have any specific deadline of restriction. One of the benefits of doing a project entirely on your own time and dime! People were generous once they understood where the questions were coming from. They shared their personal archives including videos, legal files and other documents. The book eventually combines legal cases, scholarly analysis, community memory and personal narrative. The hybrid approach is necessary to tease the nuances lost in a more straightforward memoir, collective biography or academic examination. Further, memoir snapshots provide the reader the needed history of the author narrating the history of the conflict: exposing my vantage point and influences directly.

The book is all and not at all about Punjab. When generations of violence may have made silence more expedient than excavation, how might we learn about conflicts’ complexities of the past and their manipulated shadows in the present? Most linear, neat, cited and chronological tellings of conflicts overlook essential dynamics such as gender and trauma.

Each chapter centers on a key case from the year (or years) of its focus, starting in descending order from 1995, the supposed end of the conflict. Legal case details are available to varying extents, which is instructive: till the mid-90s, legal remedies were de facto suspended in Punjab. Case descriptions thus also draw from non-legal sources. Each case necessarily invokes additional cases. And then advocating for the need to embrace complexity and reject binary understandings, each chapter also contains an interwoven section that quickly traverses the earlier history of Punjab, starting in ascending order from 1839, the transition from Sikh rule to British colonial rule. The two timelines, descending from 1995 and ascending from 1839, converge in the final chapter, on the pivotal year, 1984.

Question: What kind of audience did you have in mind while writing the book?

Answer: The audience of this book is pretty large and varied. It includes scholars, lawyers, policy makers, activists, students, and general readers. By presenting convergences between different forms of violence–current and historical, interpersonal and mass social violence—I believe this book has already engaged a variety of readers. I have received very different reactions and reflections from people of various walks of life over the last months. Women who read between the lines when the women in the book remained silent about certain things. Men who have expressed they never thought of some basic gendered dynamics in how even the more popular stories from the Punjab conflict are spoken about.

Also, I strongly felt that since the violence was rendered so common in Punjab, I had to figure out a way of telling the story in a way that is not limited to lawyers or one academic discipline. That it could be understood by anybody who cares about human rights defenders who do the work of helping us retain our belief in humanity during the worst of atrocities! And it’s meant for those unnamed activists and defenders who may be feeling alone in the world. Despite the world today feeling ever-growing in its apathy and ever-shrinking in its attention span towards even the worst of crimes, you are not alone. Different points and places in history have felt the same and still there are people, like the protagonists of this book,  who have made choices against the tide. They felt they really got something out of it, out of this unsalaried and uncelebrated work. They regularly gained inspiration from the folks they worked with and defended. They felt a sense of collective as they became part of history. When you consider the tenacity of centennial litigants like Chaman Lal, it’s hard not to be moved!

Question: What was your approach while selecting the three human rights defenders for the book?

Answer: These three were in fact my windows on many other human rights defenders, some I named earlier, who were always at much more risk and suffered much more. The life stories of the three people you see on the cover of the book, Baljit Kaur, Justice Ajit Singh Bains and Inderjit Singh Jaijee, became trusted vehicles for traveling through Punjab’s recent history. Each of them is credited with saving countless lives.

Speaking of the approach while selecting these three, I’m reminded of a video I watched, which Baljit Kaur took in the late 80s. A Sikh man, a former Army officer is narrating how he was himself picked up, tortured and almost killed. He was speaking in perfect English so this was somebody with enough higher education. He had been treated this way as he had spoken against a young boy being killed. He mentioned that these folks fighting for justice, Baljit Kaur and her colleagues, were in fact the ones preserving the nation’s unity and integrity. Contrary to being seditious or dangerous as the politicians would have folks believe, it was human rights defenders who were providing ordinary people some hope that the legal and justice system could be the answer rather than further violence.

Unfortunately, people fighting for justice often fight very lonely battles. These protagonists had one another. And they had faith in a higher power that kept them going. And they had a lot of pride in Sikh history that they had heard of or witnessed when younger, through anti-British struggles, for example. Still, it was not like they were joined by a large number of other folks living in Chandigarh, Punjab who were enjoying the same relative privilege of upper class these three protagonists had during the 80s and 90s. So it was very fascinating to hear their stories as to how they surrounded police stations, how they compiled reports, how they visited Amnesty International and learnt how to make video footage to appropriately document what was happening at a time international human rights groups were not allowed in Punjab by the Indian government.

Question: How was your experience while interviewing people on this difficult past?

Answer: What I find fascinating especially about my three protagonists is that they are buoyant spirits, so young-at-heart in their 80s, 90s, even though they have seen such horrific things in their lifetimes. These protagonists have made more change than most of us will be able to make in our lifetime. I found this very uplifting despite the subject matter being very difficult.

Since I allowed myself a hybrid approach, and use memoir in the book as well, I put myself very explicitly into the discussions around the legal cases and this too helped me make sense of people’s trauma experiences. Some of the irrational reactions of these people started making more sense because they had gone through very unnatural set of circumstances. The whole Sikh community had been demonized for several decades. And now in India of 2020, the issues of creating an ‘enemy within,’ and what that does to social fabric, is again playing out. Where for example students, including pregnant women, who are protesting new discriminatory laws are picked up and booked indefinitely under draconian laws, themselves iterations of laws previously used in Punjab and then finally repealed on the books. How can we say the unlearnt lessons of past conflicts are not relevant to India today? I am not didactic about the parallels in the book. There is space for the reader to draw lessons for themselves.

Question: What do you think of the post-conflict scenario of Punjab in terms of violence against women and gender-based violence?

Answer: So, the first thing is that I don’t describe Punjab as post-conflict anywhere in the book because there has been no catharsis, no reconciliation, no period of transition, or justice, towards sustainable and inclusive peace. The estimates of those killed vary from police estimates of 25,000 to civil society estimates of 250,000. Even this variance speaks volumes about how the conflict has lived on; there is no closure, no semblance of transparency. Nobody was able to document the dead. Those who attempted to document it, like Jaswant Singh Khalra, whose amazing story I detail in Chapter 2, were killed. We went from this period of heightened killing and mayhem to an abrupt and strident “normalcy” in Punjab.

Coming to your question about gender and violence against women, I think the situation for women remains really bad through these subsequent decades, if not worse. Of course, across India we are dealing with shameful realities like marital rape being still legal. Dowry, being a ubiquitous feature of almost all weddings, despite being illegal. Ideas of honor and purity instead of autonomy and rights being tied to women’s bodies. And then some women’s bodies being deemed as not worthy of honor even: the Dalits of India disenfranchised by caste, or the women in conflict zones, who were blatantly immediately excluded from the changes that were proposed after the much publicized and horrific Delhi rape of 2012. Women who suffered in Punjab in the 80s and 90s at the hand of State forces have seen no reparations, not even in the form of recognition, much less apologies or restitution.

Question: What is next on your research agenda? Would you like to interview more female reformists of Punjab or write about some other aspect of Punjab region or the conflict?

Answer: I remain interested broadly in how we can make connections between different forms of violence that our communities negotiate – current and historical, in the U.S. and in home countries, interpersonal and mass social violence. I have also been writing and teaching on how lawyers specifically manage trauma, their clients’ and their own. Though most importantly right now, through COVID, I am focusing on the work that I have been doing since 2002, advocacy and crisis response for victims of gender-based violence. Working on gender-based violence as a practicing lawyer in the U.S., I am also really fascinated by comparatives. Right now in the U.S. there are a lot of discussions about alternatives to how domestic violence/ intimate partner violence response has been closely tied to increased policing, especially since the 70s. This is a complicated discussion here. Then add other contexts where feminists are fighting for the police to take domestic violence seriously. Or, even more complicated, cases in India where domestic violence laws are not protecting those they were meant to but are regularly manipulated by the upper-class litigants looking for an end-run. This is a part of my broader interest and possible future writing. And I dream of the time and headspace to write fiction someday! But really, I am presently quite consumed with working on the increased challenges faced by domestic violence survivors where I currently live. This too is a lesson from the protagonists of the book: make a difference where you can, don’t overlook the obvious local needs.

VP Biden’s Ambitious Agenda for Women

The presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, has released his “Agenda for Women.”  It’s a tour de force of dozens of key policy priorities, both domestic and international, focused on advancing women’s rights at home and abroad.  Some key takeaways in the national security and human rights space are outlined below along with some areas where additional attention would be welcome:

ERA YesOne Biden’s his core pledges is to advocate for Congress to recognize that the necessary ¾ of the states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA). First introduced in 1923, approved by Congress in 1972, and then sent out to the states for ratification with a deadline of 1979 (later extended to 1982), the ERA received its 38th ratification in January 2020 when Virginia finalized its ratification. Litigation over whether the time limits placed on ratification by Congress are constitutional has been proceeding in several courts (with one suit filed by Equal Means Equal being dismissed  earlier this month for lack of standing). The House passed a resolution that eliminates the putative deadline; so far, there has been no comparable action in the Senate. The Alice Paul Institute—named for the Quaker suffragist who authored the ERA after being instrumental in gaining passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote—offers a history of the amendment here. Prof. Julie Suk’s take on why it failed before and how it can succeed is here. Biden co-sponsored the ERA nine times while in Congress. President Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, has opposed the lawsuits, including one  brought by three states attorneys general (Virginia, Nevada, and Illinois) to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.

On the multilateral plane, Biden will seek ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a treaty dedicated to global women’s rights. Nearly all U.N members have ratified this treaty (in holding out, the United States enjoys the company of Iran, Somalia, and Sudan and a couple of small island nations—see map below). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has debated the treaty several times, but so far the full Senate has refused to give its advice and consent to ratification, in part due to unfounded fears the treaty will be cited to promote abortions and prostitution and will undermine U.S. sovereignty. Several U.S. cities and municipalities, including San Francisco, have adopted ordinances and policies in keeping with the treaty and the “human rights cities” movement. 1200px-CEDAW_Participation.svg

When it comes to reproductive rights, Biden calls for the repeal of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which bans U.S. federal funds (mainly Medicaid) from paying for abortions (except in cases in which the pregnancy results from rape or incest or if the woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy). The Amendment disproportionately impacts low-income women and women of color. This marks a welcome reversal from Biden’s stance at an early Democratic debate during the primary race.  A bill to repeal the Amendment, known as the EACH Woman Act, is working its way through Congress.

Biden would also rescind the so-called “Mexico City Policy” (a.k.a. the global gag rule) that President Trump reinstated but in a more far-reaching form. Withdrawing this ruleGlobal Gag Rule would enable the federal government to support civil society organizations engaged in global health efforts around the world, even if recipients provide information on safe and legal abortion services as part of their public health work. Remarkably, as one of his first moves as President, Trump, flanked by a phalanx of beaming white men, dramatically expanded the policy. Heralding the vindictiveness that has so characterized this administration, this move followed on the heels of hundreds of Women’s Marches that drew millions around the world into the streets (my dispatch is here) and a campaign that repeatedly revealed his deep-seated misogyny. Reversing the global gag rule should be an urgent priority: research has shown that the policy dramatically undermines women’s health and, paradoxically, leads to increased abortion rates in developing countries. Although this move can be accomplished by executive action, the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act (currently in the Committees on Foreign Relations and Affairs) would prevent future Republican presidents from reinstating it again.

Furthermore, as part of his broader immigration platform, Biden promises to dedicate himself to immigration reform and undo the Trump administration’s harshly punitive policies. This includes: reopening the United States to refugee resettlement (raising the admissions cap to 125,000), re-establishing a humane and expeditious asylum process for people fleeing persecution, and reinstating asylum protections for people who are escaping domestic and sexual violence. The latter requires the reversal of a decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to invoke a rarely used power and overturn a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that had allowed such survivors to demonstrate persecution on the basis of their membership in a “particular social group”—one basis for receiving refugee status. Biden will also increase the number of visas for survivors of domestic violence under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) and for victims of crime (so-called U-visas), and expedite the process for granting these and related immigration benefits, including T visas for victims of human trafficking. It will not be enough, however, to simply dismantle these cruel Trump policies; rather, Biden should develop ways to repair the harm done, including through providing psycho-social rehabilitation to children and families traumatically torn asunder and placed in inhumane detention conditions. Biden should also explore the implementation of restitutionary immigration benefits, such as expedited pathways to asylum and family reunification.

In addition to issuing a whole plan devoted to ending violence against women, Biden has endorsed passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which would make ending the epidemic of violence against women worldwide a key foreign policy priority. The proposed legislation recognizes that

“Rape and sexual assault against women and girls are used to torture, intimidate, and terrorize communities. Rape and sexual assault are used as tools of war in conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and South Sudan.”

If enacted, the IVAWA would commit the United States to helping women and girls who are victims of violence to gain access to justice. The timing of this will be crucial; women everywhere are experiencing higher levels of domestic violence while suffering from reduced access to protective services due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These commitments reflect the fact that Biden co-authored the U.S. Violence Against Women Act in 1994 (one of the legislative achievements of which he is most proud) and helped pass the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which strengthened the United States’ anti-trafficking framework.  Biden released a statement on the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, July 30th, setting forth his anti-trafficking priorities.

This focus on ending VAW globally is part of Biden’s larger Women, Peace & Security (WPS) plank that will focus on supporting women’s leadership globally. This includes full implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Act, passed by Congress in 2017, which is premised on research that including women in conflict prevention efforts, peace building processes, and post-conflict governance helps to reduce conflict and instantiate stability. The Act mandates a government-wide strategy to increase the participation of women in peace and security operations and to support transitional justice and accountability mechanisms that reflect the experiences of women and girls. 1_Qz_BwcroQlTViHAMkaJswgThe Act responds to a suite of resolutions emanating from the U.N. Security Council to the same end (starting with Resolution 1325) and builds on the United States’ National Action Plan on WPS, which was released in 2011 and then strengthened in 2016. Both plans call for effective measures to investigate sexual and gender-based violence and to bring those responsible to justice. The Trump Administration has only haltingly implemented the WPS Act, while taking a number of concrete steps in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by Ambassador Don Steinberg, who once led USAID.

Biden’s Agenda for Woman contains a whole slate of economic pledges, underscoring a recognition that economic security is a women’s issue just as much as reproductive rights or the imperative to end gender discrimination. These include support for a number of pieces of draft legislation, including:

Biden has also drawn attention to the need to better support caregivers, particularly in the Covid-19 era. The Agenda announces a whole array of measures in the health, education, and economic sectors for LGBTQI+ individuals (indeed, the list of policies to be reversed vis-à-vis this community is regrettably a long one), as well as disabled, incarcerated, native, immigrant, and veteran women and women of color.

Finally, consistent with an Obama-era Executive Order, Biden has also pledged to ensure his political appointees, and the entire federal workforce, reflect the diversity that is America. Besides his intention to choose a woman Vice President and an African American women for the Supreme Court, he also committed to work for gender parity as he builds his foreign policy and national security teams, a campaign launched by the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) at the start of the election season. The commitment—which other Democratic candidates also adopted—is based not only on legitimate concerns for gender equity but also on consistent research that diverse teams are stronger, more effective, and more creative. This imperative is echoed by organizations such as Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security & Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), the Athena Leadership Project, and Women in Defense (WID).

All this may explain why polls have VP Biden up 25 points over Donald Trump with women as a whole—an historic margin. This is notwithstanding Trump’s pandering to “The Suburban Housewives of America,” perhaps because Biden’s numbers are also higher in suburban polls. To be sure, gender has always been—and likely will be—an issue on the campaign trail, but the disparity between the two candidates could not be more stark.

 

Tanzania Withdraws Jurisdiction from the African Court. What recourse remains for Tanzanians?

(photo credit)

On November 21, 2019, Tanzania withdrew from Article 34(6) of the African Charter’s Protocol: the provision by which States accept the competence of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to receive cases from individuals and NGOs. Tanzania is only the second State—after Rwanda—to withdraw from Article 34(6). When Rwanda made its Article 34(6) withdrawal in 2016, the African Court mandated a notice period of one year for withdrawals and declared that the withdrawal would have no legal effect on cases pending before the Court.

Applying the Rwandan precedent to Tanzania’s withdrawal suggests that Tanzanians can only continue to file before the Court until the one-year notice period expires, on November 20, 2020. This change is significant, as individuals comprise the overwhelming majority of applications to the African Court.

Despite the closure of this important avenue for Tanzanians seeking remedies for human rights violations, there are other avenues through which Tanzanians can bring their claims. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN Treaty Bodies provide two such avenues.

A. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The African Commission is a quasi-judicial body tasked with the interpretation of the African Charter. Distinct from the African Court, the Commission can hear complaints against States Parties to the African Charter, including Tanzania.

The Commission presents a viable alternative to filing with the Court in several ways. By turning to the Commission, Tanzanian applicants can continue to build jurisprudence in the African continent and pursue Tanzania’s compliance with its human rights obligations under the African Charter. Successful petitions enshrine human rights norms in Tanzania, as well as in all States Parties to the African Charter, and applicants can secure reparations for the harms they have suffered.

Additionally, the Commission has shown interest in ruling on human rights claims in Tanzania, despite Tanzania’s withdrawal. On November 22, 2019, just a day after Tanzania’s withdrawal, the Commission published a statement to Tanzania strongly urging its government to guarantee a range of public freedoms and to protect human rights activists. Tanzania’s withdrawal may only serve to heighten the Commission’s interest in the State’s human rights compliance.

Although the Commission can begin to fill the gap left by Tanzania’s withdrawal for individuals who have suffered human rights abuses, it is not a replacement for the Court. First, the Commission faces a severe backlog in cases: in June 2019, the Commission had 240 cases pending. If Tanzanians seek redress before the Commission in the same numbers as they did before the Court, they can expect to see prolonged delays in having their petitions heard.

Second, Tanzanian applicants may not always see favourable decisions from the Commission enforced at state level. Tanzania is required to submit biannual reports to the African Commission on its human rights compliance, but Tanzania has only submitted two such reports: one in 1992 and another in 2008. Because of this lack of data, as well as the minimal formal policy guiding these state-reporting measures, it is difficult for the Commission to monitor whether Tanzania is implementing its decisions and recommendations. Moreover, Tanzania does not appear to have enforced the one decision on the merits that the Commission decided against Tanzania.

Despite these complications, the African Commission can fill some of the gap that Tanzania’s withdrawal from the African Court will leave post-November.

B. UN Human Rights Bodies

The UN Treaty Bodies can also hear human rights claims against Tanzania.

Two of the UN Treaty Bodies have jurisdiction over Individual Complaints filed against Tanzania: the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee). Tanzania ratified the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW in 2006 and the Optional Protocol to the CRPD in 2009, thus recognising the competence of both bodies to consider communications against Tanzania.  

Where claims allege a violation of either the CEDAW or the CRPD, Tanzanians may consider bringing an Individual Complaint to CEDAW or CRPD Committees, respectively. Though the Treaty Bodies present a wholly different forum for complaints than the regional human rights tribunals of the African Court and Commission, they go a long way to filling the gap left by Tanzania’s withdrawal.

The longevity and strength of the UN Treaty Bodies lends their judgments gravity and impact. Jurisprudence from both the CEDAW and CRPD Committees shines a light on, and seeks to remedy, human rights violations the world over. Tanzanian lawyers and activists bringing complaints before these Committees can use the international respect and clout of these bodies to their advantage, to build awareness of human rights issues in Tanzania and to support their in-country efforts.

Importantly, Tanzania generally complies with its administrative obligations under both the CEDAW and CRPD by submitting its periodic reports. Neither Committee has heard many Individual Complaints against Tanzania, though, which makes analysing the likelihood of their enforcement difficult. The CEDAW Committee has heard one Individual Complaint against Tanzania, following which Tanzania implemented some—but not all—of the Committee’s recommendations. The CRPD Committee has heard two complaints against Tanzania, with similarly mixed results. Though Tanzania’s limited track record on enforcement may raise questions about the utility of bringing claims to the Treaty Bodies after November 2020, it does not diminish the utility of the UN as way forward for Tanzanians who have suffered human rights abuses.

***

From November 20, 2020, Tanzanian individuals and NGOs will be deprived of an important avenue through which to bring human rights claims. It is clear, though, that Tanzania’s withdrawal does not doom all human rights claims against the state. Individuals and NGOs must turn to alternative forums to fill the gap left by Tanzania’s withdrawal.

Meanwhile, international groups should recognise the critical work being done by domestic advocates to raise awareness of these changes within Tanzania.

Introducing Nathalie Greenfield & Gabriela Markolovic

It is our great pleasure to introduce our new IntLawGrrls contributors Nathalie Greenfield and Gabriela Markolovic. Nathalie and Gabriela are third-year Juris Doctor students and Charles Evan Hughes Scholars at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York. Nathalie is a graduate of the University of Cambridge (UK), where she received her Master’s degree in cultural policy, and she worked in gender equality policy at the European Parliament before starting at Cornell. Prior to law school, Gabriela received her Bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, minoring in International Relations and Law and Society.

Between August 2019 and May 2020, Nathalie and Gabriela were students in Professor Sandra Babcock’s International Human Rights Clinic at Cornell. During their time in the clinic, Nathalie and Gabriela represented defendants facing the death penalty in Tanzania in their appeals to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, identifying novel legal claims involving sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2021, Nathalie and Gabriela will continue working on behalf of incarcerated women in an advanced international human rights clinic, and are keen to tackle gender-based discrimination and contribute to the advancement of women in the legal profession. 

Conflict-related sexual violence: what are we talking about? (Part 1)

In the context of the author’s attendance to the 18th Assembly of State Parties to the International Criminal Court, this blogpost aims at sharing knowledge about conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and providing a preliminary understanding of the issue. It first explores the use of CRSV through history. Then, it highlights how it targets both women, girls, men and boys. Last but not least, this blogpost depicts the slow development of international tribunals’ responses to this scourge.

I. Conflict-related sexual violence is an old phenomenon…

According to the United Nations, CRSV refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict. The term also encompasses trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence or exploitation, when committed in situations of conflict. 

The French NGO We are NOT Weapons of War stresses that sexual violence used as a weapon of war has always been present in conflict, even though its victims have long seemed invisible. This idea is also supported by Stand Speak Rise Up, a non-profit organization from Luxembourg. In its white book, we can read that sexual violence in conflict is not new and the historical roots of this phenomenon are deep: from the Viking era to the Thirty Years’ War and the Second World War, rape has been part of the “spoils of war” throughout history, a weapon of the victors and conquerors. War rape is rarely the result of uncontrolled sexual desire, but rather a way to exert power and install fear in victims and their community. 

In the 1990s, the conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region marked a major turning point in the use of sexual violence as a weapon to weaken and subdue vulnerable populations or to advance a political agenda. The Stand Speak Rise Up white book explains that CRSV was methodically organized and implemented in cold blood on a very large scale. Sexual violence in particular was also a tool of submission and terror at the end of the Cold War. 

Still nowadays, sexual violence can play a vital role in the political economy of terrorism, with physical and online slave markets and human trafficking enabling terrorist groups to generate revenue from the continuous abduction of women and girls. As an example, the Yezidi community in Iraq suffered and still suffers from these crimes, as the so-called Islamic State continues to target women and girls, abducting them and reducing them to sexual slavery and forced marriages. 

Perpetrators of such acts are often affiliated with States or non-State armed groups, including terrorist entities.

II. …that targeted and still targets both men, boys, women and girls…

In September 2019, during the United Nations 74th General Assembly, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict recalled that conflicts exacerbates existing gender inequalities, exposing women and girls to various forms of sexual and gendered-based violence. Women and girls, in particular, suffer sexual violence in the course of displacement, navigating their way through checkpoints and across borders without documentation, money or legal status. It is also important to note than men and boys also suffer from conflict-related sexual violence . 

Conflict-related sexual violence refers to incidents including rape, gang rape, forced nudity and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment in a context of armed conflict. A disturbing trend is that sexual violence is increasingly perpetrated against very young children. The Secretary-General emphasized that during the Colombian civil war, that has lasted for 50 years, rebels systematically used sexual violence against the civilians, targeting women as well as their children. The Colombian Constitutional Court has recognized “a widespread, systematic and invisible practice.” It is also important to keep in mind that both men and women can be perpetrators. 

Discussion Friday 3 April: Domestic Violence During COVID-19: Sheltering at Home When Home is the Most Dangerous Place

The Roosevelt House Human Rights Program of Hunter College and the Sisterhood is Global Institute are hosting a live online discussion on Friday April 3 with frontline women’s rights activists from across the world.

Friday, April 3, 2020 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm EDT (17.00 – 18.00 GMT)

For victims of domestic violence, home is often the most dangerous place on earth. As the world moves towards lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, women may have no safe place to turn. Moderated by Jessica Neuwirth, the discussion will explore current realities of domestic violence victims and solutions for supporting women in this vulnerable moment.

Discussants:
Carmen Espinoza, Executive Director of Manuela Ramos in Peru
Shafiqa Noori, Director of Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan
Diane Rosenfeld, Lecturer on Law and Director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School
Randa Siniora, Executive Director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Palestine

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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!

Violent Extremism and Terrorism in the Scope of Women, Peace and Security: an Uncomfortable Relationship

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Credit: UN Photo/DN (http://www.un.org/en/sc/about/)

The most recent and very controversial resolution of the United Nations Security Council(UNSC) Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, Resolution 2242 of 2015, has started to be implemented by the member states: a very recent example is Bosnia and Herzegovina. To date, Bosnia and Herzegovina has adopted three National Action Plans (NAPs) to implement the WPS agenda in its legal, judicial and administrative bodies for the periods of 2010-2013, 2014-2017and 2018-2022. Although the first two NAPs have not engaged with counterterrorism (CT) or countering violent extremism (CVE), the third NAP has a specific section regarding the measures for CT and CVE. In the NAP of 2018-2022, greater involvement of women in the initiatives for CT/CVE is highly encouraged.

The engagement of women with the CT and CVE programmes has developed in a very problematic way. The international framework on CT and CVE was established by UNSC Resolution 1373 (2001), immediately after 9/11. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s review of 43 UNSC Resolutions regarding the CT/CVE agenda pointed out that the agenda made only a handful of references to women and/or sexual harms. Thus, the CT and CVE agendas were gender-blind. Whereas the WPS agenda, at least initially, was trying to bring a gender lens to the peace and security concepts, CT/CVE resolutions have remained detached from the UNSC WPS purposes and agenda.

Very recently, this detachment has been terminated, not through the application of a gender-sensitive lens to the CT/CVE, but through the engagement of the WPS agenda with the CT/CVE programmes. With the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2242, CT/CVE discourse has been introduced to the WPS agenda.

In Resolution 2242, the SC

“(…) expresses deep concern that acts of sexual and gender-based violence are known to be part of the strategic objectives and ideology of certain terrorist groups, used as a tactic of terrorism, and an instrument to increase their power through supporting financing, recruitment, and the destruction of communities (…)”

To tackle this, the SC

“(…) urges Member States and the United Nations system to ensure the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism(…)”

Integration of CT/CVE with the WPS agenda through “strategic essentialism” presented women as “an untapped resource for countering violent extremism” (page 31). Feminist scholars have been concerned with the language in the resolution which essentializes women “as wicked purveyors of extremist violence or virtuous saviours of sons, husbands and communities” (page 282).

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s latest NAP echoes this language of Resolution 2242. “Women and children” are depicted as the main victims of violent extremism and terrorism.  The NAP acknowledges the presence of “radical communities” in Bosnia and Herzegovina and encourages international partners, the non-governmental sector, academia and religious communities to cooperate in order to “protect” the main victims of violent extremism and terrorism: “women and children”.

A major problem with both Resolution 2242 and the Bosnian NAP of 2018-2022 is the “over-simplistic understanding of the causes of extremism, and the solutions”(page 108). Such an approach seems palliative; the reasons for the emergence of violent extremism and terrorism in societies are simply ignored and instead the aim is onlyto treat the symptoms.

In addition, Resolution 2242 leaves the meanings of “violent extremism” and “terrorism” open. Similarly, Bosnia and Herzegovina barely specifies the measures for tackling violent extremism and terrorism. This prevents us from gaining any insight into the meaning and scope of “violent extremism” and “terrorism” in the Bosnian context. Expansion of the WPS agenda and alignment of the CT/CVE  and WPS agendas “does not mean that women will be included in defining what constitutes terrorism” and violent extremism. This very point creates concerns for feminist scholarship since the ambiguous and “customizable” scope of violent extremism and terrorism might lead to the securitization and instrumentalization of the WPS agenda, and to the legitimization of the SC.

This is not the first time that international security has intervened in the WPS agenda. In an earlier resolution, Resolution 1960 of 2010, the SC brought forward “targeted sanctions” against perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict, which was a “counterproductive development in the contemporary collective security approach to women, peace and security”. Such security-oriented interventions sideline gender equality and aim to “empower” women with the only purpose of providing security in the affected societies.

As Diane Otto has pointed out, any so-called successes in the feminist theory and practice should always be weighed against their consequences. Integration of the CT/CVE into the WPS agenda is presented as a success by the UNSC since this integration could reduce the impacts of terrorism and violence extremism on women. However, as WILPF reminds us, “inclusive” strategies are more often than not used to justify the use of force.

Although Resolution 2242 has already been adopted in Bosnia and Herzegovina and many other countries through NAPs, legal, judicial, and administrative bodies and women’s rights NGOs should cautiously put the NAPs into practice by constantly examining the potential impacts of CT and CVE programmes on women.

A Transformative Approach to Personal Laws

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Indian Supreme Court with both gains and loses. Notably, in the Sabarimala judgement, Justice Chandrachud observed that the rationale used by the Bombay High Court in Narasu Appa Mali v State of Bombay, which held that personal laws should not be subject to fundamental rights, is not sustainable. Chandrachud, however, only overrules Narasu on the point that customs are not subject to fundamental rights.

This exposition in itself is unremarkable since the Supreme Court in Sant Ram v. Labh Singh had already held that customs are subject to a fundamental rights challenge. The ratio of Narasu Appa Mali only extended to uncodified religious law which hasn’t been modified by either custom or usage. Thus, while the outcome remains unchanged, the observation by Chandrachud that the reasoning of Narasu is flawed, segues into the question of whether personal law can be counted as law and thereby lays the groundwork for a challenge to personal laws when it arises.

What are personal laws?

To set some context to the debate, it might be useful to understand what personal laws are. The idea that religious sphere is entirely distinct is of recent vintage it was through a process of construction during the British era that a separate space was carved out for certain religious laws, generally governing family matters like marriage and divorce. Thus, the first point to note is that there is nothing inherently personal about personal laws. The scriptures gained jurisdiction over certain matters because the colonial state said so, and this determination was due to sociopolitical rather than religious reasons.  It is untenable therefore to think that the body of laws referred to as “personal laws” derive their validity from religion, rather than the state. Second, personal laws were shaped by male elites of each religious community using the colonial state. For example, with regard to Hindu personal law, there was a forced homogenization and enforcement of Brahmanical law. Today, many personal laws are alleged to promote the subordination of women and other minorities. However, to have a fundamental rights review, ‘personal laws’ has to fall under the definition of ‘law’ or a ‘law in force’ in Article 13 of the Constitution.

Narasu Appa Mali v State of Bombay

The petition in Narasu challenged validity of the Bombay Prevention of Bigamous Hindu Marriages Act, 1946 which sought to render bigamous marriages void as well as criminalize the offence of bigamy. What the Court ultimately ended up deciding was the question of whether coming into force of constitution, muslim polygamy is void because it violates Art. 15. This might be explained by the dominant narrative prevailing in the country during the early 1950s. At the time the judgement was pronounced, the Hindu Code Bill was still in deliberation and the general sentiment was that only the Hindus were being ‘punished’. It might be useful to keep this context in mind while evaluating the rationale of the two judge bench.

Prior to determining whether muslim polygamy is unconstitutional, the Court had to answer the question of whether it is law in the first place. To answer this question, the Court looked at Article 13 and applied the principle of ‘Expressio Unius Exclusio Alterius’ i.e. the expression of one excludes the other, and its present application. It characterised customs & usages as deviations from personal laws and relied on Article 112 of the Government of India Act, 1915 which had discussed customs as different from personal laws, to say that personal laws cannot be laws under Article 13. The inclusion of various provisions in the Constitution that relate to state regulation of personal law, such as Article 17 (Abolition of untouchability), Article 25 (Freedom of Religion) would be redundant had the drafters wanted to include personal laws within the definition of law. It further relied on Art. 44, which asks the state to endeavour to build a Uniform Civil Code, to say that there is a presumption by the drafters that different personal laws will exist even after independence. Moreover, Article 44 and Entry V of the Concurrent List seems to suggest that the drafter’s intent was to give this power to the legislature and not the judiciary. It also referred to Article 372 of the Constitution. Pre-constitutional laws continue in force by virtue of this Article, and that they can be amended by the President. The Court reasoned that since the President had no power to modify personal laws, personal laws do not derive their validity from Article 372 of the Constitution.

Re-evaluating Narasu Appa Mali

Narasu has never been challenged in the Supreme Court. Previous decisions such as John Vallamottam v Union of India and C Masilamani Mudaliar v Idol of Sri Swaminathaswamiswaminathaswami which are commonly cited as examples of the Court subjecting personal laws to a fundamental rights review, only dealt with codified personal law.

However, there is some literature offering a contrary view. Krishnan argues that the term ‘includes’ in Article 13 is an inclusive definition. For example, Art. 13(3)(a) does not use the word “common law” and yet we subject that to Part III. There is no evidence to suggest that the drafter were referring to the Government of India Act, 1915 in drafting this section. As Bhatia argues, Article 17 could have just been incorporated by way of abundant caution. The corrosive and pervasive nature of caste discrimination could have made the framers include a specific article prohibiting untouchability as an extra measure to leave nothing to chance.  Moreover, the scope of Article 25 is way broader than personal laws.  It protects an individual’s right to practice her religion rather than protecting religious norms or rules. Article 44 is located in Part 4 of the Constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy) and therefore casts no positive obligation on the State. Many Directive Principles duplicate obligations that would arise from fundamental rights themselves.

However, the question ultimately comes down to how we understand our constitution. Should we read the Constitution textually, debating the technical points of law or should we read it as a transformative document capable of bending the moral arc of the Indian polity towards justice. In the words of Chandrachud-

“Custom, usages and personal law have a significant impact on the civil status of individuals. Those activities that are inherently connected with the civil status of individuals cannot be granted constitutional immunity merely because they may have some associational features which have a religious nature. To immunize them from constitutional scrutiny, is to deny the primacy of the Constitution.”

Not only was the Constitution transformative in the sense that it indicated a break from India’s past, but it also has a transformative potential. At the heart of transformative constitutionalism is vision of change, a redemptive potential. By subjecting personal laws to a fundamental rights challenge would mean acknowledging how some of these laws have becomes sites of hierarchy and subordination, where minorities like women and lower castes are denied equal moral membership of society. A transformative vision places the individual dignity at the forefront of its endeavours and values constitutional morality over societal morality. Here’s hoping that when the challenge to personal laws comes, it is also on these grounds.

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?

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             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.