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

Registration is required. You may register here and join at zoom.us/j/580841531

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?

Bensouda Photo

             Photo courtesy of CUNY Law School

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last four years of discussions and debates by states and experts partied to the drafting process, not one mentions the outdated definition that was cut and pasted into the draft.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

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

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

But does a new treaty that codifies an outdated definition of gender serve the interests of justice?

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

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

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

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

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

 

African Court issues its first judgment on women’s rights

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

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

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

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

U.N. Sanctions Can Help Stop Rape in War

Sexual violence is clearly prohibited in peacetime and wartime, both by international human rights law and the lex specialis international humanitarian law. Despite these prohibitions, sexual violence remains prevalent in many modern conflicts. Furthermore, it continues to be used intentionally by government forces and militias as a weapon in order to achieve military or political objectives. As seen in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and the DCR, sexual violence is used effectively to terrorize, forcibly displace, ethnically cleanse, and control civilian populations seen as the “enemy”- at the cost of women and girls.

In 2008 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a groundbreaking resolution (1820) that threatened the use of targeted sanctions against individuals ordering, tolerating or engaging in sexual violence as a weapon of war. Sanctions, foreseen in article 41 of the UN Charter, are one of two coercive powers that the Security Council holds under Chapter VII. Through the threat of coercive measures, the UNSC thus affirmed its ability and willingness to place meaningful restraints on sexual violence in conflict.

This was a groundbreaking and welcomed move. Designation criteria relying on international human rights and humanitarian norms have the potential to reinforce legal frameworks on prevention and accountability. Indeed, targeting political and military commanders with sanctions can create an incentive to stop deliberately ordering or implicitly tolerating sexual violence committed by their soldiers. Sanctions can compel commanders to change behavior and exercise better control over troops.

But ten years after the UNSC first threatened sanctions, where are we in practice? This question drove Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security to investigate whether the Security Council actually translated its threat of sanctions into concrete action.

We studied 8 sanctions regimes in countries characterized by continuing armed conflict and massive human-rights violations, including the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war: Central African Republic, the Congo, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. Our report finds that sanctions have great potential, but are largely underutilized and implemented ineffectively.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of sexual violence in sanctions regimes is not consistent, nor is it timely. Some sanctions regimes do not once mention sexual violence as part of the designation criteria – despite evidence of widespread use (such as in Sudan). Some regimes include references to sexual violence, but only decades after the first violations were reported (such as in Somalia). Moreover, follow-up of the threat of sanctions with concrete designations of individuals is often neither timely nor reflective of the main perpetrators. Failure to act on the threat of sanctions actually gives perpetrators permission and incentive for brutality, because it gives them confidence that no meaningful rebuke will follow. Continue reading