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. Continue reading

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!

New supplements to the International Protocol on documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict for Iraq, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Cover_Myanmar_Burmese supplement.jpgOnce hidden and unspoken, reports of sexual violence now feature prominently in daily media dispatches from conflict zones around the world. This visibility has contributed to a new emphasis on preventing and addressing such violence at the international level.

Promoting the investigation and documentation of these crimes is a key component of the international community’s response. However, this response requires thoughtful and skilled documenters.  Poor documentation may do more harm than good, retraumatising survivors, and undermining future accountability efforts.

Recently, the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI) and international anti-torture organisation REDRESS, with the funding support of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), have launched a series of country-specific guides to assist those documenting and investigating conflict-related sexual violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

The guides (available in English, Burmese, Tamil, Sinhalese, Arabic and Kurdish on the REDRESS and IICI websites) complement the second edition of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, published in March 2017 by the FCO.

The Protocol aims to support practitioners to document appropriately by providing a “set of guidelines setting out best practice on how to document, or investigate, sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity, act of genocide or other serious violation of international criminal, human rights or humanitarian law”. It is a tremendous resource for practitioners, covering theoretical, legal and practical aspects of documentation.

However, as the Protocol itself makes clear, documentation of conflict-related sexual violence is highly context-specific. Each conflict situation and country has individual legal and practical aspects that must be considered alongside the Protocol’s guidelines.

The guides aim to fill this gap by addressing the context for and characteristics of conflict-related sexual violence in the three countries. They address legal avenues for justice domestically and at the international level, specific evidential and procedural requirements and practical issues that may arise when documenting such crimes.

The publication of these guides on the three different countries highlights some interesting comparisons and contrasts.  Although the background to and most common forms of sexual violence differ from country to country, the motivations for the violence have parallels. Similarly, the stigmatisation of survivors is a grave concern in each country, influencing all aspects of daily life for them and the way that institutions and individuals respond to the crimes committed against them.

In all three countries, a landscape of almost complete impunity prevails, and in many situations survivors, their families and practitioners face significant threats to their security – often from state actors (e.g. police, military, state security). This harsh reality is borne out by the fact that although the drafting of the supplements relied heavily on the experience and input of local practitioners, due to security concerns, very few were able to be individually acknowledged for their contributions.  Continue reading

Transitional Justice: What is the role of law in bringing imaginative and imaginary peace to Colombia?

This blog post is based on a reflection presented at the “Transitional Justice as Legal Field, Site and Imagination” panel at the Transnational Law Summer Institute, Kings College, London June 29, 2016. I am grateful to Prabha Kotiswaran and Peer Zumbansen for the invitation.  

What is the role of law in bringing imaginative and imaginary peace to Colombia?

June 23 2016 was described by Colombian and international media as the “last day of the war”, adopting FARC’s hashtag #ElÚltimoDíaDeLaGuerra. The signing of a bilateral ceasefire between the Colombian government and FARC formally ended hostilities in the world’s longest running war. The signing of a peace agreement is expected to take place during the summer of 2016.

To the overlapping academic fields of human rights, transitional justice and post-conflict reconstruction, the sophisticated Colombian transitional justice process is attractive and will likely be highly influential for the coming decade, both as an example of success and of failure. There is also a significant risk that scholars (outside Colombia) will embrace the Colombian experience either deterministically — as an example of systemic yet de-historicized power imbalances — or as a fantastical  and outsized legal progress narrative that can serve as an endless source of political models, constitutional processes and legal arguments suitable for embellishing the transitional justice juggernaut.

My argument in the following is based on one big supposition: I will put forward the idea that approached from a law and social change perspective, the Colombian transitional justice project is necessarily a failure foreseen.

“Everybody” knows that positive peace is not going to happen through legislation, decisions by a progressive Colombia Constitutional Court or the signing of a formal agreement. This Everybody also knows that if positive peace happens, it will not happen soon.  At the same time, it is easy to imagine that a year from now, politicians, ordinary Colombians, pundits and academics will dismiss the transitional justice legislation and the peace agreement as partial or total failures for their inability to perform the impossible expected by the Everybody; namely ending violence, providing reparations and changing the structural inequality that is the source of much of the violence.

However, I think that precisely at this juncture, as a community professionally engaged in the business of imagining peace and transitional justice, we need to reflect on what the critical takeaways from and beyond this failure foreseen could be. We may find that imagined and imaginative outcomes turn out to be imaginary. But this is not enough, it’s not even a starting point. We need to go beyond that.

Hence, after briefly describing the Colombian peace process, I will map out three sets of issues that could serve as tentative points of departure for critical reflection. This includes:

  • How we can gauge the meaning of the Colombian transitional justice process for Colombian citizenry, citizenship and the state;
  • The implications of Colombia being both outlaw and legal outlier for how we consider the role and place of the law in creating durable peace;
  • A first attempt to think through some of the general lessons Colombia can have for transitional justice practice and scholarship.

Peace and conflict as statecraft

The armed conflict between the government and FARC began in 1964. Separate negotiations have previously led to the demobilization of smaller guerillas (MAQL, M-19; EPL) and an agenda for formal negotiations has now been agreed with ELN.  However, Colombia has been at war or seen violent societal conflict for most of the time since the late 1890s. Colombian peace processes and attempts at political, legal and land reform are a fixture of Colombian statecraft. The last round of peace talks with FARC ended with fiasco in 2002. From 2003 president Uribe engaged in a much-criticized effort to demobilize the paramilitary AUC, with a basis in the 2005 Justice and Peace Law. Despite its shortcomings, it must be remembered that this framework has provided a platform for the current process.

Continue reading

Defendant perpetrators and conflict-related sexual violence

As the International criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR, respectively) are concluding their mandates, the archives they leave behind comprise an unprecedented historical record about the war years, about the collective and individual harms suffered, and about the development of international criminal law. The tribunals’ legacies will be interpreted, negotiated, and renegotiated as more researchers dive into these materials. Undoubtedly, the archives will keep scholars from a wide array of disciplines busy for years and decades to come.

So what are we to make of these archives? What are they documenting? What are they leaving aside? What kind of historical record do they produce, and what is it that they establish? For whom? On what premises? What are the values of trial truths and the legal narratives they story?

In a recent article in the British Journal of Criminology I engage with these questions by focusing on a specific subset of cases at the trial end of these archives: cases brought to trial and ending in convictions of defendants for their direct participation in sexual violence.

Rather than analysing the production of jurisprudence before these courts, or the treatment of victims and victim witnesses, I ask how these direct perpetrators and the causes of their offenses are constructed within and by these institutions and its primary actors.

Emphasizing arguments that are interpretive or explanatory in terms of the defendants and their participation in sexual violence over those that are descriptive in terms of the offenses, there are two primary narratives in the court actors’ arguments. These explain the defendant either as someone whose personal characteristics and personality deviate from the norm, or they re-present the defendant as an ordinary man/woman, pointing to factors beyond the control of the defendant as explanations for his or her crimes.

Deviant defenders

So-called deviance narratives are either formulated by the prosecution, for which they constitute aggravating arguments. Here, the defendants are portrayed as sadistic opportunists who thrived on the opportunity to rape or sexually torture their victims. These narratives are often repeated in judgments, as in the case against Delić at the ICTY:

The manner in which these crimes were committed are indicative of a sadistic individual who, at times, displayed a total disregard for the sanctity of human life and dignity.

When defense counsels invoke deviance narratives, they do so for mitigating purposes. Thee narratives often involve partial acknowledgement of the crime, while also full or partial denials of responsibility. Typically they are based on the statements of psychiatric experts who account for the defendants’ dependent personalities and their extreme conformity, which in turn inevitably lead to criminal behavior if authority figures ask for it.

Continue reading

A Week of Firsts at the ICC

It has been a successful week for the International Criminal Court (ICC). On Monday 21 March 2016, Trial Chamber III convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo as military commander for rape, murder, and pillaging committed by troops under his command in the Central African Republic. Two days later, on 23 March, Pre-Trial Chamber II confirmed all 70 charges against Dominic Ongwen, committing him to trial. Then, on 24 March, Pre-Trial Chamber I issued the confirmation decision in the case against Ahmed Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the destruction of cultural property in Mali. All of these cases have set important precedents: it has been a Week of Firsts for the ICC.

Two firsts in the Al Mahdi case

  • The confirmation of a charge of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against ‘cultural property’ in Timbuktu (Mali) against Al Faqi Al Mahdi was the first such crime to be confirmed at the ICC.
  • His trial would have been the first regarding the destruction of cultural heritage. Would have been, because on 1 March, Al Mahdi indicated his wish to plead guilty. But that brings us to another first: his will be the first guilty plea at the ICC. If the Trial Chamber accepts his admission of guilt under article 65, the case will proceed to sentencing.

Three firsts in the Bemba case

  • Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo’s conviction of rape, murder, and pillage was the first time at the ICC that an accused person was convicted of sexual violence.
  • His conviction was also the first ever in international criminal law to classify rape of men specifically as sexual violence (as opposed to other inhumane acts or torture).
  • Bemba was tried and convicted as a military commander for crimes committed by troops under his command for his failure to prevent, repress or punish their commission. Another first!

Four firsts in the Ongwen case

  • Dominic Ongwen saw 70 charges confirmed against him, including various modes of liability. It is the first time an accused faces such a high number of charges at the ICC.
  • With 19 of the 70 charges relating to sexual and gender-based violence, it is also the first time an accused faces such a broad range of sexual and gender-based violence charges. He faces several charges of rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, forced marriage, torture, outrages upon personal dignity, and forced pregnancy.
  • Ongwen will be the first person ever in international criminal law to stand trial for forced pregnancy. Although forced impregnation as a strategy in war and conflict is not new, the ICC’s Rome Statute was the first to codify it as a specific crime.
  • Ongwen is also the first person at the ICC to face charges of forced marriage. While not a specific crime under the Rome Statute, the Chamber concurred with the Office of the Prosecutor that forced marriage constitutes an “other inhumane act” as a crime against humanity. The decision explores in some detail the elements of the crime of forced marriage, which for the Chamber revolves around forcing a person to serve as an exclusive conjugal partner. Importantly, the Chamber stressed that it is not predominantly a sexual crime. His trial will undoubtedly expand upon international criminal law’s understanding of this crime.

It has certainly been an exciting week for the ICC!

ICC issues landmark judgment: Bemba convicted as commander-in-chief for sexual violence crimes (Part 2/2)

Yesterday was a day of firsts for the International Criminal Court (ICC). Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo’s conviction is the ICC’s first for sexual violence (see part 1 of this post), including against men. And, not only that, it is the first conviction of a military commander for crimes committed by soldiers under his command – Bemba did not commit any of the crimes himself. Here are some highlights in relation to this second important issue.

First conviction for command responsibility

As I wrote earlier, Bemba stood trial (and was convicted) as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) for three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) and two crimes against humanity (murder, and rape) committed by MLC soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003. The MLC had entered the CAR to assist then CAR President Ange-Felix Patassé to suppress an attempted military coup. There, the MLC soldiers engaged in a campaign of pillage, murder, and rape against the civilian population. While he did not commit these crimes himself, Bemba stood trial because “he knew” that his troops were committing these crimes, and “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”. He is the first person to have been charged at the ICC with command responsibility under article 28 of the Rome Statute. The Trial Chamber included a detailed analysis of the applicable law under article 28, and of the evidence in relation to Bemba’s responsibility.

The Chamber found that Bemba was the MLC’s military and political leader from its creation throughout the entire period of the charges. He took the most important decisions, and held broad formal powers, including controlling the MLC’s funding and issuing operational orders to commanders in the field. The Chamber stressed: “the determination of whether a person has effective authority and control rests on that person’s material power to prevent or repress the commission of crimes or to submit the matter to a competent authority” (698). It found that Bemba maintained such primary disciplinary authority over his troops in the CAR, and that he was “both a person acting as military commander and had effective authority and control over the contingent of MLC troops in the CAR throughout the 2002-2003 CAR Operation” (705).

The Chamber also discussed a broad range of evidence proving Bemba’s knowledge of the commission of crimes by the MLC, including logbooks and intelligence reports, NGO publications and communications, and local and international media sources (706-718). Bemba was in regular communication with his commanders in the field, received updates on troop movements, politics, combat situation, and allegations of crimes, and at times specifically discussed these international reports with his commanders. As it was clearly established that Bemba knew crimes were being committed, the Chamber felt it was “not warranted” to make determinations on the “should have known” element of article 28(a).  Continue reading