Zainab Bangura, 2014 Katherine B. Fite Lecture

I was honored last week to introduce this year’s Katherine B. Fite lecture at the annual IHL Dialogs hosted by the lovely Chautauqua Institution (the 2014 program is here). We’ve covered prior Dialogs on these pages (see here and here).  Fite (1905-1989) was a career State Department lawyer. Among her many achievements, she worked in London right after World War II on detail from the State Department, aiding Justice Robert H. Jackson and others in negotiating and drafting the Charter of the International Military Tribunal. She then decamped to Nuremberg where she helped prepare the case against the indicted organizations. The Jackson Center’s John Q. Barrett and IntLawGrrl founder Diane Marie Amann have written wonderful biographical notes about Fite. (Diane’s talk on Fite at a previous IHL Dialog is available here).  This lecture in Fite’s honor has become a featured event at the IHL Dialogs. In choosing each year’s Fite lecture recipient, a committee of contributors to IntLawGrrls strives to honor trail-blazing women who embody Fite’s spirit, commitment to justice, brilliance, and independence.  Prior recipients include Diane Amann, Leila Sadat, and Karima Bennoune.

This year’s Fite speaker, Ms. Zainab Bangura—the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, embodies Fite’s signature qualities.  (The full text of Bangura’s speech is available here).  Ms. Bangura grew up in the heartland of Sierra Leone, the child of a Muslim cleric and a mother who insisted that her daughter enjoy an education even though she herself could not read or write. Although she originally pursued a career in the insurance industry, the commencement of the war in Sierra Leone inspired her to focus on advocating for peace and democracy. SRSG Bangura thus began her career in public service as founder of

  • the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) and
  • the country’s first non-partisan women’s rights group: Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation (W.O.M.E.N.).

In 1996, the CGG helped to catalyze the first democratic elections in Sierra Leone after 25 years of single-party rule.

During the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002), Ms. Bangura spoke out against the atrocities being committed on all sides. For her acts of denunciation, she was directly threatened with rape and murder. But she refused to be intimidated. Following the war, Ms. Bangura became involved in efforts to prosecute sexual violence as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Given her long experience as a civil society and women’s rights activist, and over the objections of defense counsel, Ms. Bangura was certified by the SCSL as an expert on violence against women and was called to testify about the various manifestations of sexual violence in the armed conflict in Sierra Leone. She wrote a brilliant and sophisticated expert report, distinguishing between Continue reading

SRSG Bangura “Sexual Violence: A Crime of War”

Below is the full text of the lecture delivered by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Bangura, in honor of Katherine B. Fite delivered at the 2014 IHL Dialogs at the Chautauqua Institution (25 August 2014):

Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening and thank you very much for welcoming me here tonight. I am deeply gratified to be here with so many professionals who have dedicated their careers to helping survivors of atrocities, such as sexual violence, on their long road toward justice.

I am proud to address you this evening in the name of Katherine Fite. I am inspired by the depth of her courage and commitment to justice at the Nuremberg Tribunal. At a time when the world was reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, Fite gathered evidence and prepared arguments to help bring Nazi leaders to trial. The Nuremberg Trials, while controversial at the time, marked an important step in international law, and it is due in large part to Fite’s contribution – and in furtherance of her vision – that we are gathered here tonight.

The Nuremberg Trials symbolized a paradigm shift in how the world viewed, and punished, war crimes and crimes against humanity. They laid the foundations for a permanent International Criminal Court and set a powerful precedent for dealing with genocide and other crimes that shock the collective conscience.

The Nuremberg Tribunal attempted to address the horrors of the Holocaust, including crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Despite its historic achievements, we must acknowledge that the issue of sexual violence was sidelined. Given what we now know about the scale of rape and sexual slavery during the Second War World, it is a conspicuous and tragic absence.

After the Nuremberg Trials ended, many people wanted to believe that justice had been delivered. They wanted to believe that at last, the victims of the Holocaust were named and counted. They wanted to focus on reconstruction efforts and reestablish a sense of normalcy. In addition, the perception that rape was a “private” matter and a second-class crime committed primarily against second-class citizens, namely women and girls, meant that it was easily overshadowed by other horrors of the war. As a result, survivors of sexual violence who tried to tell their stories were met largely with war weariness and indifference.

Then in 2000, researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began documenting all of the ghettos, slave labor camps, concentration camps and killing centers operated by the Nazis. In 2013, they released findings that shocked Holocaust scholars, as well as the global community.

Based on post-war estimates, the researchers expected to find about 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, but the numbers kept climbing until the researchers identified some 42,500 sites, including at least 500 brothels where women were held as sex slaves. They also uncovered thousands of sites where pregnant women were routinely forced to undergo abortions, or their children were killed after birth.

What obscured these shocking crimes? Continue reading

G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict

Foreign Ministers at UK G8 Meeting April 2013, credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Foreign Ministers at UK G8 Meeting April 2013, credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

On April 11, 2013, G8 Foreign Ministers adopted a five page Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Declaration begins with the observation that:

Sexual violence in armed conflict represents one of the most serious forms of violation or abuse of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Preventing sexual violence in armed conflict is therefore both a matter of upholding universal human rights and of maintaining international security, in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 1820. Ministers emphasised that more must be done to address these ongoing crimes, including by challenging the myths that sexual violence in armed conflict is a cultural phenomenon or an inevitable consequence of war or a lesser crime.

The Declaration addresses sexual violence in armed conflict directed not only at women and girls, but also at men and boys, including those secondarily traumatized as forced witnesses of sexual violence against family members (para. 3).

The first part of the Declaration focuses on international law and its normative frameworks:

  • recognizing that sexual violence in armed conflict “can be a constitutive act with respect to genocide”, a crime against humanity and a war crime (para. 2);
  • expressing full support for the work of the UN in addressing sexual violence in armed conflict, particularly that of UN Women (para. 2);
  • reiterating that ending sexual violence in conflict is interlinked with promoting and protecting women’s and children’s full human rights and fundamental freedoms, including promoting “women’s active and equal political, social and economic participation including in all conflict prevention, conflict resolution, transitional justice and security sector reform processes” (para. 3); and
  • recalling that “rape and other forms of serious sexual violence in armed conflict are war crimes and also constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and their first Protocol” and that “those accused of grave breaches should be brought to trial, in a manner consistent with international norms.” (para. 4).

The Declaration then turns to action items, proposing the creation of an International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict – a set of standard guidelines to be followed by all those responding during or after an armed conflict, so as to avoid multiple actors weakening or destroying evidence of, or information on, sexual violence (para. 6). This is certainly notable, as it could be of assistance not only to international and national criminal investigators, but also to international commissions of inquiry, UN Special Rapporteurs, UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations. 

G8 Ministers also:

  • committed to supporting conflict-affected countries in developing and implement country-level action plans to protect human rights defenders (para. 7);
  • called on the international community, including the G8, to mobilize funding for health, psychosocial, legal and economic support including to the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims (para. 8); and
  • agreed that peace negotiations and ceasefires which are supported by G8 members should include the participation of women and that crimes of sexual violence in armed conflict should be excluded from amnesty provisions (para. 10).
  • committed to supporting the deployment of international experts at the request of host governments, the UN and international organizations “to build national judicial, criminal investigative and legal capacity to increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice” (para. 10). The UK has already begun this, through the creation of a national roster of experts as part of its Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.  

Finally, the Declaration recognizes that a cooperative approach to addressing sexual violence in armed conflict may not be considered a priority in the face of other pressing security and conflict concerns but it would clearly have greater impact (para. 13). Thus, the Ministers reaffirmed their support for various UN efforts and initiatives (paras. 13 and 14) and ended by recognizing the need for a considered review of the Declaration’s commitments (para. 15).

The adoption of the Declaration resulted in some associated announcements. For example, the United States announced that it is committing $10 million, and Canada announced that it is contributing $5 million, to support new and ongoing efforts that align with the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.

All of these commitments are to be welcomed, especially if they truly strengthen existing United Nations and other efforts to address sexual violence in conflict. The test will be, of course, whether these G8 commitments are realized – and, if they are, whether they are they realized in a fundamentally useful manner.