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

Malian suspect at ICC: New opportunity for accountability for sexual crimes

After Jean-Pierre Bemba’s conviction was overturned, the new Malian case at the ICC offers an opportunity to successfully convict a suspect for sexual crimes. Focusing on a gender analysis of crimes will be essential, as gender was at the center of armed groups’ strategy.

Few women in northern Mali believed that this day would come.  One of the chiefs of the Islamic police of Timbuktu during the jihadist groups take over of the north of the country in 2012-2013 appeared before the ICC last April. The prosecution alleges that Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud is responsible for rape and sexual slavery, torture, persecution, outrages upon personal dignity, passing of unlawful sentences, and attacking religious and historical buildings.

If the charges of rape and sexual slavery are upheld after the confirmation of charges hearing planned in the fall, it will be a not-to-be-missed opportunity to secure a conviction for sexual crimes as well as to focus on the gender dimension of some international crimes. Gender was indeed at the center of the Islamist militants’ strategy to secure their grip on Timbuktu and to subjugate its inhabitants. Meanwhile, it is the first time that a suspect is appearing before the Court on the charges of persecution on gender grounds.

In the sixteen years it has been operating, the ICC has deplorably failed to convict a single accused for sexual violence. In a recent setback earlier this month, the Court acquitted the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including rape.  In two other previous instances, accused were also acquitted.

Yet, in 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor committed to better integrate a gender perspective in all its work and to improve prosecution of sexual violence.  The Al Hassane case and the context in which crimes were committed in Timbuktu offer an opportunity to demonstrate this commitment.

Al Hassan was a member of Ansar Eddine, an Islamist group seeking to impose Islamic law across the country. Alongside Tuareg rebels and other jihadist groups including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, they launched an offensive on northern Mali and took control of Timbutku between April 2012 and January 2013.

During this period, Islamist armed groups imposed a strict application of Sharia law. Men and women were not allowed to talk to each other outside of their families, music was forbidden, and shopkeepers were arrested and tortured for possessing tobacco. Jihadists imposed cruel punishments including public flogging and amputation. While these practices and destruction of mausoleums have caught the world’s attention, sexual crimes have been kept secret because of the stigma and the cultural taboo attached to them.

Women of Timbuktu were sexually harassed, forcibly married and raped. Women who were not fully covered were commonly harassed and beaten on the street by members of the Islamic Police or the so-called morality police, the Hisbah. They chased and arrested people considered not in compliance with Sharia law. During their detention at the police station, women were routinely tortured, sexually abused and in some cases raped.  Armed men controlling the city also kidnapped women after allegedly “marrying” them, detained them in their homes or abandoned houses to rape them repeatedly, and sometimes gang raped them.

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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!