Safeguarding women after disasters: some progress, but not enough

Hundreds of Mozambicans were killed and thousands made homelessrecently by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. Almost immediately, there were reports of a sadly familiar story: women being forced to trade sex for food by local community leaders distributing aid.

Globally, international organisations appear to be grappling with the issue more seriously than before. Yet reports about sexual exploitation keep coming. How does the aid community strategise to protect women’s safety in disaster situations?

Over the past 15 years, I have done research on sexual exploitation of displaced women in Uganda and Colombia. I have also worked with a variety of humanitarian organisations on accountability and legalisation. Through this, I have identified the factors necessary to bring justice to the victims of predatory aid workers.

Sexual exploitation must be recognised as a real and widespread problem. There must be staff and management accountability. Transgressions must be sanctioned through disciplinary or penal measures. But there are also major dilemmas that need to be understood and tackled by governments, agencies and, most importantly, local communities.

Sexual exploitation in aid

The sexual exploitation of disaster and conflict victims is a global – and longstanding – phenomenon. Over the last 25 years, there have been radical changes in the standards of global public morality around the conduct of personnel working for international organisations and NGOs when vulnerable adults and children are involved.

Nevertheless, the willingness to see sexual exploitation as an inherent feature of the international community’s intervention to bring development, humanitarian aid or peace has been much slower to evolve.

It was only 24 years ago that UNHCR issued guidelines on sexual violence and refugees that expressly mentioned international refugee workers as being implicated in sexual violence against refugees.

The sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls in several African countries by international aid workers was recently described as “endemic”. It was also noted that perpetrators easily moved around the sector undetected.

Several recent cases have been reported from Cote d’ivore, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

These have involved aid workers and peacekeepers, as well as local aid workers and government employees.

In my research on refugees, accusations concerning “sex for resettlement” registration surface regularly. I found these to be frequent while working on refugee resettlement in Kampala 15 years ago. Despite the UNHCR’s promise to reform, similar accusations keep resurfacing, most recently in Kenya. The time has come for the international community to seriously debate the power mechanisms embedded in the resettlement process that enable sexual exploitation to fester.

What will fix the problem?

The first step is to organise accountability.

Humanitarian accountability first emerged as a concern in the 1980s. It was institutionalised in the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief . The 1996 Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda was a defining moment.

That report resulted in several sector-wide initiatives. Five years ago efforts were made to streamline these in the revised Core Humanitarian Standards.

Throughout this period, sexual exploitation has been considered the worst possible behaviour humanitarian workers can be guilty of. But it has not been clear what constitutes exploitation and in which relationships it takes place. The lack of a definition, the unwillingness to articulate and enforce robust norms for professional behaviour and the absence of effective complaint mechanisms and protections for whistle-blowers have contributed to a culture of impunity for predatory behaviour against aid recipients.

Early policy responses to sexual exploitation were concerned with reputational issues. But over the past 15 years the humanitarian sector has seen a flurry of institutional initiatives to grapple with this specific issue. The effort to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse is led by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

The aid sector is now engaging in “safeguarding exercises”. These emerged after the Oxfam scandal in Haiti. The organisation was seen as failing to act on sexual misconduct by staff in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and then to have attempted a cover-up.

Safeguarding includes all actions by aid actors to protect staff from harm (abuse, sexual harassment and violence) and to ensure staff do not harm beneficiaries.

This broad definition represents both a welcome recognition of the scope of the problem and an opportunity for a comprehensive approach. But it also creates some new challenges. Three are particularly worth noting.

The challenges

Who gets a voice: There has been vocal concern about the lack of inclusiveness in how safeguarding is practised. Critics have noted that a safeguarding industry was hatched with little attention to local and national context or participation. There is a view that safeguarding is yet another Western-centric practice. I think this critique is true. But it also creates a dilemma: should global norms about sexual exploitation in international aid be up for local negotiation?

Regulation and criminalisation. In recent years, there have been calls to regulate foreign aid actors more robustly. This is understandable. Aid actors have operated with a great deal of license and even impunity under the humanitarian banner. But drawing up new laws also creates problems. This is particularly true in a context where African civil society generally is under pressure from new restrictive laws that curtail their activities.

Responding to the call to “do something”, the international community has embraced criminalisation and criminal prosecutions to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. But opting for criminal law and the courtroom rests on a deeply simplistic framing of structural power imbalances in aid. Legal strategies are costly and slow. The focus on sexual violence in disasters and conflicts also risks crowding out concern for other aspects of women’s lives.

Localisation: Since 2016 there has been a significant focus on the localisation of aid. The Charter for Change focuses on contracting, resource allocation, transparency and communication. It highlights the importance of not undermining local capacity. The process is generally painfully slow and a shockingly small percentage of international aid funding is actually allocated to local actors.

At the same time, there is a persistent call for international actors to do, control and know more about what goes on locally to limit corruption, incompetence and abuse. This call comes partly from media in donor states addressing taxpayers, but also from watchdogs within the sector.

This is also the case for sexual exploitation. In its report, Human Rights Watch demands that “international partners, particularly the UN, should ensure greater oversight of the conduct of local officials during the distribution of humanitarian aid”. This will not come for free.

The question is how a balance can be found between control and localisation – and who gets to determine what this balance should be.

This post was originally published at https://theconversation.com/safeguarding-women-after-disasters-some-progress-but-not-enough-116619. For an extended critical commentary on the rapid rise of the Safeguarding concept in the aid sector, see https://jhumanitarianaction.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41018-019-0051-1

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Children Born of Rape in Bemba: Can the ICC Close the Accountability Gap?

BembaChildren born of sexual and gender-based violence in situations of conflict and mass violence have, until recently, been neglected in international criminal law. These children exist in what the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict has previously termed an “accountability gap” as the “punishment against or redress by the perpetrator rarely includes reparations for the women who were victimized or the children who were born as a result of rape”.

Such children have, however, featured in recent cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC). For instance, in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, leader of the Congolese Movement of Liberation of the Congo (MLC), convicted in March 2016 of war crimes and crimes against humanity for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) between 2002 and 2003, unwanted pregnancies and the birth of children were identified during sentencing as a harm of rape. This case represents the first time the ICC will have the opportunity to provide reparations to victims of rape and a recent Expert Report on reparations suggested that children born of rape should be included within this process.

Children Born of Rape in Bemba

It is unclear how many children were born of rape as a result of Bemba’s MLC crimes. Expert testimony provided during the Trial, however, identified at least four women who suffered unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape, noting that:

One victim did accept the child as being her own, so took on, shouldered that. There was another one who didn’t want to have anything to do with the child she had given birth to, and there was a third one who had an abortion. Actually, she had to do this in hiding, and that meant that there were medical consequences to that abortion. And a fourth, well, we lost track of her. We do not know what the outcome in terms of this pregnancy was.

These children, who are about 13 years old now, are in a precarious situation in terms of their own identity and family relations, as explained by the mother of one of the children during the sentencing hearing:

She doesn’t know who her father is. She doesn’t know where he is. She has no news of him. And I wonder how things will develop. I ask God if I die, what will happen to that child? The three others which I had, I know that their father’s families are there, and if something happened to me, those children could go and live with the family of their father. But when it comes to this child, what will her fate be if anything happens to me? Continue reading

Yazidi Women and Girls’ Resistance Against Genocide, Enslavement and Sexual Violence: Report from the First International Yazidi Women’s Conference

Those awaiting help from others are condemned to disappear.” – International Yazidi Women’s Conference participant, quoting a proverb.

Last weekend, on March 11 & 12, 2017, I led a researcher and two students from the Benjamin B. Ferencz Human Rights and Atrocity Prevention Clinic to accompany Patricia Viseur Sellers, Special Adviser to the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to the first International Yazidi Women’s Conference in Bielefeld, Germany. Our Clinic has been working with Ms. Sellers for the past two years on criminal accountability for the gender dimension of atrocity crimes, especially as these crimes affect children, in several national and regional cases. Our collaboration currently is focused on the sexual enslavement and other gender-based crimes against the Yazidis.

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From left: Kerrijane John, Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum, Leyla Boran, Patricia Viseur Sellers, Alexandra Insinga and Samantha Hechler.

Days after International Women’s Day, the Yazidi Women’s Council, the Kurdish Women’s Peace Office (Cenî), and the Platform for Struggle for Women Held in Captivity gathered over 200 participants and prominent Yazidi organizations to denounce the atrocities—including, among others, the crimes of genocide, enslavement, rape, and torture—that have been and continue to be perpetrated against Yazidi women and girls. The attendees—all women—predominantly hailed from the Yazidi and Kurdish refugee and diaspora communities. After the German government did not grant several speakers visas to attend, they participated via Skype from Shengal (Sinjar) in Northern Iraq.

Experts from the legal, political, historical, medical and psychosocial fields contributed to the panel presentations, which centered on the concepts of genocide and femicide, enslavement, sexual violence, trauma, and resistance. Prominent Yazidi and Kurdish women’s human rights lawyers, including Leyla Boran and Faika Deniz Pasha, the first Turkish Kurdish woman parliamentarian, Feleknas Uca, and allies among women’s rights activists in Germany led the discussions, which included arguments supporting the link between genocide and femicide and the legal requirements of intent under international law. In addition, historians contextualized the current genocide against the Yazidis with previous genocides that have occurred against the group and in the region. Importantly, first-hand survivor accounts of genocide, sexual violence and enslavement bore witness to the crimes as well as to this community’s experience when ISIS invaded their homeland. The voices of the powerful speakers from Shengal also stressed the multiplicity of ways in which Yazidi women are organizing and resisting ongoing attacks on their people and homeland in northern Iraq. All the speakers stressed that they will take whatever steps are necessary to prevent the continued kidnapping, enslavement and sale of Yazidi girls and women.

Ms. Viseur Sellers keynoted the conference and provided the international human rights and criminal law frameworks to name the atrocities being committed against Yazidi women and girls by ISIS. Sellers explained the value in protecting group identities as well as preserving racial, religious, national, and ethnic differences. The international community’s prohibition against the intentional destruction of such groups under the Genocide Convention, she stated, was evidence of such values of diversity. In addition, Ms. Sellers detailed what the crimes of enslavement and slave trading are; she emphasized that these international crimes, along with genocide, are regarded the most heinous crimes under international law. She asserted that, undeniably, ISIS has and continues to perpetrate acts of genocide, enslavement and slave trading against Yazidi women and girls in violation of treaties and jus cogens norms. Sellers concluded by recognizing the intergenerational harms of genocide and enslavement while giving language, voice and operational tools to assist the Yazidi women and girls’ continuing struggle and resistance.

According to the Yazidi community, the August 2014 massacre in Shengal was the 74th recorded genocide against the religious minority group. The United Nations International Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, among others, has provided evidence and analysis of the crimes here. As the struggle for group survival continues, Yazidi women have organized themselves to resist multiple threats, including ISIS. Accountability for past, present and future crimes is recognized as a necessary component of justice for the Yazidis. The group’s concerns for survival, safety and return of thousands of their women and children held in captivity or forced to join ISIS forces, however, necessarily overshadowed these discussions.

What the future holds is unclear, especially given the military actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the implications of the military solution for the remaining estimated 3000 Yazidi women and girls in captivity—some already sold by ISIS to slave-holders outside the contested areas. What our team did find is the need for dialogue between international lawyers familiar with the issues and representatives of these communities to develop and refine creative, pragmatic and comprehensive legal strategies to open avenues of accountability and justice for the atrocity crimes committed in the past and still being perpetrated against Yazidi women and girls. The time to act is now. Our Clinic, in concert with Patti Sellers, will continue our work on these issues and would welcome the opportunity to coordinate with others in the IntLawGrrls network who are working on the Yazidi genocide or on the gender dimensions of these atrocity crimes.

 

A day to remember: Ongwen’s trial starts on 6 December

Tomorrow, 6 December, the trial against Dominic Ongwen will start before Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ongwen’s trial follows the ICC’s first conviction for rape this year, and presents a firm break with past setbacks in terms of accountability for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at the Court. It will be an important and interesting trial for many reasons, too numerous to address all of them here. Let me focus on a couple relating to the SGBV charges. They are addressed in detail in the Prosecution’s pre-trial brief (I highly recommend reading it in full!) and will no doubt feature prominently during the trial. References below are to paragraphs in the pre-trial brief.

Broadest range of SGBV charges

Dominic Ongwen is an alleged senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is charged with responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the LRA in various locations in Northern Uganda from at least 1 July 2002 to 31 December 2005. As I wrote earlier, he saw 70 charges confirmed against him, including for various modes of liability. It is the first time an accused faces such a high number of charges at the ICC. Many of these charges were added after the Office of the Prosecutor conducted additional investigations following Ongwen’s surrender to the ICC in January 2015. His 2005 arrest warrant contained only seven charges, none of which were for SGBV.

With now 19 of the 70 charges against him relating to SGBV, it is also the first time an accused faces such a broad range of SGBV charges at the ICC: they include several counts of rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, forced marriage, torture, outrages upon personal dignity, and forced pregnancy. Eleven of these 19 SGBV charges relate to crimes Ongwen personally committed as a direct perpetrator (again, a first at the ICC – all other individuals charged with SGBV were/are either charged as indirect (co)perpetrators or under the theory of command responsibility). The other SGBV charges relate to the LRA’s conduct more generally for which Ongwen is held responsible (in the alternative) as indirect co-perpetrator, for ordering, or under the theory of command responsibility.

Forced marriage

Ongwen is the first person at the ICC to face charges of forced marriage. While not a specific crime under the Rome Statute, forced marriage is charged as the crime against humanity of ‘other inhumane acts’. The Prosecution’s pre-trial brief describes an elaborate structure through which young girls abducted by the LRA were distributed among commanders to serve as ting-tings (if they were very young) and subsequently as forced wives (although many witnesses also described that girls could become wives at any age). Soldiers were given ‘wives’ by Ongwen as rewards for ‘work[ing] well in attacks and battle’ (131). Continue reading

Sexual and gender-based violence under the Geneva Conventions: A New Commentary

The 1949 Geneva Conventions, A Commentary (A. Clapham, P. Gaeta, M. Sassòli, Eds. OUP, October 2015), is a mammoth effort to update the interpretation of the Conventions to take account of the significant developments in international law, especially international human rights and international criminal law, since the ICRC published Jean Pictet’s edited commentaries* in the middle of last century.

As the editors point out, since Pictet’s commentaries were published the international legal landscape has dramatically shifted. For one thing, the 1949 Conventions have been universally ratified and their application interpreted in hundreds of cases. International human rights law (IHRL) has developed enormously since the 1960s and its intersection with IHL is more commonly acknowledged. Recently concluded human rights treaties expressly address their application to situations of armed conflict (e.g., Istanbul Convention on violence against women; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). International criminal law has become something of a growth industry since the 1990’s when the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) were established with jurisdiction over IHL violations.

Since Pictet’s day, the worldview of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and IHL has also radically changed. Due to the persistence of feminists over many decades, there is greater awareness of the prevalence of SGBV during armed conflict and a growing intolerance of it as an inevitable part of war. There have been numerous convictions for SGBV crimes as a violation of IHL (e.g., at ICTY, ICTR and ICC). In this context, SGBV has also evolved from its arcane conception in the Conventions as an attack against the honour of a female person, focussed on forced sexual intercourse, to encompass a wide range of acts against the sexual integrity of a person of any gender.

Patricia Viseur-Sellers and I wrote the chapter on protections from rape and other sexual violence and we start from the principle that humane treatment, the fundamental tenet of the Conventions regime, prohibits these acts against any person in every circumstance. We look in detail at Article 27, Fourth GC on civilians as the only article in the Conventions to refer expressly to sexual violence. It requires that female civilians “be protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, forced prostitution and indecent assault”.

None of these terms are defined in the Conventions. We examine each one drawing on a range of sources, including international jurisprudence where available (e.g., Nuremberg, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the ICTY and ICTR), the Rome Statute and Elements of Crimes of the ICC, as well as leading critical feminist analysis, especially the work of J. Gardam & M. Jarvis in Women, Armed Conflict and International Law (Kluwer, 2001).

Much of the discussion focuses on a critical assessment of the imprecise and out-dated approach in Article 27(2) that protects women from sexual assault as “attacks on their honour” rather than against their person and sexual integrity. We agree with Gardam and Jarvis that IHL is a “thoroughly gendered system” and that equating female honour with chastity and modesty mischaracterises sexualised violence and perpetuates the discriminatory gender stereotype which sees women’s honour as belonging to her family and community, especially its male members. We point out that it also perpetuates the myth that sexual violence, especially rape, can only be committed against females. Continue reading

Why we should be watching the ICC on 21 March

On 21 March 2016, Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) will deliver the trial judgment in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (Bemba). It will be an important day in the life of this now 14-year-old institution. If Bemba is convicted as charged, he will not only be the first military commander to be convicted for crimes committed by troops under his command, but it will be the first conviction at the ICC for sexual violence. Both issues have been the subject of fierce litigation.

Command responsibility

Bemba stood trial as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) for five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity 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 are alleged to have 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 or should have known” 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.

This mode of liability, however, was disputed. During the confirmation of charges hearing in 2009, the Prosecution originally submitted that Bemba was responsible as a co-perpetrator under article 25(3)(a). When the Pre-Trial Chamber, adjourning the confirmation hearing, indicated that the evidence appeared to suggest a different mode of liability, the Prosecution amended the charges, bringing both article 25(3)(a) and article 28 in the alternative. Amnesty International was subsequently accepted as amicus curiae on the issue of superior responsibility. The Pre-Trial Chamber eventually confirmed charges against Bemba under article 28, finding substantial grounds to believe that he “knew that MLC troops were committing or were about to commit crimes”.

In September 2012, the mode of liability was again the subject of discussion, this time following a Trial Chamber decision to use the controversial Regulation 55. Whereas the Pre-Trial Chamber had only confirmed charges on the basis that Bemba “knew” crimes were being committed, the Trial Chamber notified the parties and participants that it may consider the alternate form of knowledge, namely that “owing to the circumstances at the time, … [he] should have known that the forces … were committing or about to commit such crimes”. The Defence objected and sought leave to appeal, which the Trial Chamber rejected. After further back-and-forth between the Defence and the Chamber concerning the need for additional investigations, the Trial Chamber reiterated in a decision in 2013 that it had not yet made a “formal decision” on the recharacterisation. It reserved judgment on the matter for its article 74 decision. The question is thus likely to be addressed extensively in the upcoming trial judgment, and will hopefully provide important clarification on the responsibility of military commanders for the actions of their troops and for failures to prevent, repress or punish the commission of crimes.

Continue reading

Confirmation of charges hearing in Dominic Ongwen case: hopeful signs for gender justice?

From 21 to 27 January 2016, the confirmation of charges hearing in the Dominic Ongwen case was held at the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is an important case for many reasons, one of which is this post’s subject: the case includes a high number of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) charges, which, if confirmed, would be the broadest range of such crimes ever to come to trial at the ICC. It would certainly illustrate that the positive trend in this respect that started with the Ntaganda case continues, and would consolidate important case law on these crimes.

Dominic Ongwen, an alleged senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with responsibility for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the LRA in various locations in Northern Uganda from at least 1 July 2002 to 31 December 2005. Importantly, the charges include eight counts of SGBV: rape, torture, and sexual slavery as both war crimes and crimes against humanity, and forced marriage and enslavement as crimes against humanity. This makes it an important case for gender justice at the ICC. The case has the highest number of SGBV charges to date.

However, if the Court’s track-record for sexual violence charges is something to go by, we are in for a rainy day. With Ngudjolo’s acquittal in 2012, and Katanga’s partial conviction in 2014 excluding sexual violence crimes, there have thus far been no successful convictions for SGBV crimes at the ICC. This is a disappointing record for a Court that was heralded as a “model for gender justice” when its Statute entered into force.

With the Office of the Prosecutor’s (OTP) stated commitment to strengthen its investigation and prosecution of SGBV, however, there is hope that this case will be different. It follows in the footsteps of the Ntaganda case – the first case to reach the confirmation stage since Fatou Bensouda took office as Prosecutor; this was the first case in which all SGBV charges sought by the Prosecution at confirmation were confirmed. Further, in the Ntaganda case, the OTP is pushing the understandings of IHL protections around (sexual violence) crimes committed against one’s own troops. If successful, this would develop international law’s gendered understandings of child recruitment.

The Ongwen case may shed light on yet another relatively under-developed area of gender justice in international criminal law jurisprudence. It would be one of the few cases in international criminal justice to address the crime of forced marriage. While not included in the Rome Statute as a separate offence, the Prosecution has charged forced marriage as an inhumane act of similar character under Article 7(1)(k). The Prosecution alleges that the LRA pursued a policy of abducting women and young girls with the express aim of forcing them to act as wives of LRA commanders and fighters. While the OTP alleges that exclusive sexual services were an inherent part of being a forced wife, importantly, they argued that it also encompasses other, non-sexual, tasks such as household chores, cooking, and child rearing, i.e. raising new LRA fighters.  Continue reading