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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ICC extends War Crimes of Rape and Sexual Slavery to Victims from Same Armed Forces as Perpetrator

Readers of this blog will be interested in an important decision issued by Trial Chamber VI of the ICC in the case of Ntaganda yesterday. At issue was the Defence’s argument that the Court could not have jurisdiction over the crimes of rape and sexual slavery allegedly committed against UPC/FPLC child soldiers, because war crimes cannot be committed against combatants from the same armed forces as the perpetrator. Such crimes, the Defence argued, would come within the ambit of domestic law and human rights, and were not covered by the war crimes prohibition.

Initial appearance of Bosco Ntaganda, 26 March 2013

Bosco Ntaganda. Picture credit.

The argument, on its face, is rather convincing – the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols explicitly protect certain categories of persons, principally sick, wounded and shipwrecked persons not taking part in hostilities, prisoners of war and other detainees, civilians and civilian objects. Ntaganda is charged with these crimes under Article 8(2)(e)(vi) of the ICC Statute, which defines the war crime as:

Committing rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, as defined in article 7, paragraph 2 (f), enforced sterilization, and any other form of sexual violence also constituting a serious violation of article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions;

The chapeau of Article 8(2)(e) enumerates the crimes therein as being ‘other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts not of an international character, within the established framework of international law’. It stands to reason, then, that we would examine that established international law framework in seeking to determine whether fellow combatants from the same armed forces as the perpetrator are protected by that framework.

Common Article 3 refers explicitly to ‘persons taking no active part in hostilities’, while Article 4 of Additional Protocol II (which contains the prohibition on outrages upon personal dignity, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault) applies only to those ‘persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities, whether or not their liberty has been restricted’.

The most obvious way to resolve this issue would seem to be to acknowledge that Article 8(2)(c) and (e) crimes cannot be committed against those actively taking part in hostilities, but to argue that those victims identified in paragraphs 66-72 of the Confirmation Decision as having been abducted to act as domestic servants and, in the words of one witness, provide ‘combined cooking and love services’ were obviously not actively taking part in hostilities.

Yet, other victims mentioned in the Confirmation Decision acted as bodyguards, while other young girls abducted by the UPC/FPLC and later raped by soldiers in camps underwent military training, from which we can assume that they probably carried out some military functions. The issue here is that the Trial Chamber in Lubanga embraced a much broader definition of ‘active participation in hostilities’, in order to include a wide range of children who were forcibly recruited as victims under Article 8(2)(e)(vii). It determined, in paragraph 628, that:

Those who participate actively in hostilities include a wide range of individuals, from those on the front line (who participate directly) through to the boys or girls who are involved in a myriad of roles that support the combatants.

At the time of the Lubanga judgment, several authors noted that this expansive definition may have unintended negative consequences for the protection of children in armed conflict. For example, Nicole Urban argued that, ‘Should the sexual exploitation of and violence against child soldiers render them ‘active’ participants in hostilities under one Article, there is a real risk that they will also be considered as active participants in hostilities under the others.’ In a sense, the chickens have now come home to roost, as the Court in Ntaganda has to marry that interpretation, which seeks to protect child soldiers as victims of forcible recruitment, with an interpretation that includes them within the ambit of Article 8(2)(e) when they become victims of other war crimes.

The Pre-Trial Chamber took the position that individuals only lose their protection ‘for such time’ as they are actively participating in hostilities, and that those who were raped and subjected to sexual violence were clearly not participating in hostilities at that time. This interpretation is somewhat problematic, as it sidesteps the situation of those members of the armed groups who bear a ‘continuous combat function‘.

Trial Chamber VI in yesterday’s decision took a rather different approach, by determining that:

While most of the express prohibitions of rape and sexual slavery under international humanitarian law appear in contexts protecting civilians and persons hors de combat in the power of a party to the conflict, the Chamber does not consider those explicit protections to exhaustively define, or indeed limit, the scope of the protection against such conduct. (para. 47)

It went on to conclude that, because the prohibition of rape had attained jus cogens status under international law (para. 51), ‘such conduct is prohibited at all times, both in times of peace and during armed conflicts, and against all persons, irrespective of any legal status’, and that it did not, therefore, need to determine whether the victims were ‘members’ of the armed forces at the relevant time (paras. 52-53).

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 Judge Kuniko Ozaki, one of the three Trial Chamber judges. Picture credit.

 

This decision neatly sidesteps the issues surrounding the notion of active participation in hostilities raised by the Lubanga judgment. Yet, the conclusion that members of the same armed force are not per se excluded as potential victims of war crimes is a very expansive interpretation of Article 8, and one that is not fully reasoned in the judgment. The decision appears to be founded on two separate aspects.

The first is that not all war crimes need to be committed against protected persons (para. 37). The Chamber referenced a number of sub-paragraphs of Article 8(2)(e) in this regard, namely Articles 8(2)(e)(ix) and (x) on perfidy and denying that no quarter will be given, in support of this argument. This is not entirely convincing, as Article 8(2)(e)(ix) explicitly refers to killing or wounding ‘a combatant adversary’ treacherously. Article 8(2)(e)(x), prohibiting a declaration that no quarter will be given, is explicitly prohibited because it would result in the killing of persons hors de combat.

The second justification for the decision appears to be the widespread prohibition of rape and sexual violence under international humanitarian law. The Chamber considered that to limit the protection against rape to exclude members of the same armed group would be ‘contrary to the rationale of international humanitarian law, which aims to mitigate the suffering resulting from armed conflict, without banning belligerents from using armed force against each other or undermining their ability to carry out effective military operations.’ Given that there could be no military objective or justification to engage in sexual violence against any person, regardless of whether or not that person was a legitimate target under the law of armed conflict, the Chamber considered that the prohibition of sexual violence under International Humanitarian Law was not limited to certain categories of persons, and that anyone could be a victim of this war crime. This justification is more convincing, but leaves many questions unanswered, as it seems to be limited to the prohibition of rape (which the Chamber considered to be a jus cogens norm of international law). We might ask, for example, whether armed forces who commit acts of humiliating or degrading treatment against their own members, or who deny those members a fair trial, may now find that they are committing war crimes under Article 8 of the ICC Statute.

This decision is clearly founded in a desire to offer the greatest level of protection to victims of sexual violence in armed conflict, regardless of their status. A similar argument was made in the ICRC’s updated commentary to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which stated that ‘all Parties to the conflict should, as a minimum, grant humane treatment to their own armed forces based on Common Article 3.’

It will certainly be interesting to see what states’ reactions to this expansive interpretation, and what the broader consequences of this decision, will be.

(Cross-posted from PhD Studies in Human Rights)

Time to rethink the women, peace and security agenda?

On June 24th 2013 the Security Council, under the Presidency of the United Kingdom, issued its sixth Agota Sjostromresolution on women, peace and security, Resolution 2106. Although under the rubric of women, peace and security, the new resolution focuses on measures to prevent and deter sexual violence in armed conflict. In continuing the focus on sexual violence the resolution takes us full circle from the first resolution on women, peace and security, Resolution 1325, which incorporated the Council’s response to sexual violence within armed conflict as an element of a broader approach. The new resolution, in contrast, places sexual violence as the primary concern and then incorporates additional issues relating to women, peace and security only as elements of responding to combating sexual violence– including HIV, sexual and reproductive health, women’s participation, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration processes.

While deploring the violence and suffering men and women experience as victims of conflict, including sexual violence, I wish to challenge the disproportionate attention to sexual violence as the epitome of women’s experiences of armed conflict. The failure of this approach to see or hear women as actors across the spectrum of conflict experiences reinforces women as represented through victimhood, vulnerability and childhood. Although Resolution 2106 acknowledges men and women as victims of sexual violence in armed conflict (in paragraph 6 of the preamble) the operative paragraphs fall back into the use of ‘women and children’ terminology risking not only the erasure of the experiences of male survivors but also re-asserting an equivalence between women and children in conflict situations that is ultimately harmful to women. Continue reading