Sexual violence in Syria: acting on what we know

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The Syrian people were late in joining the Arab Spring and within months after they did civil unrest descended into war. As the years go by, the range of atrocities committed in Syria appears to defy those covered by international law. There are arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in detention, and use of civilians as hostages. The most reported incidents are use of chemical and explosive weapons in civilian areas, starvation of besieged populations and the targeting of hospitals, schools and markets to force surrender.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in comparison the use of sexual and gender-based violence has received little attention. This is in part because of the inherent difficulties in documenting sexual violence – chief among them is under- and delayed reporting due to reluctance of survivors to share experiences that could lead to rejection by their families and communities. It is also because other tactics of war, like aerial and ground bombardments, are more lastingly visible and more easily documented for that reason. By and large, documentation of sexual violence, in any context, relies on victim and witness testimony. Bombardments, on the other hand, are documented using supporting material such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery that corroborates witnesses’ accounts. Crucially, witnesses of bombardments can speak without fear of stigma or feelings of shame.

Challenges in documenting sexual violence explain why it has taken so long for comprehensive overviews of the situation on the ground to become public. While as early as September 2011 reports emerged of Syrian Government forces committing sexual violence during home raids, it is only in the last year that in-depth accounts on the extent and use of sexual violence in Syria were published. In 2017, investigative journalist Marie Forestier published a report on rape as a tactic of war by the Assad regime. On the occasion of the seventh year of the uprising, the Syria Commission of Inquiry published a report covering sexual and gender-based violence by a number of perpetrators, including detailed violations by Government forces and associated militias.

Together, these reports document the use of sexual violence since the 2011 demonstrations up to last year. They show that the use of sexual violence has changed – but not stopped – throughout the conflict. Initially, Government forces conducted mass arrests of demonstrators and their supporters in their homes and at checkpoints. Most of those arrested were men and boys. When the wanted males were not found, women and girls were arrested to pressure their male relatives to surrender. Female protestors and activists were also arrested. Sexual violence occurred from the moment of arrest and throughout detention. In Government detention facilities, women and men were raped to force confessions and to provide information, with men most commonly raped with objects. Some women were gang raped, others were raped repeatedly by different officers. On occasion, senior officers raped detainees and in other instances gave permission for their subordinates to do so. There is no reported instance of officers being disciplined for their acts. Continue reading

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Award-winning Akayesu documentary to be screened at ASIL Annual Meeting

“The Uncondemned”, an award winning documentary about the first prosecution of rape as a war crime, will be screened at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law on Friday, April 14 at 7:30pm in the Regency Ballroom A of the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington, D.C. The world premiere of the film occurred at the United Nations in October.

Several of the lawyers whose work on the case is featured in the documentary will be in attendance for the screening, including Patricia Sellers, then Gender Officer for ICTR and ICTFY, Pierre-Richard Prosper, lead trial attorney in the Akayesu case, and Lisa R. Pruitt, then gender consultant to ICTR. Executive Director Michele Mitchell will also be present for Q&A after the film.

“The Uncondemned” tells the story of the case against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba commune. Akayesu was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 1997. While rape has been “on the books” as a war crime for nearly a century, it had never been prosecuted until this case. The film follows the lawyers and activists working to investigate, indict and convict Akayesu, not only on the basis of killings but also sexual assaults. The even more compelling story of the Rwandan witnesses is a focus of the film as well. Despite being initially skeptical of the United Nations and ICTR, these witnesses ended up coming forward to testify about the atrocities they saw and experienced during the genocide.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan observation that “The Uncondemned” is “the story of how history is made in small, at times uncertain, steps” is exemplified by the sexual assault charges eventually brought against Akayesu. Originally, the indictment included only charges based on killing, despite the documentation of sexual assaults by human rights NGOs. During the case, however, evidence of sexual assaults surfaced, leading to suspension of the trial until the matter could be investigated further. In the end, the indictment was amended and Akayesue was convicted not only of killings but also in connection to sexual assaults.

As a UC Davis law student interested in international human rights, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of this inspiring film at my law school a few months ago. As an aspiring lawyer, I found the documentary inspiring and uplifting. Documentaries about the Rwandan genocide tend to be uninspiring and focused on the lack of intervention of the international community. However, “The Uncondemned” tells a different story. It illustrates the extraordinary resilience of and solidarity among the Taba women who witnessed and experienced genocidal atrocities. A New York Times reviewer felt the same about the film, writing that the “most extraordinary are the interviews with the women…their integrity and tenacity, and their loyalty to one another are enough to bring you to tears.”

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Read On! ‘Human Security and Human Rights under International Law: The Protections Offered to Persons Confronting Structural Vulnerability’

I am thrilled to post for the first time in IntLawGrrls and to share the publication of my book Human Security and Human Rights under International Law: The Protections Offered to Persons Confronting Structural Vulnerability (Hart Publishing, 2016).

This book considers the potential of human security as a protective tool within the international law of human rights. Indeed, it seems surprising given the centrality of human security to the human experience, that its connection with human rights had not yet been explored in a truly systematic way. The book attempts to address that gap in the literature and sustains that the human rights of persons, particularly those facing structural vulnerability, can be addressed more adequately if studied through the complementary lens of human security and not under human rights law alone. It takes both a legal and interdisciplinary approach, recognizing that human security and its relationship with human rights cuts across disciplinary boundaries.

Human security with its axis of freedom from fear, from want and from indignity, can more integrally encompass the inter-connected risks faced by individuals and groups in vulnerable conditions. At the same time, human rights law provides the normative legal grounding usually lacking in human security. International human rights norms, individualistic in nature and firstly enacted more than sixty years ago, present limits which translate into lack of protection for people globally. As a result, the collective and contextual conditions undergone by persons can be better met through the broader and more recent notion of human security, which emphasizes ‘critical (severe) and pervasive (widespread) threats’, and accentuates socioeconomic vulnerabilities as authentic security concerns. Indeed, as signaled by Sadako Ogata, human security is ‘the emerging paradigm for understanding global vulnerabilities’.

The analysis follows a two-part approach. Firstly, it evaluates convergences between human security and all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural –and constructs a general framework for thought and action, the ‘human security – human rights synergy’. Secondly, it goes on to explore the practical application of this framework in the law and case-law of UN, European, Inter-American and African human rights bodies in the thematic cores of 1) violence against women and girls (VAW); 2) undocumented migrants and other non-citizens such as asylum-seekers and refugees; converging in 3) a particular examination of the conditions of female undocumented migrants. In the last chapter, the book systematizes this evidence to reveal and propose added values of human security to human rights law; and inversely, it indicates how human rights standards/indicators can deliver a needed more precise, normatively grounded and operational conception of human security.

These ‘interpretative synergies’ offer promise for shifting the boundaries of international human rights law: in constructing integrative approaches to fill legal gaps, better prevention and addressing protectively collective threats, and –in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights- creating an ‘enabling environment’ to fulfil all human rights, especially for those not only confronting isolated moments of risk or individual human rights violations, but rather conditions of structural vulnerability affecting their everyday lives. Continue reading

Work On! Director of Programs (TCC / NGO), Human Rights Program, The Carter Center

Job Description

Summary: 
The Director is responsible for designing and implementing activities related to the human rights portfolio, through high-level contacts with representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations and international organizations, including the United Nations. The Director, in collaboration with the Senior Policy Advisor on Human Rights and Special Representative on Women and Girls (SPA/SR) and other responsible Carter Center staff, will be relied upon for in-depth analysis of international issues that impact on international and national human rights protection systems in order to guide the Center’s strategic direction and corresponding programs on human rights issues, including issues related to women and gender. The Director, Human Rights reports to the Vice President, Peace Programs.

The position will be responsible to strengthen, in consultation with other experts in the international human rights field and in collaboration with peace and health practitioners, the Center’s policy and agenda for the advancement and protection of human rights activities. The Director must maintain a contemporary understanding of the most pressing issues and be able to mobilize actions that are appropriate for immediate, medium, and long-term strategies. Additionally, drawing on the advice of the SPA/SR, the Director will be expected to reinforce the Center’s engagement on women’s rights issues.

The Director has the responsibility for managing the day-to-day staffing, operations, budgets, planning group meetings, annual conferences and related travel and activities associated with the Human Rights Program. Tasks include project development, implementation and management, proposal development, budget planning and tracking, project promotion, report production, and networking. The Director will liaise and collaborate closely with the SPA/SR as well as with the Design, Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor. The Director will supervise program staff, interns, and volunteers as needed.

Minimum Qualifications: The Director must be well accomplished in the field of international human rights.  Juris Doctor or Master’s degree in a relevant field and a minimum of ten years of program related experience in the field of international human rights are required.  The individual must have well-established relationships with high-level representatives of the U.S. and foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations, especially the United Nations, and international and local human rights defender non-governmental organizations. Proven strong leadership and management skills, including solid program design and strategy development experience, supervision of staff, budget management, as well as solid understanding of program resource needs for effective monitoring and evaluation is essential. S/He must demonstrate effective verbal and written communication skills, and familiarity with new communication technologies and social media. Fluency in English and one other U.N. language, preferably French as well as extensive international Human Rights experience in one or more developing countries is preferred. 

Interested? Apply here:  https://sjobs.brassring.com/TGnewUI/Search/Home/Home?partnerid=25066&siteid=5043

Work On! UN Peacekeeping recruiting senior women

We are actively looking for qualified senior women to join our staff.

(UN Photo/Fardin Waezi) UNAMA’s human rights chief, Georgette Gagnon, takes questions from the media in Afghanistan.

United Nations Peacekeeping is actively looking for “qualified senior women” to join their staff:

We are looking for senior qualified women with proven leadership skills, integrity, and commitment to the ideals of the UN Charter to create a ‘talent pipeline’ of Directors in UN Peacekeeping and Special Political Missions.

We seek seasoned managers who have worked in the areas of conflict management, governance, political analysis, media/strategic communication, law, amongst others, to compete for senior positions in our field missions. These roles are mostly at non-duty family stations in conflict or post conflict settings, at the D-1 and D-2 levels in the areas of:

  • Political/Civil Affairs
  • Public Information and Communication
  • Rule of Law and Security Institutions

Who is eligible?

Women with an advanced level university degree, with at least 15 years of relevant professional work experience in one of the areas listed above, and fluent in English and/or French and Arabic. French and Arabic speakers are highly sought because many of our field missions are in countries where these are the primary working languages. You do not need to have prior UN experience. We have asked Member States to help us identify women with the above eligibility criteria for the talent pipeline. Women staff members at the P-5 level and above in the Secretariat and the United Nations agencies, funds and programmes, as well as women in our partner intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations are also welcome to express their interest directly. This initiative is part of the Secretary-General’s effort to improve the representation and retention of women in the UN system.

Why would I want to join this initiative?

Members of the talent pipeline will benefit from regular updates on field mission vacancies for which they are qualified, as well as guidance on the application and assessment process. Note that being a member does not constitute an automatic offer to a post, and all members of the talent pipeline would apply to specific openings via the UN Careers website.

How do I express my interest?

Referrals or applications to the talent pipeline should include a cover letter and a curriculum vitae (or PHP) and be emailed to the Recruitment Section, Field Personnel Division, Department of Field Support, at TalentPipeline@un.org.

Increased prospects for Transitional Justice after the political transition in Sri Lanka?

Since the end of the Sri Lankan armed conflict in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were destroyed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009, Sri Lanka was the archetype of a hard case for Transitional Justice. The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted a completely intransigent posture by failing to credibly investigate the past. Instead, it set up flawed mechanisms resembling truth commissions in an attempt to ease international pressure on accountability. Unsurprisingly, these commissions largely exonerated the government of any systematic wrongdoing. In addition, the government brutally suppressed dissent, presided over the persecution of the Tamil and Muslim minorities and attacked local human rights activists who cooperated with UN mechanisms.

In this context, human rights campaigners within the country turned to the international community. In 2010, the UN Secretary General mandated a Panel of Experts (POE) to advise him on accountability in Sri Lanka. The Panel looked into allegations of international law levelled against both sides during the final phases of the armed conflict and found credible allegations of a wide range of violations of human rights and humanitarian law by both sides, some of which amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid growing calls for further international action, the UN Human Rights Council took the significant step in Mach 2014 of mandating an OHCHR investigation into these violations. Despite these developments, prospects for international justice for human rights abuses and related crimes that took place during the war remained slim. Indeed, China and Russia’s strong support for the Rajapaksa regime appeared to preclude the prospect of a referral by the UN Security Council to the Prosecutor of the ICC. Even at the UN Human Rights Council which mandated the ongoing investigation, there was only limited support for decisive international action on Sri Lanka.

On January 8, against all odds, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated by his former Minister of Health Maithipala Sirisena, who managed to rally a wide array of political parties around the defense of rule of law, transparency and democratic values. However, no consensus on post-war justice was found within this broad ad hoc alliance. While there is enthusiastic support for robust international action on accountability within the minority Tamil community which bore the brunt of the war, representatives of the majority Sinhalese community—about 80 percent of the country’s population—are mostly opposed to international trials. This explains why Sirisena—who needed a substantial if not majority share of the Sinhalese vote to secure victory at the presidential elections—vowed to protect all citizens from international tribunals. Nevertheless, during the campaign, the Sirisena camp indicated that issues of accountability for alleged war crimes will be dealt with domestically and hinted vaguely at the need for truth commissions, apologies and forgiveness.

Continue reading

Go On! Sept. 18 New York Symposium on Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities to feature distinguished speakers

New York Symposium on the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities

This Thursday, the Raoul Wallenberg Legacy of Leadership Project, an initiative of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, will present a panel of distinguished keynote speakers in partnership with the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Program at the Cardozo School of Law, the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and the Swedish Consulate in New York.

Speakers: Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General

Luis Moreno Ocampo, First Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Irwin Cotler, Canadian Member of Parliament and former Minister of Justice

The event “will celebrate the life and legacy of a man who faced evil with courage and who carried out true acts of heroism.” An honorary citizen of the United States, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is renowned worldwide for his successful efforts to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazi persecution during the Second World War and was posthumously awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2014.

This symposium is part of a series of public events taking place this fall in New York, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, through which The Raoul Wallenberg Legacy of Leadership Project aims to increase awareness of Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy and its importance for contemporary mass atrocity prevention, echoing the indispensable message that every individual can make a difference in standing up against mass atrocities.

Date: September 18, 2014

Time: 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Location: Moot Court Room, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, 55 5th Ave New York, NY 10003

For more information, and to register, visit http://www.raoulwallenberglegacy.org.