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