International Justice

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Tag Archives: sexual violence

Central African Republic: Muslims Held Captive and the Potential for ICC/National Intervention

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch reported that anti-balaka fighters in the CAR have taken at least 42 Muslim Peuhl herders captive. Most of the captives are women and young girls, whom HRW urges may sCARuffer from sexual violence if the UN peacekeepers and CAR government do not act immediately to get them out.

In early 2013, Muslim Seleka rebels took over power in the CAR in a campaign of mass civilian killings and destruction of homes. By mid-2013, groups self-proclaimed as the anti-balaka came together to fight the Seleka in a huge reprisal campaign in which they attacked Muslim civilians, among those Peuhl herders. The conflict has killed thousands of civilians while also displacing hundreds of others. This conflict is ongoing between anti-balaka, Seleka, and international forces via UN peacekeepers and French troops.

In December of last year, HRW reported that a group of Peuhl had been held captive in Pondo by the anti-balaka. Though some survivors have been released thanks to intervention by local authorities and UN peacekeepers, these survivors and other witnesses insist that other Peuhl are being held captive in other towns and villages in the country. Allegedly, 30 are currently held captive in Lambi, 11 are in Ngbaina, and 1 is in Betefio. Others have been reported to be held in Gadzi and Gaga. Many have been held for more than a year.

HRW insists that holding civilians in captivity, murdering children, and sexually enslaving women and young girls constitute serious war crimes. And while something certainly needs to be done to deal with these atrocities, it is unlikely that the bulk of this action will come from CAR itself. This ongoing conflict, compounded by a lack of resources and legal expertise, has essentially left CAR’s national justice system unable to handle such serious international crimes.

An international solution, however, may be in the works. In September, the CAR referred the conflict to the ICC, prompting the chief prosecutor to open a second investigation in the CAR for crimes committed since January 2002. Yet, this does not mean that resolving the conflict will be totally left up to the international sphere.

In what I believe to be important steps for CAR’s own national legal capacity-building, the National Transition Council, which is CAR’s interim parliament, has been discussing the possibility of creating a Special Criminal Court. This court would be within the national judicial system and would include both national and international judges and staff. Essentially, the court would act as a complement to the ICC and would try those responsible for serious crimes, with a specific focus on sexual violence and crimes against children.

The potential for this Special Criminal Court to deliver justice to perpetrators in the CAR in a way that is more connected to the locale is large in my opinion. Undoubtedly, it would have been very easy to admit that the national judiciary was in no condition to handle such grave international crimes, instead simply handing over the responsibility to the ICC to prosecute. Yet, in doing so there would have been a lost opportunity for national capacity building. What would CAR have gained from outsourcing justice to the ICC without making its own attempts at strengthening its judicial system? Undoubtedly, it is encouraging to see the CAR making strides to take responsibility and shoulder at least part of the responsibility for prosecutions. Not only does this have positive implications for the nation’s future capacity to handle prosecution of serious international crimes, but it also has the potential to more intimately involve the locals in the process. For having suffered so much in this conflict, the victims are owed at least more involvement in the process of bringing justice to their perpetrators. Additionally, the Special Criminal Court’s specific focus on sexual violence and violence against children is a strong step toward elevating the serious status of such crimes and ensuring the prosecution of their perpetrators.

This is not to say, however, that intervening will be without its challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the fact that both international and national intervention is coming mid-conflict, which as we have seen may pose challenges for the enforcement of indictments and arrest warrants, gathering evidence, and general national stability. Yet, if intervention doesn’t happen and justice is forced to wait until peace comes around, many more lives may be lost and the conflict could go on for much much longer. Ultimately, we will have to wait to see how this trade off, if there is one, will play out.

One Year Later – Chibok Girl Abductions

Tuesday April 14, 2015 marks one full year since the abduction of over 200 young girls and women from Chibok, Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram abducted a reported 219 girls from Chibok a year ago.  Although international powers like China and the U.S. had pledged to help track down the group and locate the missing women in the wake of the incNigerian-girls-abducted-Bring-Back-Our-Girls-10ident, no justice has been brought to the Chibok families, the abducted women, or many of the Boko Haram members. While some individual girls were able to escape, many of them are still missing along with a suspected 2,000 others from across Nigeria who have been sold as sex slaves and cooks, or forced to become fighters. In memorial of this tragedy there will be several marches across the world to bring awareness and call for more international and domestic action in regards to justice for the victims of these horrible crimes and to stop Boko Haram from committing more terrible crimes. The Chibok Girls’s incident stands out as a internationally known human rights violation, but Boko Haram is still at large committing crimes in north eastern Nigeria at alarming rates which are still practically invisible to the world. Whether it’s ‘Bringing back our girls’ or just stopping human rights violations occurring regularly, more action needs to be taken internationally against the group.


UN Peacekeeping and Accusations of Sexual Abuse

An internal study conducted by the United Nations was recently leaked to the public, bringing to light ignorance towards sexual exploitation across peacekeeping missions. The study looked at missions in the Congo, Haiti, Liberia and South Sudan. These countries account for 85% of all sexual abuse cases, 30% of which involve minors, but the study has found that the actual number of incidents of sexual abuse could be far higher than previously reported.

This report shifts the international conversation about impunity away from the actions of criminals and towards the actions of those we expect to protect the vulnerable. How can we expect the international judiciary system to keep criminal leaders and their followers accountable for their actions when it cannot even keep its own forces accountable? Peacekeepers are some of the most easily accessible figures in the international justice system considering their position within the United Nations, and yet “UN personnel in all the missions [the researchers] visited could point to numerous suspected or quite visible cases of [Sexual Exploitation and Abuse] that are not being counted or investigated,” according to the report.

From allegations of peacekeepers forcing Liberian and Haitian girls to perform sexual favors for food in 2006 to peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast, southern Sudan and Haiti raping children as young as 13, the report highlights a disregard for Ban Ki Moon’s “zero-tolerance policy ‘towards all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.'” (The Guardian)

How can the international community expect transparency in all states when the United Nations itself is not transparent?

Cell Phones, Sexual Violence, and the Congo

It’s not often that the West directly addresses its own fault in perpetuating the violence in the Congo. But at a recent United Nations event, held on International Women’s Day but the Enough Project, directly addressed the relationship between the Cellphone industry and sexual violence in the Congo.  The panel, which included the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura as well as the Chair of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition Tim Mohin, addressed the connection with the consumer electronics industry, the mining industry, and the continuous conflict in the Congo.  About17% of the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo is economically dependent on the mining industry. The money from mineral exports has continued to fuel the war, which is known for its high levels of sexual violence.


The conflict metal in question is tantalum, used in many consumer electronics, particularly cell phones. According to Mohin, the first hurdle is awareness in the industry itself, which has so many different components of the supply chain that many company decision makers know very little about where their products are sourced from.


EICC has already been working to establish a “conflict-free smelter program” that identifies which smelters in the DRC only use conflict-free minerals. While it has already established 75 conflict free smelters, that only represents a small fraction of the entire mining industry. The larger, more difficult problem, remains that there is not a large enough supply of conflict-free minerals.


This problem is a difficult one to tackle, but this represents a different approach to a now decades-old problem. Not only did the panel seek to address the specific problem of sexual violence in the Congo, the focus on organizations such as the EICC demonstrates a willingness to look at the situation from the point of the view of the true source of the problem. Rather than stemming the violence through arresting rebel leaders, we can look at where their resources to continue the fighting are coming from. If a solution in which the demand for minerals that come from conflict regions decreases in such a way that there is no more capital and weapons inflow to the Congo region, they will have no choice but to stop fighting.


That being said, this true-source type of solution is much easier said than done, particularly in a “free market economy” and regarding a mineral so limited in where it can be mined. However, the panel marks an important step in recognizing how related Western consumers are to the conflict.



Impunity for Crimes of Sexual Violence

Throughout this course, there have been many discussions about the different systems of justice and their effectiveness in establishing peace and reconciliation in post-conflict societies: the ICC, local judiciaries, hybrid courts, and even truth commissions. However, in many case studies, one of the main criticisms of these institutions is that they fully acknowledge crimes of sexual violence in their respective justice, peace and/or reconciliation proceedings.

In the case of the ICC, sexual violence is considered a crime against humanity based upon Article VII of the Rome Statute. On March 7, the ICC convicted Germain Katanga to four counts of war crimes and one crime against humanity for his part in killing more than 200 people in a province of north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.However, Katanga has been cleared of charges for sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. The initial ICC investigations found that women who survived the 2003 massacre had been raped or kept as sex slaves but they did not have sufficient evidence to convict Katanga of carrying out these crimes. While it is clear that the ICC investigates crimes of sexual violence, they still have yet to convict any criminals of such crimes. It is possible that Katanga’s case mirrors that of Thomas Lubanga, who was only convicted of conscription of child soldiers. Despite evidence suggesting involvement in other atrocities, the ICC decided to move forward with their prosecution based on evidence that was already available to them. Even if this is true for Katanga’s case, however, should the ICC be criticized for not taking the additional time to collect further evidence that would ensure Katanga was held accountable for crimes of sexual violence?

In addition to analyzing the ICC, it is also important to discuss how sexual violence has been acknowledged domestically, particularly in Rwanda’s Gacaca courts. The HRW’s report on the ‘Barriers to Justice for Sexual Crimes’ states that 2001 Gacaca law discouraged women from testifying about their experience of sexual violence due to the social and procedural obstacles they faced in reporting the crime, the public nature of the Gacaca process, and the lack of security and confidentiality protections for witnesses. This causes additional barriers for investigators considering the hesitation of witnesses to report these crimes and difficulties in providing sufficient evidence to ‘prove’ that a victim was subject to sexual violence when there is an absence of witnesses to ‘validate’ the victim’s testimony. Furthermore, there are inconsistent verdicts of trials involving sexual violence due to lack of definition of rape or sexual torture under Rwandan laws. Genocide judgments applied the terms “rape” and “sexual torture” inconsistently, and none of the post-1994 judgments invoke a definition of rape or defilement.

What is particularly surprising about the lack of convictions for sexual crimes in Gacaca courts is the fact that the ICTR’s judgement in Prosecutor v. Akayesu held Jean-Paul Akayesu accountable for prohibiting rape as a part of a systematic attack against a civilian population, essentially establishing that sexual violence can be punishable as a crime against humanity. These differences are likely based on the lack of capacity for Gacaca courts, in addition to the stigmatization of rape culture in Rwanda and the public nature of the Gacaca process. However, in light of the Rwandan Senate’s report on the ICTR stating that it “did not include Rwandan prosecutors and judges despite having the requisite qualifications”, one must also question the stigma of sexual violence in Rwandan culture in comparison to justice institutions that are perhaps forcing particular principles of justice to initiate change.

While this is only one case study, it is important to note that other domestic proceedings have largely ignored crimes of sexual violence including South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala. There is no doubt that obstacles to reporting, investigating, and proving crimes of sexual violence in courts are a result of the lack of capacity and resources of courts and commissions to thoroughly address such cases (especially considering the gravity and breadth of atrocities that have occurred). However, it is evident that there are sociocultural barriers that are perpetuating the impunity of sexual violence as a crime against humanity. If such impunity continues in these conflicts in both domestic and international peace/justice institutions, to what extent is reconciliation and justice actually achieved for victims?

Crimes Against Children in Syria

A recent UN report has presented evidence of recruitment of child soldiers, and sexual violence and killing of children in the current crisis in Syria. The report details atrocities committed between March 1, 2011 to November 15, 2013, claiming that over 10,000 children have been killed in less than three years.

Witnesses have reported that abuses against children detained by government authorities included “beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives”. While boys aged 12 to 17 years have been trained, armed and used as combatants for rebel forces.

While the UN has in past accused both the government and rebel alliance of crimes committed against children, this is the first report that has been presented directly to the UNSC on the issue. Given the outstanding evidence provided in the report, is it possible that the UNSC, which has thus far been incapable of providing a response to the conflict due to the polarizing interests of the p5, will be able to pass a directive that would respond directly to the atrocities committed against children? One of the main excuses Russia and China have used to rule against resolutions developed by the UNSC have placed too much responsibility on the Syrian government for atrocities committed, rather than acknowledging crimes perpetrated by rebel groups. The report, however, suggests that both sides of the conflict are to blame for these atrocities: the government in perpetrating sexual violence and torture of children, and rebel groups for coercing children into joining their militias. Understanding that both sides are being held accountable, will this entice Russia and China to vote in favor of a resolution that specifically addresses atrocities committed against children?

Furthermore, how might this report affect the United States’ stance on providing assistance to the Syrian Opposition? A State Department spokesman of the United States condemned the use of child soldiers, stating “We thoroughly vet recipients of our assistance in Syria. The leadership of the moderate armed opposition has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to upholding international human rights standards.” However, the report cites the Western-backed Free Syrian Army is guilty of recruitment of child soldiers.

While it is unlikely that the ICC will become involved in this situation due to the polarization of the UNSC, how can this report contribute to taking punitive measures against “big fish” perpetrators of crimes against children on both sides of this conflict?

Afghanistan, Violence and Women

Afghanistan, Violence Against Women and Responsibility

A recent (pending) change in the law in Afghanistan means that victims of womens violence will be silenced, as will witnesses. Honour killings, forced marriages, sexual violence and human trafficking will all be extremely difficult to prove or prosecute given the full ban of testimony. As HRW states, “it would let batterers of women and girls off the hook”.

My question on this is twofold. The first is the ability of the ICC to hold Karzai responsible, or rather to what degree his administration is responsible. The change in law could lead to a large upswing in violence against women, particularly of the sexual kind. In conflict zones, as we have seen, sexual violence is very much under the mandate of the ICC. Indeed a change in legislation that actively prevents testimony, and thus the prosecution of ‘batterers of women’ is surely indication of a state’s unwillingness to prosecute such crimes, a central tenant of evaluating the ICC’s jurisdiction.

That the state has sponsored such legislation brings into question the conflict type that the ICC could involve itself with. Certainly sovereignty arguments apply strongly here-the ICC cannot, nor should it, go around prosecuting everything left, right and centre. Perhaps such a law is not an active crime against humanity-it is obviously distinct from a Ntaganda that orders troops to commit these atrocities. But that seems to leave the women of Afghanistan with little recourse. The second question is thus-if not the ICC then who? This seems to be a passive crime in that it prevents the justice system from acting on behalf of women. Yet if the judicial process fails its female population, do we need to rethink how to combat such crimes. Legislators must know the effect on women such a law would have, and yet they have chosen to pass it nonetheless.

The implications of such a case would be vast, clearly. The problem is that this seems to fall into a grey area, one that at least partly indicates an unwillingness and inability to prosecute crimes, but that does not look like the ‘active’ crimes against humanity that our brutal dictators commit. Where, then, is the space in international justice for something to happen for the women of Afghanistan? (Other than NGOs and governments put pressure on them, which generally seems the least and the most any international action could be).

The ICC and Sexual Violence

I read a recently-posted article entitled Rape as a weapon of war: what the law can do, which discusses possible legal solutions for sexual violence in conflict. The following statements struck me:

1) “Today, there are international laws criminalizing rape and acts of sexual violence as acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Defendants have been charged with these crimes, and some have been convicted, although not yet at the International Criminal Court.”

2) “But after its establishment 10 years ago, the ICC’s first judgement was delivered only in March this year. It is abundantly clear the ICC has limited resources in addition to a very restrictive mandate to prosecute only the very few at the very top.”

3) “Such criticism overlooks the fact that the ICC was designed as a court of last resort; it can intervene only when a country is unwilling or unable to genuinely prosecute. Its greatest impact was always intended to be in encouraging prosecutions in local courts.”

Impunity perpetuates sexual violence as an acceptable, effective weapon of war. Without punishment, there’s no reason for this cycle of violence to end. But since it is within the ICC’s jurisdiction to “end impunity” with regards to genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the ICC has the power to “better domestic prosecutions” (as stated in the article).

So then should we attribute the ICC’s absence, in the realm of sexual violence, to the fact that it was only recently established, and therefore lacks adequate resources to mandate further, domestic prosecutions? Or is the ICC simply not designed to combat such offenses?

When will we take sexual violence to court?