Monday, 30 June 2008

Panel 1: Responding to Sexual Violence – Recent Developments in International Law

The first panel session focused on the role played by International Law, and in particular, International Tribunals, in responding to Sexual Violence in conflicts. The session provided both an account of some positive developments in the area as well as problems, in respect of law (both International and domestic), and cultural and political challenges in responding to sexual violence.
The first speaker, Dr Kelly Askin, opened the session with an account of how the past 15 years has the recognition of Gender Based Violence (GBV) as a human rights issue. Taking the conference through the key court decisions from the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, she informed the conference that the cases have established that GBV can be prosecuted as a war crime even in cases of defendants who were “in charge” rather than directly involved in the crimes. However, setting the tone for the rest of the speakers, Dr Askin went on to note the many missed opportunities and acquittals, and the fact that it takes sustained pressure for these crimes to be successfully prosecuted in practice. She also noted that now that the International Tribunals had set down the jurisprudence, it was time for the domestic courts to “step up” and do more to prosecute GBV.
The downbeat tone was picked up by the next speaker, Professor Doris Buss, who presented findings on the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Reporting on the “bleak” record of the Tribunal she noted that there was a very low success rate in prosecuting sexual offences. Problems were found at all points in the system – investigations, prosecution and trials. Professor Buss noted that whilst in International Law rape had become visible as a mass crime, it remained almost invisible at the point of the individual; and whilst International Law has developed significantly in relation to prosecuting GBV, the institutional and the cultural problems continue.
The final speaker, Amira Khair, presented a disturbing account of the practical experience of working with women victims of sexual violence in Sudan. The experience made clear how Sudanese law is not a solution to GBV, but is in fact part of the problem. The law on rape exposes the victims to further abuse, as it requires four male witnesses to establish a victim did not consent to the sexual act. Without these witnesses there is a danger that the victim could be prosecuted for adultery because she had sex outside marriage. The law therefore does not provide the space for victims to seek legal protection and/or justice; something reinforced by the cultural context of not speaking out in relation to sex.
The session concluded that International Tribunals using International Law were only part of the way in which rape victims can obtain justice. Local courts, truth and reconciliation commissions, reparations, all had a part to play in tackling GBV after a conflict. It also took courage on the part of the legal players; which in itself was a telling issue as Professor Buss concluded “How did we get to the point where it needed courage to convict someone for rape?”

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