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No Safe Havens: Criminal Accountability as a Deterrent of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

By: Maryna Tkachenko

On October 31, 2000, United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, a stepping-stone in ensuring that all states “take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence.” In the past two decades, more resolutions followed along with more discussions around the gender-sensitive nature of armed conflicts and peacebuilding efforts. Although there is abundant agreement on the importance of gender analysis, challenges in implementing accountability for gender-based violence persist.

Addressing the need for a constructive dialogue and recognition of transitional justice obstacles, Germany, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, South Africa, and the United Kingdom co-hosted an Arria Formula meeting ”Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence as a Central Pillar for Prevention” on February 8, 2019. Chaired by Katarina Barley, Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection of Germany, the meeting invited UN Member States to discuss the ways in which the Council can address impunity in the context of gender-based violence in conflict. Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) is narrow in its jurisdictions, this Arria meeting is an example of how the Council endeavors to participate in the international discourse around justice and accountability for mass-atrocity crimes.

Akila Radhakrishnan, Global Justice Center President, had the opportunity to brief the Council as a representative of civil society. Underscoring the urgency for explicit action, Radhakrishnan called for all Security Council members to “display considerable political will” and work on implementing mechanisms (nationally and internationally) that punish all perpetrators, avoiding concentrating solely on individual actors. Aside from criminal accountability, “holistic and survivor-centered” instruments must confront discriminatory and misogynistic origins of gender-based violence. In order to reduce the likelihood of post-conflict violence, we must view women and girls not only as victims but as agents of change, which requires eradicating pre-existing gender inequality.

Referencing Burma’s failure to comply with international law, Radhakrishnan stressed the need for the continuing implementation and strengthening of international accountability mechanisms. States where mass-atrocity crimes have occurred are often incapable of achieving justice through domestic legal systems; therefore, access to international mechanisms for accountability can augment and fortify national endeavors to deter crimes against women and girls. In addition to ensuring that states employ universal jurisdiction in national legislation, the Security Council must send an unequivocal message of zero-tolerance for gender-based violence. While inclusive national ownership of justice mechanisms is a prerequisite for sustainable peacebuilding, it cannot become an excuse for passivity on the behalf of the Council.

Women’s lack of decision-making authority poses another challenge in preventing conflict-related sexual violence. Disregarding a gendered lens on accountability impedes the process of addressing unique needs of victims of sexual violence and installing principles for prevention of future crimes. Women cannot be the only actors responsible for implementing gendered perspectives; as Radhakrishnan emphasized, “gender expertise should be a required competency for positions at all levels.” Gender-sensitive and multidisciplinary training comes in myriad forms—while judges should be knowledgeable on how to prosecute specific crimes, peacekeeping units must undergo psychosocial training. Since many victims are reluctant to come forward with personal testimonies—often due to security and stigma concerns—judicial systems and investigation units must be aware of the intricacies involved in prosecuting these crimes. Expedient collection of evidence in accordance with international legal standards becomes nearly impossible when victims feel misunderstood.

Speaking at this Arria Formula meeting, Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, mentioned that “ensuring survivors have access to the resources and services they need to heal and recover is the first step in addressing the trauma and stigma they experience, and securing the justice they deserve.” It is worthwhile to emphasize that stigma-free healthcare is a fundamental human right that includes abortion access for all, family planning, and reproductive health services, which Trump’s Global Gag Rule ignores. (Read GJC’s joint policy brief with CHANGE on the ways in which Global Gag Rule violates rights to free speech and association.)

A common theme reverberated throughout speakers’ speeches: criminal accountability for crimes of gender-based violence is critical in averting future crimes. Transitional justice is a complex process, ranging from legal justice to medical care access. This means that international and domestic judicial systems must work in tandem, aiming for a holistic concept of justice. Furthermore, establishing effective dialogues on accountability as a deterrent that are translated into legitimate action requires international institutions to cooperate with local groups and civil society representatives that are responsive to the needs on the ground. Hence, allowing the Global Justice Center to advocate for victims of gender-based violence at global platforms is a step forward to creating a world where no voices are ignored and violence-free life is a reality for all.

Photo by Liz Olson on Feb. 8th at the United Nations Trusteeship Council