Seeking justice for women in post conflict situations

The design of any post-conflict social and economic order must include women and women’s rights in order to facilitate their access to justice, says an expert panel on the prosecution of sexual violence organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on 15 December.

In June 2008, a UN Security Council resolution classified rape as a tactic of war.” © UNMIL Photo/Christopher Herwig"It is simple common sense. If women are to participate in post conflict justice mechanisms and governance structures, then more attention will have to be paid to the specific support and assistance that is required,” says one of the expert panellists Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics.

“Social, cultural and economic rights provide the basis for this and should be used to drive the policies and programmes adopted by all actors as the transition is made from conflict to post conflict and development," she adds.

OHCHR has held several expert meetings and commissioned two major studies to examine the effectiveness of international post-conflict accountability mechanisms in prosecuting sexual violence, and the extent to which women and women's rights have been included in post-conflict reconstruction.

The studies conclude that if justice and accountability are to underpin the quest for durable peace and security, then they must apply to women too. The studies point to an urgent need to re-think what has been created in the fields of formal justice and post-conflict social and economic order.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996, for example, there was optimism that international law would hold accountable those who had fomented rabid nationalism, caused conflicts, and/or committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was hoped that a human rights framework would help ensure greater equality and that there would be recognition of the rights of women to participate in the reconstruction of their country.

However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as in many post conflict situations, the struggles continue.

Whilst ground breaking decisions were made on rape, the reality for women who testified was not always positive. A particular and seminal case involved the detention and multiple rape of a young woman with a regularity which was “unimaginable”. She was cross-examined as to whether the act took place with her consent.

She had a breakdown. Word went around and as a result, the resolve of women to continue to seek justice by testifying in courts was broken.

"Women are human, in the courtroom too," says another expert panelist Patricia Sellers, former legal adviser on gender related crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

“It is clear that there are legal impediments which discourage access and, indeed, prevent justice from being done. Why do we need to know the details of the physical act, retraumatizing the victim and fuelling the stigma and ostracism which are a bi-product of rape?,” says Madeleine Rees, Head of the OHCHR Women’s Rights and Gender Unit, who moderates the panel discussion.

OHCHR is working to promote effective prosecution of sexual violence by reviewing relevant law, its procedures and application. It also examines the ways in which economic, social and cultural rights should guide efforts to facilitate women’s access to justice in post conflict situations.

“In all post-conflict situations, those affected are trying to survive. Women are most affected, often as single heads of households, and almost always with the primary responsibility for holding the family and self together,” Rees says.

“Their priorities are adequate housing, food, water, health care, education for children and security. Unless these needs are met, the potential for participating in formal justice or governance would be compromised,” she adds.

The expert panel event on 15 December also examines how the prosecution of sexual violence and revival of basic social services have been included in the Great Lakes Agreement, a tripartite agreement on peace, security and access to resources in the Great Lakes region in Africa.

December 2008