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Last Monday evening, Sept. 24, the Women’s Media Center and Physicians for Human Rights presented a panel discussion titled “Is It Possible to Stop Rape in Conflict? A Conversation with Nobel Laureates and Activists at the Forefront of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.”

Before the panel itself got under way, author and activist Robin Morgan offered some comments. She began by saying that women live in an alternate reality of normalized violence. She mentioned the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s Akayesu decision, which ruled for the first time that rape, if committed with the intention to destroy a group, could be considered a component of genocide. It also marked the first time an international court punished sexual violence in a civil war. Throughout the world, especially in conflict-prone areas, women are subjected to female genital mutilation, untenable living situations as internally displaced persons and refugees, sexual slavery and prostitution, unpaid labor, and suffer disproportionately from illiteracy. She concluded by pointing out the direct correlation between violence in the family and violence in the state. For more on this topic, Morgan recommended reading Sex and World Peace, by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett.

The next speaker was Susannah Sirkin, deputy director at Physicians for Human Rights, who focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She discussed the case of Bosco Ntaganda, who despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court continues to travel freely between the DRC and Rwanda, which has the effect of encouraging rape and other grave crimes. On the topic of medical treatment for rape survivors, Sirkin said that while clinics exist, their cupboards are bare. In addition to ending impunity, she also noted the need for survivors to tell their stories.

Sirkin then acted as translator for Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, located in eastern DRC. Dr. Mukwege said he has treated 40,000 women who are victims of rape and has performed 15,000 surgeries to repair women’s bodies damaged by rape and sexual violence. Compounding the problems of silence and lack of capacity surrounding these issues, Dr. Mukwege said that rape in DRC is not just a weapon, but a strategy of war—well planned, well organized, and systematic. Women and girls of all ages are victims and mass rapes are methodically carried out. There are instances in which public rapes are used to demonstrate power and destroy genitalia; one cannot go to the press as with a mutilated hand or ear. Consequences of rape in the DRC include a massive displacement of the population, as well as a demographic impact, since young women often develop obstetric fistulas that make it impossible for them to reproduce. There’s also the risk of contracting and spreading HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. These are consequences that are transmitted to the next generation and lead to the destruction of the social fabric and economy.

After Dr. Mukwege, Patricia Guerrero spoke. She is director of the League of Displaced Women in Colombia, where displaced women live undercover because there are no public policies in place to address their plight. When conflicts come to an end and a peace process starts, Guerrero noted that violence against women often increases. Other social problems adversely affecting women in Colombia are the development and control of natural resources and the war on drugs. Because of the stigma these women face, they often speak in code.

The next-to-last panelist was Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran. Ebadi said she believes sexualized violence can be ended by addressing impunity through the ICC, although it is a problem that the ICC has no jurisdiction over half of the countries in the world because they are not state parties to the Rome Statute. She noted that while it is true the UN Security Council has the authority to refer cases to the ICC, as it did with Sudan, there is also the fact problem of the abuse of veto power within the Security Council. She cited Syria as an example, where crimes against humanity are being committed but China prevents the Security Council from taking action. Ebadi pointed out that children born from rape and what their destiny will be is often forgotten. In traditional cultures, as she called them, such children are hated and cast aside. So protecting victims has to include protecting these children. Punishing the perpetrator is the ideal but culture can dictate that the victim be killed or have other rights violated. During the Iran–Iraq war, she said, a vast amount of rapes were committed in southern Iran, which is tribal. Twenty years later, those who contested the 2009 election results were arrested and raped in prison. To bring an end to such atrocities, Ebadi suggested that a good starting point is naming and shaming those who commit them.

The final speaker was Jody Williams, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her achievements with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Williams noted that although a campaign to ban landmines is obviously very different from a campaign to stop rape in conflict, they both speak to the power of the collective, of civil society. She also talked a bit about her experiences working with the women’s human rights group MADRE.

The evening concluded with a Q&A session led by the event’s moderator, Lauren Wolfe. The event’s main takeaway was that rape in conflict isn’t something that happens “over there.” Rather, it is a continuum of the violence that happens in homes and between states. One of the contributing factors is the glorification of war, and the root cause is patriarchy, meaning a cultural mindset, not just the male gender. Because of the shame attached to it, victims of rape must overcome the obstacle of silence. For their part, men who aren’t responsible for these heinous acts also need to speak out. Political leaders must address this issue as they do unemployment or the economy. And in order to achieve true justice, women must participate in peace negotiations.

Related links:

UN Guidance for Mediators Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ceasefire and Peace Agreements

The Missing Peace Symposium 2012: Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings


The Genocide Prevention Advisory Network recently issued a conference report from their advanced workshop at The Hague on March 14-15, 2012. Focusing on the emerging global and regional architectures aiming at the prevention of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the conference addressed the following questions:

  • What guiding principles are emerging to shape the architecture and community of genocide prevention and its relevant fields?
  • What can GPANet offer to articulate those principles and strengthen these emerging capacities?
  • How can GPANet work in partnership to support and facilitate local, national, regional and international prevention networks?

The papers presented at the conference dealt with the topics of early warning and data gathering and verification systems, case studies on Somalia, linkages with terrorism, and lastly, perspectives on genocide prevention. This final subject is what we’ll focus on, given the work of AIPR.

Discussing Holocaust education and genocide prevention, Yehuda Bauer spoke of the “problematic” text of the Genocide Convention and the resultant inefficacy of the United Nations to prevent or halt instances of genocide post-World War II: two examples being Rwanda in 1994 and Sudan at present. Given the structure of the Security Council, geopolitical interests often trump those of the humanitarian variety. Moreover, Bauer argues that race and ethnicity are modern social constructs, given the singular origin of the human species. This leads to the common “us vs. them” framing that serves to precipitate genocide. All of this is compounded by the fact that, “There is a dialectical development one can discern in international politics, reflecting two contradictory global trends: a tendency towards greater unification on the one hand, and an opposing tendency towards greater autonomy and independence of ethnic and/or national groups on the other hand.”

Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch and formulator of the Eight Stages of Genocide model, noted Genocide Watch’s early warning system and how “[r]apid response by regional alliances has prevented or stopped several genocides: in East Timor, Kosovo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia , and Sierra Leone.” He also spoke of the success of international tribunals and the creation of the ICC. Having worked against genocide for 30 years, Stanton says he has learned two things about genocide prevention. He states:

  1. The first lesson is the direct result of our own human incapacity to comprehend or feel sympathy for large groups of people halfway around the world. Because individuals cannot do that, we need permanent institutions established that will watch out for precursors of genocide, take action to prevent it, intervene to stop it, and arrest and prosecute those who commit it.
  2. The second lesson I have learned is that genocide prevention must start and be led by people from countries at risk. It cannot be led by an American organization in Washington, DC, led by a pacifist director, that is unwilling to advocate the use of force to stop genocide. Prevention must especially begin from the ground up in countries at risk of genocide. A true International Alliance to End Genocide can support such local efforts and create an international mass movement to end genocide.

Daniel Feierstein then offered “A Critique of the Hegemonic View of the Current Genocidal Conflicts: A Perspective from the Latin American Margin.” His understanding of genocide seeks to dismantle a simplistic “Good People vs. Bad People” scenario and instead puts forth a perspective where genocide is “a technology of power used very successfully to destroy and reorganize social relationships and identities.” He believes “this would be a better explanation of why it continues beyond our collective calls of ‘never again.'” He went on to point out three different initiatives as possible alternatives to the military intervention model:

1. The UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) Experience

Since the UNASUR Constitutive Treaty was signed on May 23, 2008, UNASUR has helped four countries in the region that have experienced the possibility of new violent conflicts: Bolivia (2008), Honduras (2009), Ecuador (2010), and the conflict between Colombia and Venezuela (2010). In each case there was a major crisis with strong potential to trigger atrocity crimes.

2. The Regional Fora on Genocide Prevention

Writes Feierstein, “The idea was to meet all the governments of a region to create an open exchange and debate on how to prevent possible genocidal conflicts. As every government is involved in the discussions, there is a possibility (only a possibility, but we should have little utopias, which are more possible to achieve than the big ones) that the real problems of the regions will appear. It is even possible that some approaches to resolve them will emerge, as there are few instances in which the governments are invited to debate on regional perspectives to analyze and prevent genocide.”

3. The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation

AIPR has organized several meetings with mid- and low-level representatives, with the idea that governments change but there are some kinds of officers who continue in their key positions as professionals and/or bureaucracy. The objective of the AIPR is to train those people in early warning and genocide prevention as a challenge for the future.

The  workshop concluded with a concept note by Alice Ackermann on emerging genocide prevention structures in Europe and Liberata Mulamula discussing the same in the context of the Great Lakes region of Africa.

From right: Eduardo Gonzalez, Esther Attear, Ana Manuela Ochoa Arrias


Last week, as part of the eleventh session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) organized a roundtable discussion on “Truth Commissions and Indigenous Peoples: Lessons Learned, Future Challenges.” The event also marked the launch of a resource book titled Strengthening Indigenous Rights Through Truth Commissions. Per the ICTJ, “The book summarizes the findings of an international conference on truth commissions and indigenous rights hosted by ICTJ in 2011. It makes concrete proposals to consider when setting up a truth commission focused on abuses committed against indigenous peoples.”

Moderating the discussion was Eduardo Gonzalez, director of the Truth and Memory Program at the ICTJ. Sparked by recent media coverage of the Canadian Indian residential school system, the ICTJ set out to determine whether truth commissions are useful for advancing the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly in Guatemala, Peru, and Paraguay. Today, there are truth commissions in Cote d’Ivoire, Nepal, and Brazil, as well as local efforts at truth-seeking taking place in Colombia, Mexico, and the United States.

The first speaker was Alcibiades Escué, coordinator of strategic planning at the Association of Indigenous Authorities of Northern Cauca. Mr. Escué said that from the 1980s through the present, the treatment of indigenous peoples is getting worse. He spoke of the extraction policies of the national government in indigenous territories occupied by guerrillas because of the mines located there. Territories have been consolidated and battalions camp out high in the mountains. There is an indigenous guard force consisting of young men and women who are oriented and accompanied by older people. Mr. Escué went on to speak about harmonic justice, the purpose of which is to promote self-determination for persons and communities so that they can best acquire life essentials. Within his community, this also includes searching for and registering victims. He concluded with talk of a house of thought, which not only provides training and education, but also aids in the reconstruction of historical memory. Another organizational process is the symbolic review of elders and spiritual authorities.

Next to speak was Ana Manuela Ochoa Arias, a lawyer for the National Authority of Indigenous Governments in Colombia. The indigenous peoples of Colombia live in the mountains of Santa Marta and comprise 30 percent of the Colombian population, which is about 1.3 million people. Sixty-five indigenous languages are spoken in the region, though Ms. Arias mentioned demographic fragility. Her speech focused on Law 1448, the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was signed in June 2011 and pertains to historical reparations for the victims of the internal armed conflict that spanned 50 years. However, the law only applies to acts committed since January 1, 1985. So what is sought is transformational, rather than transitional, justice. Indigenous peoples have suffered cultural and economic damage, with specific damage caused to women and children. Ms. Arias maintains that the state has a legal obligation to such persons, each of whom individually had to make their own proposal.

The third speaker was Esther Attear, Passamaquoddy tribal member and lead staff person for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. According to Ms. Attear, her people have witnessed a 95 percent decrease in population due to genocide, war, disease, and forced relocation. She discussed residential schools, where Indian children were sent after being taken away from their parents; the goal of such schools was to “kill the Indian, save the child.” It has now come to light that rampant abuse occurred in these schools, and approximately 1,000 children died as a result. The ultimate aim was the destruction of culture, including native dress and language. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in response to “the alarmingly high number of Indian children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies. The intent of Congress under ICWA was to ‘protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families’ (25 U.S.C. § 1902).” In Maine Wabanaki, state case workers received special training to deal with these cases, especially since in this culture, a child has three parents—mother, father, and tribe. Even so, there remained an invisible wall of the truth of genocide and genocidal policies. Decolonization also required truth and reconciliation; “white” people had to deal with their guilt and unpack a heritage of racism and genocide, while native people had to work through internalized oppression, lateral fighting, and a legacy of victimhood. In order to challenge the dominant narrative of white vs. native, both sides need to reach a common understanding, come up with recommendations for best practice, and share their stories in order to heal.

The last panelist was Alvaro Pop, Guatemalan independent expert and member of the UNPFII. He spoke about how in December 2011 in Colombia, indigenous people were victorious in having the Marmato municipal council “close the door to the efforts of Canadian companies to resettle the population and to destroy a town with 475 years of history in order to extract gold from the Marmato mountain using open pit mining in only 20 years.” He viewed this as an end of 400 years of darkness for the Mayas. He went on to say that indigenous peoples are survivors, having endured slavery, exploitation, and other such horrors. Now, the indigenous people want to rescue history, a mechanism to enrich identity, as the public school curriculum begins with colonization. A truth and reconciliation commission recognizes facts and awakens consciousness but was limited in Guatemala and didn’t have the future that was hoped for. It is now time to move beyond mourning and such a commission must contribute to the end of impunity by having specific mandates and including indigenous dialects and languages.

Mr. Gonzalez concluded the panel by talking about short- and long-term violations of rights—individual, collective, and earth. Reconciliation should not just be on an international level, but must be a nation-to-nation effort. He then opened up the floor for a brief Q&A session. The first person to speak was a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who sat on the Guatemalan Commission from 1997 to 1999. She said they were dealing with 600 massacres and that there were actually two commissions, one from the Catholic Church and one from the UN. She believes that truth commissions are just the beginning and that there is a need for different sponsors.

Closing out the program was an audience member who is part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which is court-mandated and focuses on children who were forced to go to residential schools, as discussed above. This school system was in place for more than 150 years, and children spent anywhere from 10 to 21 years at these schools. There are 80,000 survivors, and the last residential school closed in 1996. Though the experience is sadly widespread, one survivor’s testimony states, “We have been raped in every way—emotionally, physically, spiritually, culturally.” The commission plans to establish a national research center and hold an expert group meeting before the end of 2013.

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