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On January 25, 2013, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in conjunction with the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project, hosted a symposium, “Global Sexualized Violence: From Epidemiology to Action.” The focus of this post is on a panel discussing law, policy, and action on global sexualized violence.

Cristina Finch, policy and advocacy director for women’s human rights for Amnesty International USA, opened the panel, citing a UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will suffer some form of violence in their lifetime. Finch believes this to be a conservative estimate. She discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how it can be used to protect women against rape as a weapon of war, honor killings, and domestic abuse. She also pointed to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as further providing a road map for eradicating such abuses, though the United States is one of seven countries that has yet to ratify it. Finch also highlighted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which ultimately established the Interagency Taskforce on Women, Peace and Security. She closed her allotted time by talking about the need to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which the U.S. Senate will vote on next week.

The next speaker was epidemiologist Les Roberts, who spoke about how public health feeds into the intersection of law and policy when it comes to sexual violence. Aside from the fact that there is often a lack of information sharing, public health also approaches the subject differently. One way it does so is to provide confidentiality to victims and, in a related manner, handles these matters with sensitivity, whereas a legal approach is necessarily concerned with specificity. Further, in regards to GBV, public health programming is at odds with rights-based frameworking, as Finch spoke about.

Next on the agenda was the Global Justice Center‘s Akila Radhakrishnan, an attorney working on the Geneva Initiative, “which aims to ensure justice, accountability and equal rights to people in conflict and in post-conflict situations, and establish global legal precedents protecting human rights and ensuring gender equality.” A gender lens is not typically applied to international law or the laws of war, but progress was made with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in that rape and gender-based violence were officially recognized as being a systematic part of conflict–rape can be considered torture, a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a way to perpetrate genocide. This is codified in the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court.

The last person to speak before the Q&A session was Meghan Donahue, gender and education coordinator of the Peace Corps. Her professional goal is to “help people develop the capacity to use their own resources and skills to resolve their needs and improve their own lives.” When her volunteers are dispatched, they teach local children about the social constructs of gender. They believe in a people-centered approach, focusing on sustainable development, community mapping, and student-friendly schools. The Peace Corps volunteers also seek to facilitate enabling environments, and help break down gender attitudes and cycles of poverty.

Lastly, moderator Lauren Wolfe asked the panelists a handful of questions before opening up the floor to the audience. When asked about how to put an end to global sexualized violence, the participants stated that we must get rid of misogyny, be honest about risk factors and data, and enforce existing laws. There also needs to be a combination of top-down laws and bottom-up community action/advocacy. Donahue pointed out that this recipe is what led to the disavowal of female genital mutilation in Senegal. Finally, when it comes to sexual violence, focus needs to shift from the victim to the perpetrator.

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights organizations the world over are using the occasion to mobilize the international community to stop crimes against humanity in North Korea. Three months ago saw the launch of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), whose goal is working toward the establishment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry to address these issues.

According to Human Rights Watch, the North Korean dictatorship is guilty of “the widespread and systematic use of torture, arbitrary detention, abduction and public executions.” And in the last 16 years, more than four million North Koreans have died of starvation. Though the country has received billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, money and food alike are diverted to the military and the party elite. Political prison camps abound, in which, according to current Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea Marzuki Darusman, “as many as 250,000 political prisoners, one-third of whom are children, are at present being forced to perform slave labor on starvation rations and are subject to brutal beatings, systematic rape and torture, and execution at the whim of prison guards.”

Robert Park, writing in the Harvard International Review (HIR), believes the time has come, or is overdue, for the international community to invoke the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Park also argues for increased financial support for North Korean refugees, many of whom send money to family and friends remaining in the country through illicit channels. In addition, he says South Korea must take decisive action, given that the South Korean constitution extends citizenship to all North Koreans, giving it leverage to exercise its right of diplomatic protection over defectors in China. To this end, Park calls on “the highest branches of South Korea’s government . . . to vouch more persistently and forcefully for the North Korean defectors on the grounds that these refugees are their nationals by law.” If these steps are not taken, says Park, North Korea will continue to bear witness to one of the most horrific genocides in modernity.


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