On Tuesday, 1 June 2010, the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice organized an all-day Women's Court during the Review Conference of the Rome Statute. The Women's Court featured 12 presentations from victims and women's rights activists from Uganda, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan who comprised part of the Women's Initiatives' delegation to the Review Conference. Over the course of four sessions devoted to four of the five ICC situation countries the activists spoke about the impact of these conflicts on women, the targeting of women by armed forces and militia groups for crimes of sexual violence, and their work for justice, accountability and peace.
Activists and victims/survivors shared their personal stories about the impact of armed conflict on their own lives and the lives of others in their communities. Presenters and audience members alike demanded accountability for perpetrators of gender-based crimes and expressed their fervent hope in the ICC as a mechanism that will bring a long-awaited justice.
Many of the speakers discussed their desire to participate on an equal basis with men in processes that work towards accountability and peace. Rosalba Oywa of the People's Voices for Peace organization in Northern Uganda explained that “Women want to be included in the formulation of any justice mechanisms and not to be treated as victims or survivors, which is the practice now.” Jane Akwero Odong, Chairperson of the Greater Women's Voices for Peace Network in Northern Uganda, shared her view on domestic processes to complement the work of the ICC:
“It is imperative that Ugandan prosecutions of crimes committed should be conducted with the same standards as the Rome Statute, the highest standards of international law. The domestic process should include the Elements of Crimes and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence used at the ICC. There is urgency to create the special court to supplement the ICC within Uganda, but we expect the special court to be independent, impartial and effective.”
One of the most memorable presentations came from Grace, a victim/survivor of the conflict in Northern Uganda. Speaking publicly about her life experiences for the first time, Grace told of her abduction by the Lord's Resistance Army at age 15 and her subsequent years as a ‘bush wife' to a senior rebel commander. She and the two children she bore by her ‘husband' were later abandoned. Grace told us of her struggles to survive and provide for her children with very limited financial resources and the lack of any family or community support – a struggle magnified by ongoing psychological trauma and her HIV positive status.
Many of the speakers discussed ongoing insecurity and threats to human rights defenders as main deterrents to achieving peace and justice. Alexis Mbolinani, Executive Director of JUPEDEC, an NGO based in the Central African Republic that assists victims of atrocities committed by the Lord's Resistance Army, told the audience about his recent arrest on fabricated charges that he was a spy for the LRA. He spoke to a riveted audience about how he was tortured by government officials during his four months in detention.
A great loss to the Women's Court was the absence of our Sudanese delegates, who at the last minute were unable to travel to Kampala to participate in the Women's Court due to threats from the Sudanese government of retaliation against any Sudanese traveling to the Review Conference. Some of our Sudanese allies who were attending the Review Conference graciously stepped in to present at the Women's Court. Osman Hummaida, Executive Director of the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies, an NGO that promotes human rights in Sudan, stated emphatically that the threats by the Sudanese government against civil society must not be tolerated by the international community: “We must fight cross-border impunity. We are not going to be scared by threats to human rights defenders by the Sudan government – threats that have been happening for the past 20 years.”
Finally, some presenters also shared their frustrations with the Court's slowness in meeting victims' expectations for justice. Lilly Apio, a member of her local governing council in Northern Uganda, raised issues over the ICC's failure to conduct outreach: “I am a leader at the local level but I have only heard about the ICC. I have never seen them at work apart from an interview by some of their officials earlier this year. How will people I serve at the grassroots appreciate the roles and interventions of the ICC if it appears to do things behind closed doors?” Francine Bany from Ouvrier du Monde, an NGO in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo echoed these concerns: “The ICC has not yet met its objective as people are not informed about the way it functions or even its existence. We think there is a lack of information towards the population in general and towards victims in particular.”
The Women's Court followed in the footsteps of the 1993 Vienna Tribunal on Women's Human Rights and the 2000 Tokyo Women's Tribunal. These tribunals, with their compelling testimony by women victims/survivors of armed conflict, helped pave the way for international tribunals to prosecute gender-based crimes as international crimes. Like its predecessors, the aim of the Women's Court was to draw attention to the particularized harms that women and girls experience during armed conflict and the fact that crimes against women continue to be under-investigated and prosecuted. Rather than making a determination of guilt or delivering a formal ‘judgement', the purpose of the Women's Court was to provide a space for women advocates and victims/survivors to share their ensure that the voices and experiences of victims/survivors — and especially women — assume an appropriately central role at the Review Conference.
Timed to precede the stocktaking exercise scheduled for the first week of the Review Conference, the Women's Court provided a forum for victims/survivors and women's rights advocates to express their views about the impact and progress of the Court in its first eight years of existence, particularly with respect to the four stocktaking themes:
• the impact of the Rome Statute system on victims and affected communities;
• peace and justice;
• complementarity; and
• state cooperation with the ICC.
Each session was moderated by experts in international peace and justice, including Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai; Silvana Arbia, Registrar of the International Criminal Court; Bukeni Waruzi, Lead Campaign for Gender-based violence at Witness; and Elisabeth Rehn, Chairperson for the Board of Directors for the ICC Trust Fund for Victims.
Judge Sang-Hyun Song, President of the International Criminal Court, also attended the Women's Court and delivered some remarks. President Song recognized the important contributions that women's advocates made towards including gender provisions in the Rome Statute and stated clearly that "The Court and the ASP must continue to build on and live up to the legacy you have created… Nobody has suffered more as innocent victims of conflict, and your voices should be heard."