Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations

About the Coalition - Background

The Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations was established in 1996 following a joint letter-writing action organized by a number of Canadian, U.S. and European-based human rights NGOs around the question of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The latter had reportedly failed to integrate a gendered perspective into its work, and many components of the Tribunal had to be reformed in order to envisage that it could adequately prosecute crimes committed against Rwandan women in 1994. The letter, addressed to the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTR, created the opportunity to generate an initial group of about 60 organizations throughout the world interested in the issue and willing to share their expertise in order to exert pressure on decision-makers.

The initial decision to concentrate the Coalition’s efforts on the adequate prosecution of crimes of sexual violence at the ICTR resulted from a combination of factors emanating from national, regional and international contexts. As explained by Ariane Brunet, Women’s Rights Coordinator at Rights & Democracy and founder of the Coalition:

In 1993 the world heard about mass rape, systematic rape and forced pregnancy. It was the year the media addressed this issue because enough evidence forced them to do so. More than twenty documents were produced by various United Nations bodies and agencies: the Security Council, the Human Rights Commission and the Commission on the Status of Women, among others. These documents dealt in part or in totality with the issue of rape in the territory of the Former Yugoslavia. It was also the first time the United Nations sent a team of experts on a mission to investigate allegations of rape in a country. This was in January 1993. Governments were swift in responding and funds were set aside to help the women victims of this violation that had still not been recognized by an international tribunal as a crime against humanity, a war crime and a form of torture.

In May of that same year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was created. Article 5 of the Statute of this ad hoc Tribunal stipulates that rape can be prosecuted as a crime against humanity. Thus, many scholars, feminists, thinkers elaborated on the issue of gender crimes and sexual violence looking at ways within the Statute to ensure that the multifaceted ways that violations of women's human rights occurred during wartime be properly prosecuted and addressed by this new body. Many activists, NGOs and women's groups throughout the world networked and discussed ways and solutions to address the suffering of women. Moreover, they envisaged ways to ensure that these women be able to one day retrieve a sense of self, thereby ensuring that they continue to contribute to their society. Obtaining justice was the prevalent means to achieving this goal.

In December 1994, a small report was distributed about the systematic rapes, gang rapes, sexual mutilation, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy that occurred during the Rwandan genocide. A French doctor, Catherine Bonnet, reported that rape was a tool of the genocide. Few people read this document and nothing was done. There was no media coverage, no UN documents, no indignation from the international community. In November 1994, the Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) by virtue of Resolution 955 (1994). Article 3 and Article 4 of the Statute of the Rwandan Tribunal enables the prosecution to address sexual violence and recognize, when appropriate, rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, forced prostitution, sexual mutilation as crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and torture. The international community was alerted to the situation by the media, NGOs and scholars who had also worked on these issues in the context of the Former Yugoslavia and cried out that gender crimes must not be forgotten. However, in 1994 and the following year Rwandan women were alone in seeking accountability and working to obtain justice.

Why had more attention been paid by the international community to what had happened in the former Yugoslavia ? Could this be attributed to better organizational capabilities on the part of women's rights NGOs, activists, human rights groups and scholars? This theory has since been proven to be unfounded as Rwandan women, women's groups and scholars have today shown that it is possible to mobilize for Rwanda. What of the media attention? It took the Human Rights Watch and FIDH report entitled Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath to get the print media to acknowledge the issue. This issue took time to come to the forefront because it was Rwanda and the international community dealt with the 1994 genocide as an after-thought. Historically reduced as a question of honour and humiliating and degrading treatment, violations of women's human rights in conflict situations were silenced and never properly addressed.

In the winter of 1996, Pro-femmes, a Rwandan Women's Network encompassing some 35 women's organizations, received an award from UNICEF for their work for Peace.

That same year, Rights & Democracy initiated a project to monitor steps taken by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to address gender-related crimes with the broad objective of assisting Rwandan women organizations in their efforts to seek justice for victims of the genocide.

In light of the poor record of the international and national war trials in prosecuting rape or other forms of sexual violence and of the concern for rendering Rwandan women's human rights concerns more visible, Rights & Democracy decided to focus on monitoring the work of the ICTR for the following reasons: a) Women and men in Rwanda distrusted the ICTR and viewed it as an expensive and foreign-led experience in face-saving for the United Nations; b) There was a need for information and collaboration among Rwandan women NGOs on the question of international justice and rehabilitation; c) There was a need for some form of coalition-building and cooperation between Rwandan women and the international community.

The lack of proper attention and resources devoted thus far to the issue of gender-related crimes at ICTR prompted the creation of the Coalition on Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations. Very little had been done to ensure that the rights and interests of the affected women and potential witnesses were protected at the ICTR. The Coalition intended to monitor and respond to developments affecting gender justice at the ICTR.

Key organizations initially agreed to participate in this monitoring process. Pro-femmes in Rwanda agreed to be part of the Coalition and relay information to us on behalf of Rwandan women. Human Rights Watch who was instrumental in raising issues of gender-related crimes in Rwanda also joined the Coalition. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a non‑profit legal and educational organization dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights accepted to serve as legal advisor, as did The International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic (IWHR), a project of the City University of New York School of Law. IWHR prioritises integrating gender perspectives in human rights and works to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights violations. Since 1992 IWHR and CCR had played a leading role in the conceptualization and monitoring of strategic interventions designed to ensure effective prosecution of sexual violence at the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Another key player within the Coalition was the Working Group on Engendering the Rwandan Tribunal based at the University of Toronto : lawyers committed themselves to encouraging law students to do research on the Rwandan Tribunal. The Working Group's resources were devoted to long-term research projects and short-term production of key documents to further the Coalition's positions and advocacy at the ICTR. Others joined the Coalition in the following years, including the Kenyan chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), local women's rights NGOs based in Kigali, as well as individuals and experts committed to developing strategies to promote the prosecution of the perpetrators of gender-based crimes at the ICTR. Since its beginning, the work of the Coalition is coordinated by the Women’s Rights Programme at Rights & Democracy.”

Processes must empower women and girls, or those acting in the best interests of girls, to determine for themselves what forms of reparation are best suited to their situation. Processes must also overcome those aspects of customary and religious laws and practices that prevent women and girls from being in a position to make, and act on, decisions about their own lives.

-- Excerpt from the
Nairobi Declaration