As part of our ongoing work with student chapters, we have invite peace practitioners and advocates into conference calls with our team of student organizers from 10 universities across New York state. This is an opportunity for the next generation of peace activists to hear from a wide range individuals working in the peace building field and better understand the career opportunities within and challenges facing peace work domestically and abroad.
Kate Alexander joined PANYS as our Student Outreach Coordinator in August 2015. Prior to joining PANYS, Kate worked in Bosnia and Uganda with leading transitional justice organizations addressing the gross violations of human rights during the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and various conflicts in northern Uganda. In northern Uganda, she published a policy brief on missing persons as a result of the conflict and made recommendations for the draft transitional justice policy. In Bosnia, she worked with the American prosecution team directly on a complex Srebrenica genocide case.
Having worked in both localized and internationalized structures for international justice, Kate spoke to the student organizers about international justice and its structural challenges.
AFTER CONFLICT, the communities impacted by warfare are encouraged to pursue justice, to seek out the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and to condemn them. This started in the aftermath of World War II with the development of the Nuremburg Tribunals to prosecute Nazi war criminals.
In the words of U.S. attorney Robert Jackson, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Lead Prosecutor for the U.S. at Nuremberg:
“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that a civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
Different countries have taken different approaches to transitional justice and the punishment of these crimes, which include crimes of war, crimes against humanity and genocide. The most internationalized approach has been very western: trial in a court system, followed by a sentencing procedure if the accused is found guilty. South Africa pioneered a different approach. With a goal of capturing a full and accurate history of apartheid South Africa, the government created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission differed from a tribunal in that, if perpetrators came forward and spoke the truth about all they had done and all they know about what had happened under apartheid and offered a full apology, they would be forgiven by the judicial system.
Both systems, however, failed to meet the needs of their most marginalized citizens – in particular: they failed women. And this is because every system we create to protect human rights is limited by the biases of where it operates + who enforces their law.
I worked in Bosnia with the War Crimes Chamber in the office of the American prosecution team on a genocide case. While there, I also contributed to sentencing research – I looked at every completed war crimes and genocide case to see trends in sentencing research.
– – – – –
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault
One case in particular struck me: a woman was raped repeatedly during the Srebrenica genocide. Her rapist actually admitted to it – but he also promised to care for their child. And, she had consented to sex with him prior to the conflict. Although he had admitted to raping her, the fact that she had previously consented to sex with him and that he now promised to care for their child was considered “extenuating circumstances” and he was eventually acquitted.
– – – – –
Bosnia is contending with sexism not only in daily life, but in the court system. As you can see, a woman defied cultural norms and spoke up about what had happened to her during the conflict – and instead of a human rights institution protecting her, it shunned her. She was denied justice because of the sexist reasoning of a male judge operating in a deeply patriarchal society.
Women in South Africa can relate. Although the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had the explicit purpose to capture the full and accurate history of apartheid South Africa – they did not capture the history of women. The commission was based in Cape Town and women, lacking the social support or economic ability to travel into the city, were wildly underrepresented in its proceedings from the beginning. It took years of advocacy from womens rights groups for the court to recognize it needed to do more to hear women’s voices. Finally, they set up just 3 courts in rural areas of South Africa to hear from women. However, they lacked the technology and infrastructure to protect women from being outcasts of their community if the spoke up about what happened to them during the conflict. As a result, many women spoke about what happened to their husbands or children, but could not speak about their own experiences.
We will never have a full history of what happened to women in apartheid South Africa, and that is because the commission reflected the bias of those who created and enforced it.
Recognizing the limitations of human rights mechanisms is the first step towards changing them so they can fulfill their mandates. The second step is to look at best practices: remote courts to reach marginalized populations. Other courts have used witness protection measures, including: transportation of witnesses between the court and their home, disguising the face and/or voice of the witness. NGOs are doing even more significant work, meeting with families in small groups in their communities to document what happened during the conflict and to better understand what happened to them during the conflict.
To prevent reprisals and violent retribution, we must secure a peace that is representative of the desires of the local population. We cannot do that without reaching out to them to create transitional justice mechanisms that meet their needs and are able to hear, without bias, the stories of even the most marginalized members of the conflict affected society.
To join the PANYS Student Network, please contact Kate Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org