As part of the 59th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 59), the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America co-organized two panel discussions in New York City last week. This year’s gathering of the international women's movement at the UN took place on a special occasion: the 20 years anniversary of the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which remains a milestone for the global advancement of gender equality to this day. The special vulnerability of women in armed conflicts was identified by the declaration as one of the twelve crucial areas to be addressed by the international community and civil society.
In this context, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America invited several civil society activists and experts to share their experiences and impressions on "Women in Armed Conflicts - Prosecuting Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes in Colombia and Beyond". Panelists included: Claudia Mejia Duque and Viviana Rodriguez from the Colombian women’s rights organization “Sisma Mujer”, Angela Hernandez working on the ground with the German Development Agency GIZ, and Gitti Hentschel, Executive Director at the Gunda Werner Institute (GWI) in Berlin. The events were facilitated by Anna von Gall from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
Impunity despite legal Progress
The number of civil wars and inner-state conflicts in the world are on the rise. In all violent conflicts, civilians become victims of gender-based and sexual violence. While women and children are the most endangered groups, men can become the target of such crimes as well. Gender-based violence aims at the humiliation, physical and psychological destruction of the enemy. Its harmful impact extends much beyond the individual victims to society as a whole. Against this background, Gitti Hentschel, Executive Director of the GWI, displayed the opportunities and drawbacks of the transitional justice approach for the prosecution of gender-based violence. In theory, transitional justice includes a wide range of instruments such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, reparation payments, rehabilitation programmes and symbolic compensation. In practice, however, these approaches often do not sufficiently take into account a gender perspective in their practical implementation.
This is also the case for Colombia which has suffered from a bloody civil war since 1964. Now, that the peace talks have begun between the government and the guerillas (FARC and ELN) in Havana, there seems to be a real opportunity to break up of the formerly rigid gender structures. But despite a series of laws adopted by the government to address the issue of gender-based violence, the lack of accountability for these crimes is still a widespread reality in today’s Colombia. According to a representative of the Colombian Mission to the UN, these positive steps taken by the government include the training and employment of sexual violence investigators, campaigns for public sensitization and financial and psychological support for victims. Sharing her impressions from her work with the German GIZ, Angela Hernandez seconded the positive steps taken by the government to address the issue of gender-based violence committed during the civil war. Nevertheless, she argued that although public recognition towards the issue has increased, the role of the regular armed forces is not yet sufficiently recognized.
The current Peace Process gives Hope to the Women’s Movement
With their experience of 15 years of fighting against the impunity of perpetrators of sexual violence, civil society activists Viviana Rodriguez and Claudia Mejia Duque were able to share a vast insight into the remaining challenges on the ground. Both characterized gender-based violence as a structural rather than a merely legal problem. According to them, gender-based violence is the outcome of the discrimination of women and girls in daily life. One specific obstacle for the accountability of the perpetrators of gender-based violence is the fact that the immediate criminals often stay unknown. There are diverse reasons for that, including the cover of military ranks, the anxiety of victims to talk about these crimes and social pressure.
Claudia Mejia Duque argued that the inclusion of a gender perspective in the on-going peace negotiations will be crucial. While recognizing that much more has to be done to meet the pleas of Colombian women’s rights activists, she presented several causes for cautious optimism: A sub-commission on gender-related topics was created within the framework of the talks; two women became official members of the negotiation body and victims of sexual violence were heard during the meetings.
A pre-condition for a just and lasting peace in Colombia is a strong commitment of both parties to not only eradicate sexual violence in the present and future, but to also recognize their own responsibility for past crimes. In this context, Viviana Rodriguez cautioned that peace for men does not necessarily mean peace for women. Several civil society actors in Colombia try to seize the momentum of the peace negotiations in order to bring gender-based violence on the agenda. All panelists agreed on the supporting impact of international law to their cause not only for Colombia but for women’s rights activists all over the world. One milestone for the international community was UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2002, which acknowledged the pivotal role women play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace. This is a global struggle, as the panel unanimously urged, and it is also upon the international community to keep up the pressure and highlight the importance of the topic.