Legal Victory in Kenya Can Serve as Model to Fight Impunity in Burma

Girls and women in Kenya recently made history when the High Court of Kenya delivered a favorable outcome to a constitutional challenge in which 160 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped.

The girls brought the action under Section 22(1) of the Kenyan constitution, which provides that “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights has been denied, violated or infringed, or is threatened.” The Kenyan criminal code contains laws that protect against rape, however they are not enforced and as a result rape has been on the rise. The petitioners accused the police of “neglect, omission, refusal and/or failure…to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations” into sexual violence complaints.

The High Court agreed with the petitioners, saying that the police had “unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably” failed to respond to reports of sexual abuse in Kenya. It said police inaction and lack of enforcement has created a “climate of impunity” that shows perpetrators they can commit crimes of sexual violence and not be punished. The Court found that the petitioners’ fundamental rights and freedoms had been violated, not only under the Kenyan Constitution but also according to international law. The Court found police inaction to violate fundamental rights that are protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Court also considered international cases that demonstrate a consensus that states may be held accountable for failing to properly respond to sexual violence because they have a duty “to protect all citizens from violence and ensure their security of person.”

Two days after the victory, several people contacted Fiona Sampson, the Toronto attorney who worked on the case. They wanted to use the case as a model in other countries for fighting impunity in the context of sexual violence, a problem that is hardly limited to Kenya.

For the women in Burma, for example, the problem of impunity in the face of widespread sexual violence is dire. The prevalence of abuse, documented by Burmese women’s groups, UN special rapporteurs, and even the Security Council, is extensive. These violations are not anecdotal incidences of crime. Rather, the Burmese military uses rape as a weapon of war against the civilian population.

Although this problem has been reported at length, the Burmese government refuses to take any action to punish such acts. In fact, the current 2008 Constitution provides complete impunity for sexual violence perpetrated by the military by including an amnesty provision that precludes the prosecution of military perpetrators of crimes. What’s more, current law requires that any amendment to the Constitution be supported by more than 75% of parliament. Because 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, all nonmilitary members plus at least one military member must support any proposed amendment. It is therefore unlikely that the amnesty provision will be overturned any time soon.Because of this, the International Center for Transitional Justice has said that Burma presents “one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity”.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Burma has an affirmative duty to ensure women are protected from sexual violence, which includes not affording immunity to its perpetrators. Like Kenya, Burma is bound under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and should be guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in developing policies and practices that protect Burmese citizens from sexual violence. Burma is violating these international obligations when it relies on its 2008 Constitution to justify inaction.

The international community should look to the recent case in Kenya as a model and call for Burma to put an end to impunity if it wants to establish viable democracy in the country. Given the Burmese military’s reliance on aid, international pressure could be highly effective. While the government continues to fail to act to combat impunity, the international community must demand a change in the constitution so that girls and women in Burma, just as in Kenya, receive the protections their government owes them.

Prof. Louise Doswald-Beck, Leading Expert on International Humanitarian Law, Calls on President Obama to End US Abortion Restrictions on Aid to War Rape Victims

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 16, 2013 [NEW YORK, NY]

The Global Justice Center (GJC) applauds the letter sent by Professor Louise Doswald-Beck to President Obama, urging him to lift US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid for girls and women raped in armed conflict. Prof. Doswald-Beck is a former head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and co-author of the 2005 authoritative codification of the customary rules of international humanitarian law.

GJC is leading the August 12th Campaign, which aims to ensure that girls and women raped in armed conflict have access to safe abortions in humanitarian settings as a part of their rights under international humanitarian law. Lifting the US abortion restrictions is a critical component of our efforts, and Professor Doswald-Beck joins influential legal and human rights groups, Parliamentarians and global legal experts who support the Campaign.

GJC President Janet Benshoof states that “Professor Doswald-Beck's impeccable credentials as one of the world‟s leading authorities on international humanitarian law make her letter to the President on the illegality of the US abortion ban put on humanitarian aid a 'must read' for all of us who care about the role of the US overseas.”

Professor Doswald-Beck's letter details the ways in which omitting an abortion option from medical treatment for female war rape victims violates the protection and care guarantees of the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law:

The denial of abortion violates the medical care guarantees of international humanitarian law.The failure to provide abortions as part of medical care for girls and women raped in war violates the categorical care and protection guarantees of IHL, which are “unchanged since 1864.” These include the rights of the “wounded and sick” to all necessary medical care, as required by their condition, under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

The denial of abortion violates the absolute prohibition on gender discrimination under international humanitarian law. The denial of abortions for girls and women impregnated as a result of war rape violates the IHL prohibition on “adverse distinction,” including discrimination based on gender, since boys and men raped in war receive all necessary medical care. Professor Doswald-Beck states that IHL, as well as human rights law, precludes using biological differences to justify less favorable treatment for women and that although the medical treatment for female victims of rape may be different from that of male victims of rape, under IHL, “the outcome for each gender” must be the same.

The denial of abortion constitutes torture and cruel treatment in violation of international humanitarian law. Given that pregnancy aggravates the serious, sometimes life-threatening, risks of the injuries from brutal rape perpetrated in armed conflict, the failure to provide abortion violates the prohibition against torture or cruel treatment under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Professor Doswald-Beck states that although the parties to a conflict have primary obligations to provide care, all states, including the US, have a duty to “respect and ensure respect” for IHL under common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, including in the provision of humanitarian aid to war victims. Accordingly, Professor Doswald-Beck urges President Obama to lift US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid, which she describes as leading to a “thoroughly inhuman” situation.

Benshoof adds “The President should heed her call and that of thousands of others. This terrible and shocking US policy is killing some women impregnated by war rape and causing lifelong suffering for others. No girl surviving brutal rape in armed conflict should be forced to bear the child of her rapists-torturers. President Obama should be seeking ways to advance, not subvert, the rights of girls and women raped in war under the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law.”
 

Visit www.globaljusticecenter.net to learn more about the Global Justice Center's August 12th Campaign.

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Letter to President Obama: United States Restrictions on Abortion Access Violates International Humanitarian Law

Louise Doswald-Beck, the former Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross' Legal Division (ICRC), former Director of the University Centre for International Humanitarian Law (CUDIH) and former Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists wrote to President Obama on how the US abortion prohibition attached to humanitarian aid violates the rights of women and girls raped in armed conflict under IHL, and is a form of torture.

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Netherlands Affirms Right of Women Raped in Armed Conflict to Abortions as Part of Necessary Medical Care Under International Law

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - April 9, 2013

[AMSTERDAM, NL]- Frans Timmermans, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and Lilaane Ploumen, Minister of Foreign Trade and Development, just affirmed to parliamentary questions submitted in March 2013 in the Netherlands that the foreign ministry agrees with the UK that abortion can be a necessary medical procedure under international humanitarian law, which then must be provided regardless of national laws in countries. The questions were asked by Parliamentarian Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Member of the Dutch party D66.
 

Netherlands Affirms Right of Women Raped in Armed Conflict to Abortions as Part of Necessary Medical Care Under International Law

Frans Timmermans, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and Lilaane Ploumen, Minister of Foreign Trade and Development, just affirmed to parliamentary questions submitted in March 2013 in the Netherlands that the foreign ministry agrees with the UK that abortion can be a necessary medical procedure under international humanitarian law, which then must be provided regardless of national laws in countries. The questions were asked by Parliamentarian Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Member of the Dutch party D66.

Timmermans and Ploumen state ”It is our opinion that raped women and girls in war zones have the right to any and all necessary medical care of great quality, this includes safe abortions”. The Netherlands also stands ready to engage the US on the issue of the Helms amendment ban on abortion as an obstacle to ensuring women their IHL rights.

An unofficial English translation can be found here.

The Parliamentary questions (in Dutch) can be found here.

The answers (in Dutch) from the Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken are available here.

 

Irish Abortion Debate Further Ignites Tensions Over Women’s Rights

A recent controversial death in Ireland has sparked worldwide debate regarding abortion. Savita Halappanavar, a young woman suffering from a potentially life-threatening miscarriage, was denied a life-saving abortion due to Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. According to reports by Mr. Halappanavar, Savita was told told that an abortion could not be performed because “Ireland is a Catholic country”. The couple had also been informed that the fetus had no chance of survival, but that an abortion could not take place until the fetal heartbeat had disappeared.  Oddly, Ireland’s constitution itself states that abortion is legal, even if there is a fetal heartbeat, if there is a “real and substantial risk” to the life of the woman. This condition was clearly present in this case, as Ms. Halappanavar was pronounced dead only a week later. The fetus was eventually removed, but by then it was too late, causing Ms. Halappanavar to die from sepsis (infection of the blood). The problematic wording of the constitution’s requirement of “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life clearly allows a great deal of subjectivity and discretionary action on the part of the physician. During the official inquest, hospital physicians have stated that there was nothing that could have been done to save the young woman because there was no substantive risk to her life until a few hours before her death. However, leading Irish obstetrician Dr. Peter Boylan admits that Ms. Halappanavar most likely would have survived had the abortion taken place a day or two before she became ill. It’s understandable why women around the world are outraged about the blatant violations of Halappanavar’s rights- violations that also occur in many countries around the world. How long are we going to allow women to have their health rights violated before a change is made? These unacceptable violations do not occur only in Ireland, but throughout the world, particularly in developing nations. That’s why Global Justice Center’s August 12th campaign is so adamant about bringing justice to women around the world who are being denied their rightful access to abortions. Whether in a conflict zone or a peaceful area, women’s lives should never be put at risk because of a practitioner’s religious or social beliefs. Every woman is entitled to life, and not allowing a woman to have an abortion takes away her fundamental right to live and make decisions for her own health. The denial of abortion rights to women is unjust, and in Ms. Halappanavar’s case, unlawful, and women worldwide must take action to ensure that this is put to an end.

European Women Lawyers' Association

August 12, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by the European Women Lawyers' Association as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

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Global Justice Center's Letter to President Obama

August 12, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by the Global Justice Center as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

The letter was also signed by: Alliance for Justice; American Jewish World Service; Association for Women's Rights in Development; Center for Health and Gender Equity; Center for Women's Global Leadership; Center for Women Policy Studies; Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights; Engender, South Africa; Feminist Majority Foundation; Femmes Africa Solidarite; Gender Action; Global Network of Women Peacebuilders; International Federation of Women Lawyers; FIDA, Kenya; FIDA, Nigeria; Legal Momentum; National Organization for Women Foundation; Partners in Health; Physicians for Human Rights; Unione Degli Atei E Degli Agnostici; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, U.S. Section; and V-Day.

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EngenderHealth's Letter to President Obama

August 18, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by EngenderHealth as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

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Network for Africa Letter to President Obama

June 13, 2012

Letter sent to President Obama by Network for Africa as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

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UK Queen's Counsel Letter to President Obama

February 1, 2012

Letter sent to President Obama by a group of UK Queen's Counsel as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

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Written Submission on the General Recommendation on “Access to Justice”

The GJC welcomes the Committee’s Concept Note and looks forward to the general discussion on “Access to Justice” in preparation for a General Recommendation on the subject.

In general, access to justice for women is essential to the advancement of women’s rights, including the prevention of any form of discrimination against women, including gender based violence, and the full implementation of the rights in the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.2 In this context, it is essential that women are able to assert their rights in a judicial system, have access to redress and reparation, including compensation, and have perpetrators of crimes against women held accountable.

This written submission focuses on one particular area of access to justice: the necessity to ensure equal participation in the judiciary by women, in particular through the use of quota systems. Gender parity in the judiciary is essential in order to ensure the advancement of the rule of law, and high quality, non-discriminatory decisions.

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United Kingdom Pledges to Ensure Abortion Access for Women Raped in War

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - January 10, 2013 

[NEW YORK, NY] - The United Kingdom (UK) announced a historic change in their policy on abortions for women raped in armed conflict, a move that should have enormous global impact on health care given women in war zones. UK government spokesperson, Baroness Northover, speaking in the House of Lords on January 9, 2013, acknowledged that girls and women raped in armed conflict have absolute legal rights to comprehensive medical care, including abortions when medically necessary, under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.