A beacon of hope?
As Radhika Coomaraswamy approaches the end of her tenure as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, she speaks to AMMU JOSEPH about global efforts to end gender-based violence.
"AN Island of Peace?" The headline in The New York Times on March 19 provided welcome relief from the predominance of war talk in the media following the abrupt abandonment of the diplomatic route to resolving the global crisis over Iraq. The timing of the article on the op-ed page of the paper was clearly not lost on its author, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Director of the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies and Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women at the United Nations. "While the rest of the world seems to be marching to war, Sri Lanka, wearied by military stalemate after 18 years of war, is walking slowly, haltingly and surprisingly towards peace," she began.
Coomaraswamy is poised to become a critical figure in the peace process in her home country, as the likely new chairperson of Sri Lanka's human rights commission after her nine-year term as Special Rapporteur under the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (CHR) comes to an end in April. She highlighted the centrality of human rights to the island nation's quest for real and sustainable peace in her article. According to her, "If Sri Lanka is to thrive, the international community needs to continue to press for respect for human rights ... It is imperative that all parties in the negotiations sign on to a human rights agreement that would be monitored by international observers."
If the reputation she has earned as the U.N.'s first Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (VAW) is any indication, the human rights of fellow Sri Lankans will be closely monitored and stoutly defended as the country, whose remarkable achievements in human development have been threatened by prolonged civil war, finally moves towards peace.
Coomaraswamy was a popular speaker at several official and non-official events during the recently concluded 47th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. Among the two themes under consideration by the Commission this year, which marks the 10th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, was "Women's human rights and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls." It was in the summer of 1993, during the Vienna conference, that women's rights were formally recognised as human rights by the international community. A few months later, in February 1994, Coomaraswamy was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on VAW.
At one CSW-related side-event she received a standing ovation for "going out on a limb in a hostile environment, taking on board the concerns of non-governmental organisations and analysing them in her reports which, in turn, have informed NGO action, and thereby creating synergy between U.N. and NGO Processes", as Charlotte Bunch of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, a veteran women's rights advocate, put it.
Coomaraswamy presented the highlights of her final report to members of the CSW on March 7, the eve of International Women's Day. The 438-page document placed before the 59th session of the CHR in February and available on the website: www.unhchr.ch contains a detailed review of international, regional and national developments in the struggle against violence against women and of strategies adopted in different parts of the world to combat gender-based violence over the past decade.
The section on India in the country-wise analysis runs into 20 paragraphs and includes information on laws, policies and programmes, landmark cases and issues of special concern.
Among the latter are the declining ratio of females to males in the country's population (attributed largely to the growing phenomenon of female foeticide) and the extensive violence against women in Gujarat during the communal conflagration of 2002.
According to Coomaraswamy, both she and other U.N. Special Rapporteurs had written to the Government of India about the violence in Gujarat, but had yet to receive any response. Ironically, Gujarat also features in the section on "best practices," thanks to the village-based Nari Adalats (women's courts) initiated by the Mahila Samakhya programme for women's empowerment, which has been functioning in the state since the late 1980s.
Coomaraswamy notes that VAW has come a long way from the situation a few decades ago when it was a virtually taboo topic, with a number of international human rights instruments now not only providing protection from violence to women and girls but also requiring States to take effective measures to prevent and eradicate gender-based violence. She attributes these developments primarily to the women's movement, which she describes as "the cutting edge of the human rights movement", and its success in getting all forms of violence against women including those perpetrated by "private actors" within families recognised as violations of human rights.
She says her main contributions as special rapporteur have been in creating norms, setting standards and raising awareness with regard to VAW. While acknowledging progress in the area of policy and legislation, however, she highlights the fact that the situation on the ground remains distressing.
Citing statistics from the chapters on VAW in a recent report on violence by the World Health Organisation, which point to the continued widespread prevalence and high incidence of gender-based violence across the world, she admits that a major source of frustration is the fact that none of the work done so far has made a real dent on the problem and that "the gaps between norms and practices remain".
According to her, the task of addressing this gap, by systematically monitoring the implementation of laws and policies, constitutes one of the many challenges that need to be met to ensure progress towards the eradication of VAW. Another lies in the protection of the doctrine of "due diligence," which was spelt out in Recommendation 19 on violence against women adopted by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1992 and which holds States responsible if they fail to prevent, prosecute and punish violence even if it is committed by "private actors". Apart from the need to test governments on their willingness to live up to their commitment in this respect, she says, it is necessary to resist the objections raised by some governments notably those of the U.S. and the U.K. over the past few years, which threaten the gains made in this area.
Two other challenges she highlights are closely related. One concerns the intimate links between women's rights over their own bodies and sexuality, and many forms of violence against them. The other involves the contentious issue of cultural or religious tradition, which is often used by nations to side-step their obligation to end gender-based violence.
Indeed, this was dramatically demonstrated on the last day of this year's CSW session, when the meeting was "suspended" without adopting the "agreed conclusions" on "Women's human rights and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls" because of irreconcilable differences between delegations on a single paragraph (which read: "Condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women).
Examining violence against women ... .
According to Coomaraswamy, multi-pronged strategies are required to tackle the apparent clash between religious or cultural identities and practices and women's human rights, including their right to live lives free of violence. While those practices that clearly violate international norms may be simpler to deal with through existing systems of law and justice, she says, others may require long-term work with local communities, especially but not only women. In this context, she believes it is important to examine the relationship between VAW and the construction of masculinities, and to educate men and boys on ways to resolve conflicts without violence.
Another source of frustration, she says, is the "defensiveness and ultra-sensitivity of states", the pride and concerns about sovereignty, and the politics, which prevent them from honestly looking at the problem of violence with a view to finding solutions. In contrast, she says, a vital source of strength has come in the form of the extraordinary human beings she has come across in the course of her work living proof of the resilience of the human spirit: so strong and committed to recovering from their trauma and reclaiming their lives that they cannot be seen only as victims.
According to Coomaraswamy, gender-based violence in situations of war and armed conflict constitute one area in which substantial gains have been made in recent times, at least at the international level. Apart from International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, which have set jurisprudential benchmarks for the prosecution of wartime sexual violence, the Statute of the International Criminal Court (also known as the Rome Statute) specifically defines rape and other gender-based violence as "constituent acts of crimes against humanity and war crimes".
In addition, Resolution 1325 (2000) of the much-maligned U.N. Security Council recognises the vital role of women in promoting peace, and calls for an increased use of women's expertise in conflict resolution and all stages of peacemaking and peace-building. On October 31, 2002, the second anniversary of the resolution, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement, which refers to issues of violence against women in conflict as well as post-conflict situations. This includes the recently exposed, ugly reality of the sexual abuse and exploitation of women during periods of "peace-keeping".
Even though the war on Iraq (now being described as the war with Iraq) has become a reality despite the Security Council, and most certainly without the use of women's expertise in conflict resolution, perhaps Coomaraswamy or her successor can try to ensure that other aspects of Resolution 1325 and the subsequent presidential statement will be put into practice in its aftermath. Maybe that will ensure that the women and children caught in the crossfire of the latest outbreak of war will not face double jeopardy.
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