On 25 November 2020, LAW, Allen and Overy and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Juba organised a webinar entitled Protecting Survivors of Conflict Related Sexual Violence: What role should CEDAW play in its 40th Year?
Chaired by Professor Suzanne Spears, partner in the International Arbitration group and Co-Head of the Global Business and Human Rights Practice at Allen and Overy, the esteemed panel included:
· Ambassador Siv Kaspersen, Royal Norwegian Embassy in Juba,
· Jane Connors, Victims’ Rights Advocate for the United Nations,
· Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s international League for Peace and Freedom,
· Antonia Mulvey, Executive Director, Legal Action Worldwide.
Conflict related sexual violence is often used as a tactic of war and survivors’ ability to access justice continues to be a key issue, and impunity remains despite global efforts. Conflict related violence is a pervasive form of gender discrimination, and vulnerability and fear of reprisal are often obstacles to reporting, including to CEDAW. On 25 November 2020, LAW submitted a communication on behalf of 30 South Sudanese survivors of conflict related sexual violence and a request to the Committee for the protection of their identity.
The panel discussed key issues around the challenges and impediments for survivors of conflict related sexual violence seeking justice and in particular accessing UN Human Rights Mechanisms. Topics included the on-going situation of widespread sexual violence in South Sudan, as well as globally, the interpretation of Article 6.1 of the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, the recent submission by LAW to the CEDAW Committee on South Sudan and the mass impunity that exists for conflict related sexual violence.
Ambassador Kaspersen highlighted the need for a survivor centred approach, and that access to justice for survivors/victims is essential. In the case of South Sudan, it is also crucial for the peace of the whole country. Ms Connors reflected on Article 6 of the Optional Protocol, and whether there should be a possibility to protect the identities of complainants in a communication. The conversation delved into the broader question of the objective and purpose of the Protocol, if it is not to protect the survivors. She also emphasised that whilst law and accountability are important, the needs of the victims/survivors are wide ranging, and this must be looked at holistically. Ms Mulvey spoke about LAW’s recent submission to the Committee. LAW represents 30 South Sudanese women and girls who were victims of appalling acts of sexual violence during the civil war. LAW argue that South Sudan has breached numerous articles of CEDAW and requested that the identities of the victims not be disclosed to South Sudan, to protect them from stigma and retaliation. She spoke of the distinction between anonymous communications, and communications where, owing to protection concerns, the identities of the victims should be protected. Finally, Ms Rees, emphasised the need to look at the context in which the violence occurs, taking into consideration the needs of individuals, and spoke of the necessity of protection being effective and articulated to the survivors/victims to encourage them to speak out and feel safe moving forward.
The panel concluded that there was a clear need to approach justice in a holistic and survivor-centred manner to ensure those who are brave enough to report on the violation suffered can access it safely. The role of the international community is crucial in making sure the conversation continues and justice needs are an integral part of peace processes in conflict affected and post-conflict countries, to the benefit of women, girls, men and boys who need it the most.