Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney told the United Nations Security Council recently that “justice is the antidote” to a global epidemic of wartime sexual violence. She is only half right. Justice is needed, but it is no panacea, certainly not across all continents and contexts.
Over the last 20 years, calls for justice and accountability, especially criminal prosecutions, have come to dominate efforts to address sexual violence in conflict. Clooney was speaking at the Security Council’s April 23 Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict, where the prominence she gave to criminal prosecution in particular was shared by many other speakers. It was likewise the main call of an op-ed penned by Angelina Jolie and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in advance of the debate.
But is this heavy focus of prosecutions shared by those most affected?
In my work documenting sexual violence in the conflict in northeast Nigeria, I’ve found a dissonance between the criminal justice response prioritized by advocates and policymakers, and what survivors say they want. Colleagues and I have interviewed more than 250 people in a two-year period, including scores of women who survived sexual violence. While many survivors do indeed want justice, it isn’t always their first priority, particularly when boiled down to prosecutions and disconnected from their current realities. Their other ideas of what they need to protect themselves — and for redress — must be heard and respected.
Basic Needs First
The sexual violence endured by women during the conflict in northeast Nigeria (one of the country’s recognized geopolitical zones) has included abduction, forced marriage and rape by the armed group Boko Haram. The attacks also have included rape and sexual exploitation by members of Nigerian security forces (soldiers and allied militia members) who have taken advantage of desperate conditions in camps for displaced people to coerce women to be their “girlfriends” in exchange for food and other items.
While many of the scores of survivors in displaced persons camps express their desire for justice, they also face hunger and deprivation, which for them takes precedent. While at a general level, most have been clear that they want the assailants – in the camps, these are mostly Nigerian security forces — to be held criminally accountable, many survivors are reticent to report attackers because they rely on these individuals for access to humanitarian assistance.
As a result, it is urgent that governmental and humanitarian actors ensure increased and non-discriminatory access to basic goods and services to meet daily needs, so that those at risk are in a better position to refuse unwanted demands for sex. An expert in gender-based violence deployed with the U.N. in northeast Nigeria likewise has reflected on the complexity of intervening to terminate sexually exploitative relationships involving humanitarian workers. Doing so without first addressing the prevailing socio-economic conditions that coerce women to submit to these relationships risks doing more harm than good.
Similar sentiments are shared by survivors of sexual violence committed by Boko Haram. Prosecutions, they say, cannot replace or precede desperately-needed tangible assistance. Indeed, the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict told the Security Council that the hunger women have had to bear in displacement has contributed to many saying out of desperation that they were better off with their captors.
Return of Male Family Members
The many survivors in displaced persons camps whose husbands and sons have been arbitrarily detained or subjected to enforced disappearance have consistently said that the return of their family members is their biggest priority. One reason is that their male family members would provide their best protection from sexual violence. If their men were present, they argue, they wouldn’t be forced to leave the camps to collect firewood, thus facing risks of attack, rape and abduction by Boko Haram.
Likewise, they believe the return of men to their communities would protect them from rape by the camp security forces. The release of detained loved ones has been a key call of the Knifar movement of thousands of displaced women who have been campaigning for justice for abuse they have suffered at the hands of Boko Haram and the security forces, including sexual violence.
Even where survivors have said they want to prioritize justice, the sexual violence they have endured is not always the only or primary injustice they want addressed. Many of the women we spoke with have seen family members killed in the conflict, and more than half have watched their children die of malnutrition-related diseases in displacement after being denied sufficient food, water or healthcare.
In this context, the sexual violence is sometimes only one form of abuse on a long list of violence and neglect. Many have indicated that focusing on the prosecution of sexual violence outside a more comprehensive justice response might inappropriately prioritize one form of harm over others. A number also said that other forms of justice or reparation would be more meaningful, such as a public recognition of the wrongs committed and a sincere apology coupled with a serious pledge not to repeat the violation.
Making Justice Safe for Survivors
Finally, where survivors do want justice, reporting sexual violence may put them at additional risk. Women who escaped abduction and sexual violence by Boko Haram too often have been treated as affiliates of the group instead of victims, and have been subjected to prolonged detention by Nigerian authorities.
Likewise, women who have survived sexual violence within the displacement camps often said there was no one to report to but other members of the security forces, and that they faced reprisals for reporting. In the displacement locations where police have been deployed to ensure law and order, they have been among the chief perpetrators of sexual violence.
In the absence of additional steps to ensure training and oversight, increased deployment of security forces and police to ‘protect’ survivors and provide a criminal justice response risks exacerbating patterns of violence and abuse and causing additional harm.
Locally Informed, Individualized Processes
The contemporary struggle against impunity for sexual violence in conflict has been fraught in Nigeria. While hundreds of alleged Boko Haram suspects have been brought to trial for terrorism-related offences, there have been no prosecutions at all for sexual-violence crimes perpetrated by group members. Likewise, prosecutions of security force members and government officials for crimes of sexual violence also have been rare.
The same gloomy picture of impunity is repeated around the globe, including in relation to sexual violence committed against Rohingya and Yazidi communities.
In light of these outrageous shortcomings, it’s tempting to double-down on calls for prosecutions. But while prosecutions are an important tool to combat sexual violence, there is no panacea, no silver bullet. Every context is different.
What is needed is locally informed, and, where possible, individualized processes that protect and promote the rights of individuals and communities where the risk is high and address the wider economic, political, and social structures that allow sexual violence to thrive. The notion that criminal justice is the antidote is dangerous. Its simplistic promise threatens to take us further away from a comprehensive approach that prioritizes the views of those affected.
There may be change on the horizon. The language of a “survivor-centered approach” was one of the few noteworthy remaining parts of the otherwise gutted Security Council resolution that passed in April. Introduced for the first time into the Security Council’s Women, Peace, and Security lexicon, and as yet still underdeveloped, it encourages states to facilitate the participation of survivors in transitional justice processes, highlighting a principle already well-recognized in human rights law.
If and where implemented, this offers the possibility of reinvigorated and more localized debate about how we address sexual violence in conflict, and where resources and political capital are spent. It may provide an antidote to our single-minded focus on prosecutions.