In 1998 the majority of nations agreed to form a permanent International Criminal Court, referred to as the ICC. It was an extraordinary moment, one that continues to inspire confidence in our ability to work together as people, as communities, as governments. After a century of horrific atrocities, temporary tribunals to seek accountability for those atrocities and intense negotiations between governments, civil society and legal experts, the world came to a unique agreement. Not quite world peace. But an important step towards creating a world where it’s unacceptable and punishable to commit the crimes defined as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Rome Statute, the document that set up the ICC, is especially important for women.
All too often women are subjected to the most terrible atrocities in a conflict. And yet crimes committed against women aren’t punished. Partly because there are few, if any, ways for any crimes during conflict to be punished. But also because crimes against women are ignored, dismissed as part of the regrettable consequences of conflict, so that when there are efforts to prosecute they don’t include prosecution for the unique violence committed against women. The Rome Statute specifically recognizes crimes against women including rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilizations, gender-based persecutions, trafficking of persons particularly of women and children, and sexual violence as crimes under its jurisdiction.
The investigation and prosecution of such crimes against women can be difficult. In many instances, it’s dangerous to the women victims. So there are procedures at the court to protect women who participate in these cases, to shield women witnesses from attacks on their sexuality or credibility and requirements that court staff be trained to understand the unique circumstances of women victims.
Women make up a significant portion of the victims in conflicts and yet often have no voice in the resolution of that conflict, including the processes for holding perpetrators accountable. The ICC addresses this inconsistency. Victims are supposed to have opportunities to participate – to provide information in investigations, to tell their stories to the court, to know how the cases are progressing. Victims also have the right to reparations, an acknowledgement that victims of these crimes need not only to know that the perpetrators have been punished but need the support to recover from the crimes, such as money to pay for psychological and medical care.
Finally, this court is intended to do what all criminal justice is supposed to do – deter future crimes. If it can – if it does – it may save thousands of people from being victims of terrible crimes – and many of those saved would be women.