Improving cooperation in the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence

Improving cooperation in the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence


A workshop with representatives from international(ized) courts, NGOs and civil society organizations

On 12-13 September 2016, the Nuremberg Academy will bring together representatives of international courts, NGOs and civil society organizations, to discuss the modalities of cooperation in the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence. The two-day workshop will address the merits of effective cooperation between these stakeholders in the prosecution of sexual violence, and seeks to increase understanding of the current challenges involved therein.

Ineffective cooperation between courts and NGOs/civil society organizations has been named as one of the underlying problems in the prosecution of sexual violence as an international crime. However, the contribution of NGOs/civil society to the establishment and work of international criminal justice cannot be ignored; to the contrary, its strengths and limitations must be better discussed and recognized. For instance, in addition to the judicial processes, NGOs may address difficult issues such as stigma and local customs and practices. Others may drive the legal process through accompanying victims to court. Therefore, courts as well as NGOs/civil society organizations themselves should be well aware of the full scope of the latter’s contribution to the international justice process and the advantages of effective cooperation. Simultaneously, all stakeholders must understand the inherent limits of cooperation and anticipate the challenges involved in such processes. 

Over the past years, a number of organizations have published best practices documents dealing with cooperation between international courts and NGOs. Yet, aligning the work of those involved in the prosecution process remains a difficult task. The manners in which these best practices are utilized differ between various stakeholders, signifying a need for clarification and an enhanced understanding of the purpose of such documents. In light of this, the Nuremberg workshop will promote dialogue on several cross-cutting issues which affect cooperation to further the discussion on existing guidelines. 

For instance, the diversity of the roles and mandates of NGOs and civil society organizations highlights the need to consider exactly what kind of organizations are envisaged to be relevant to the prosecution of sexual violence crimes in any given case. Not all organizations would be willing to promote the prosecution of particular individuals, and some hold the issue of confidentiality as their most pressing concerns. This also leads to discussions regarding capacity and awareness challenges. For example, many NGOs are not trained criminal investigators, and even if they do receive such training, this may be very different from scenarios envisaged by criminal prosecutors. Another factor to consider is whether such organizations are indeed aware of how exactly to contact or engage with a court in general. 

Further difficulties may arise through a reluctance to cooperate. Many NGOs state confidentiality as a key starting point for all security interactions, particularly as situations at the ground-level differ substantially from in-court environments. When dissecting this issue from a sexual violence perspective, questions arise as to whether the degree of cooperation is likely to differ depending on the kind of sexual or gender-based crime that is being dealt with. This also leads to discussions regarding the underlying assumptions of the prosecution of sexual crimes. Much of the narratives of sexual violence in armed conflict are created through evidence submitted for the purpose of court proceedings. This creates concerns for many categories of victims which may have been largely ignored in the prosecution process, such as male victims, and even victims of less ‘recognized’ sexual crimes. 

Given the multitude of questions which still arise in the field of sexual violence in armed conflict, it is axiomatic that progress can still be made. Ongoing dialogue between courts and NGOs/civil society organizations is paramount in addressing mutual and individual concerns regarding prosecution. While full cooperation may not always be the most optimal solution available, the purpose of this workshop is to create dialogue which will aid in ascertaining the circumstances under which this may and may not be the case. 

Dr. Josephine Ndagire
Farah Mahmood