Echoes Linger from the first Global Women's Court of Accountability
Women war survivors join global judges and expert human rights defenders in historic event.
by Dee Aker
In the first global public hearing of its kind in North America, women survivors of war crimes, witnesses, and peacemakers from Burundi, northern Uganda, Nigeria, Tunisia, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines came together to testify before a U.S. audience and a distinguished panel of judges headed by the honorable Justice Richard Goldstone, Chief Prosecutor in the Rwanda and former Yugoslavia tribunals, and Fatou Bensouda, Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
According to organizers, the mock-tribunal, held at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in San Diego at the close of 2005, was a collective act to acknowledge the profound depth and cost of human rights abuses against women in conflict, and an examination of the international laws and tools available to achieve justice.
Although accountability tribunals for women, also known as "Women's Courts" are an increasingly frequent phenomenon in the global South, it is extremely rare for such a court to be held in the global North. In the global South, and also notably in the Arab world, women have taken the lead in exposing forced sexual slavery during conflict, intentional genocide through rape, and targeted sexual and physical abuse of young women and girls by armed forces.
"The Courts of Women are a new political space" declares El Taller, an international nongovernmental organization which has organized 18 such courts in the global South. "In the Courts, the voices of the victims/survivors are listened to. They are 'sacred' spaces where women, speaking in a language of suffering, name the crimes, seeking redress, even reparation. It challenges the master narratives of our times."
The act of testifying in San Diego took tremendous strength. Many witnesses to the proceedings found their cheeks streaming with tears. The judges listened intently.
"I cannot forget the first time I killed. I was ordered by my 'husband' to put a baby in a large pounding mortar and kill by pounding the baby. ...It got easier."
Sister Pauline Acayo, a nun in Northern Uganda, stood before the judges and told the stories entrusted to her by young girls she works with who had been abducted as sex slaves by rebels. For her work with the traumatized children, Sister Pauline herself lives under death threats.
"Now I can feel I have given these children a voice; while it has been an honor to have my story recorded, I live it for these children," she said.
A tiny, 77-year-old Menen Castillo humbly spoke of how she was turned into a "sex slave" by the Japanese Army at age 14 during WWII.
Her eyes filled with tears as she pleaded for some recognition of, and apologies for, what the Japanese soldiers did to her and so many young girls, day after day, night after night, in numbers beyond sane memory at their military garrison in Arayat. Fewer and fewer of the thousands upon thousands of women from the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and other south Asian countries forced to serve the Japanese army who have awaited apologies are now alive to hear them should they come. But survivors like Castillo continue to demand accountability.
Although accustomed to hearing such searing testimonies on a regular basis, the judges were highly impacted by the event. "I would not have missed this," said Judge Fatou, who had come close to canceling due to pressing business at the Hague. "The testimonies were humbling and powerful. I have truly learned from this process and I will not forget it."
Judges submitted a public indictment at the culmination of the emotional proceedings which will be used by participants to further their own local advocacy work. The indictment was made "on behalf of women throughout history and throughout the world who have suffered unspeakable abuse."
According to the indictment: "When far-reaching violations of international law occur, people of conscience have a solemn responsibility to inquire into the nature and scope of these acts.
"When perpetrators of such acts are not held accountable, people of conscience have a solemn responsibility to seek justice on behalf of victims."
These are words that will long echo in the ears of those who witnessed the historic court.
©2005 World Pulse Magazine