UN: Special Rapporteurs Consult with Women from Africa’s Horn and Great Lakes Region

A summary of issues discussed at a consultation between Yakin Ertürk , Margaret Sekaggya and representatives of women’s rights organisations, that was held in Nairobi in early December, 2008.
Last month, women’s human rights defenders from Africa’s Horn and Great Lakes Region met in Nairobi for a consultation with Yakin Ertürk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, and Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.
The countries represented at the consultation included Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan. This is the most volatile region of the African continent. The fact that all these countries are either in or emerging from conflict, is extremely significant to the mandates of the Special Rapporteurs because, violence against women, already widespread in times of peace, is exacerbated in times of conflict.

The meeting was convened by the Urgent Action Fund-Africa, whose Executive Director, Kaari Murungi expressed her organisation’s intention to make the consultation a regular affair, borrowing from the example of women human rights defenders in Asian countries who make better use of the offices of UN Special Rapporteurs than their African counterparts have done.

Myriad challenges

The consultation revolved around three themes: violence against women in conflict situations; justice and reparations; and the situation of women’s human rights defenders. Sexual violence in the war zones of Darfur, Sudan and eastern DRC is not news. There are regular reports of the unabated incidence of rape. In Kenya, during the conflict that marked the first few months of 2008, the widespread rape of women was under-reported. Impunity is a common problem, but even where there are opportunities for legal justice, these are often squandered. The experience of post-genocide Rwanda is one example. Despite the groundbreaking jurisprudence on sexual violence that the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda has come up with, the country’s record in redressing rape during the genocide is poor. Where defendants have been charged with several offences, those related to sexual violence are often the first to be dropped in plea bargains.

Violence against women in conflict situations cannot be reduced simply to rape, which is of course, one of the most prominent forms of violence, and in fact usually a given. Conflict has multiple dimensions and complexities, and women have several identities: ethnic, national, religious and ideological. Some are combatants while others provide financial or political support to sides engaged in war. A broad gender analysis of conflict is necessary, and women’s human rights defenders should not only be seeking prevention of sexual violence, or redress for cases of sexual violence, but should also be active participants in preventing or resolving conflict, and reconstruction of their countries.

Women’s human rights defenders work under difficult conditions. They face multiple threats: displacement, loss of livelihood, injury and even death. In places where there is active conflict, staff of international agencies and non-governmental organisations have enhanced security and evacuation options. Local human rights defenders on the other hand have limited options even when their lives are under threat. During the consultation there were extensive discussions about having a strong regional or international scheme that could provide protection, evacuation, relocation or other security measures for human rights defenders who are under threat.

The need for women’s human rights defenders to express solidarity with each other was reiterated. One of the action points for follow up after the consultation was to send a solidarity delegation to eastern DRC. Participants were keen to emphasise that this visit should contribute concretely to a resolution of the conflict in the region.

The closing down of civil society spaces is another threat in some parts of the regions. In Ethiopia a law has recently been passed severely restricting the operations of non-governmental organisations. Civil society organisations with more than half of their funding from foreign sources are ineligible to be part of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council.

Making use of the Special Rapporteur mechanism

Not many women’s human rights defenders know about the mandate of Special Rapporteurs or how to work with them to advance women’s rights. Special Rapporteurs get their information in different ways: going on country missions, participating in consultations and also individual complaints. Prof Ertürk says that the individual complaint – which can be a simple letter to the Special Rapporteur - is a useful tool but one that is not used frequently enough. Special Rapporteurs do not have the power to enforce a follow-up of their recommendations, and in some cases, there is no action taken after they submit a report. However the moral authority they wield often provokes action by governments. Prof Ertürk suggests that one way to resolve this problem is to have their work tied to a funding source, such that when the Special Rapporteur leaves a country, there are mechanisms that enable the implementation of the recommendations.

The consensus of the participants at the consultation was that there needs to be more awareness about the mandate of UN Special Rapporteurs and that those who know about them should make more use of them.

By: Kathambi Kinoti

9 January 2009

Source: AWID - Association for Women's Rights in Development