Impunity as the norm

Anton Popic March 8, 2013

Participants at CSW from southern Africa to Latin America, from east Asia to Northern Europe, agree that impunity for violent crimes against women appears to be the norm. According to Theresa Ulloa, the director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, 90 percent of cases of violence against women in the region go unpunished. Several years ago, Amnesty Norway uncovered the shamefully low rate of prosecution and conviction of rape in Norway. In Australia, only 1 of 10 cases of violence against women that reach the courts result in a conviction, admits an Australian delegate.

Rampant impunity has moved a group of women's organizations to launch the "Zero Impunity" campaign, aimed at raising awareness and mobilizing to action against impunity against the likes of Dominic Strauss Kahn and Silvio Berlusconi. Malka Marcovich, one of the founders of the campaign, explains that since the creation of the International Criminal Court, little, if any, attention has been given to ending impunity against gender-based violence, be it in times of peace or war. Thus the campaign was born.

One of the first actions "Zero Impunity" is working on is the case of a French diplomat in India, who repeatedly raped his 2-year-old daughter. The mother, an Indian citizen, discovered the abuse, reported it to the police, but to no avail. The response from both the Indian authorities and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been to do everything in their power to discredit the mother. She is being accused of trying to slander her husband as a result of 'marital difficulties.

According to Natalie Henry of Zero Campaign, "The 'conspiracy theory' approach is one of the common ways our societies promote impunity for violence against women and girls.

"Impunity is what allows men with power and influence to inflict violence on women without power, adds Henry.

"It ensures that the victims live in shame and isolation."

Paula Barrios is a lawyer working with Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM) (Women Changing the World), a Guatemalan organization specializing in preparing and filing emblematic class-action criminal cases on behalf of women who suffered sexual violence during the civil war. "Sexual violence was a systematic warfare tactic during the civil war in Guatemala," explains Barrios. Impunity for these crimes has been absolute.

During the civil war in Guatemala, the military established bases all around the country, many of them on the properties of rich landowners. Some of the bases were established purely for the "entertainment" of the troops. Local peasants, mainly indigenous, were disappeared, and their wives and sisters enslaved in local military installations. The women were forced to cook and clean. But even worse, they were used as sex slaves, raped over and over again by countless soldiers.

One of these cases was a military base in Izabal, an area north in Guatemala. Between 1982 and 1986, numerous indigenous women were enslaved there. After peace came back to Guatemala, the women were ostracized by their community, forced into accepting a life of shame, pain and poverty. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the atrocities committed against them.

In 2011, MTM got word of the case of these women. In Izabal, 15 of the survivors are still alive. All fifteen are women of the Qe'qchi group, none of them speak Spanish, and all live in poverty. Despite their marginal position, the women were united in their desire to work with MTM and pursue justice while they still can.

MTM filed the case with the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor's Office, and in September 2012 the Court of High Risk in Guatemala City held a hearing. At the hearing were the fifteen survivors of sexual slavery, who for the first time got a chance to officially give their testimonies. Presented with the evidence, the Court is now conducting its own fact-finding. Latest news from Guatemala is that several arrests of the identified perpetrators are pending.

The stories of the women survivors of sexual slavery from Izabal are moving and important. While still in the pre-trail phase, the case is already making headlines. This is the first time in history that a national court has decided to accept a case of sexual slavery of women during conflict. Should the case result in the conviction of the ones responsible it would constitute another important legal precedent.

"The women of Izabal were once victims. Now they are survivors. And we hope that once justice is brought to them, they will be become agents in their own lives," says Barrios.

No state can claim it takes violence against women seriously as long as the consequences for the perpetrators are absent. The Guatemalan case gives us a glimpse of hope for the future. Fighting impunity brings justice for the wrongs already committed. But let us not forget that justice itself is a form of prevention and that legal precedents like these have an important normative effect.