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Mobile Gender Courts: Delivering Justice in the DRC

Can mobile gender courts’ swift justice tackle impunity in the DRC’s remote regions?
 | 30 JULY 2012 – 12:03PM | BY LILY PORTER

Kamombo, South Kivu. Photograph by Radio Okapi.

Since 1996, as many as500,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been victims of rape and sexual violence, according to UN estimates. To compound this, these brutal crimes, which have devastated countless lives and communities in the DRC, are widely conducted with impunity. There is a culture of silence around rape, victims are oftenstigmatised by their own communities, and most attempts to bring perpetrators to justice have so far suffered from under-funding, lack of reach and questions over integrity.

A project using mobile gender courts in South Kivu is, however, seeking to use innovative ways to finally put an end to impunity and injustice. These courts travel to remote regions to deal with crimes of sexual violence and have so far enjoyed relative success, although the limitations of their approach cannot be ignored.

Impunity in the Congo

While victims of sexual violence in the DRC number in the hundreds of thousands, only a handful of people have been put on trial and even fewer have gone to prison. In South Kivu in 2005, for example, less than 1% of the 14,200 recorded cases of sexual violence went to court.

Numerous measures have been taken to address violence in DRC but these do not always include sexual violence. In the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) landmark trial of Thomas Lubanga, for example, the rebel leader was convicted of using child soldiers but there was disappointment that he was not also charged for rape and sexual violence, which can be tried under international law as a war crime. Moreover, the trial was lengthy, costly and carried out in The Hague, thousands of miles away from the site of his crimes and his victims.

The DRC’s national courts have similarly fallen short in delivering meaningful justice for victims of sexual violence. Despite a strong legal framework, years of conflict and corruption have rendered a large portion of the country’s judicial system lacking in both capacity and integrity. There has been some progress, particularly in the Ituri district where a court has held prosecutions resulting in 10 convictions on rape charges, but at the moment the DRC’s judicial system simply cannot deal with the scale of the crimes. And even with a more robust and transparent system, there remain practical problems, such as the fact that many victims cannot easily reach courts or police stations and often cannot afford the direct and indirect costs of a trial.

Mobile gender courts

It was with these numerous weaknesses in mind that mobile gender courts were conceived. Launched in October 2009 and focused in South Kivu, mobile gender courts are an enhanced version of existing mobile courts in the DRC which, unlike most national and international measures of delivering justice, primarily seek to bring justice to victims of gender violence.

Supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative and Open Society Institute for Southern Africa in collaboration with the Congolese government, these itinerant civilian and military courts emphasise local-led justice and the rule of law.

The project is active in the larger cities of Baraka, Bukavu and Uvira, but also uses plane travel and long hours of driving along muddy potholed roads to reach more remote places like Kamituga, Kalima and Mwenga. In areas such as these where justice had previously remained elusive, these courts bring justice to the people. Most court sessions are public and audiences come from far and wide to see the trials first-hand. Listening to these cases helps break down the stigma that has encouraged impunity and educates locals on the rule of law and how victims should be treated, something the ICC and national courts typically fail to do.

The mobile gender courts nevertheless operate within the national judicial system, and use entirely Congolese staff, including police, judges, prosecutors and defence counsel, and court administrators. This is important for promoting the project as one aspect of improving the country’s judicial system as a whole rather than creating a parallel externally-led judicial structure.

Delivering justice

From their initiation in October 2009 to May 2011, these courts have handed out 195 convictions, 75% of them being for sexual crimes and 25% for crimes such as murder and theft. Punishments come in form of punitive justice, with up to 20 years in prison. In some cases, financial penalties are awarded.

One of the most prominent cases to date has been the Fizi mass rape trial, which found Colonel Kibibi Mutware guilty of rape as a crime against humanity and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. He is the first commanding officer to be convicted for such a crime in eastern DRC, marking an important moment for justice in South Kivu.

Trials typically last two weeks and are, according to Judge Mary McGowan Davis who was invited by Open Society Justice Initiative and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa to assess the courts, “perhaps better adapted [than international courts] to the actual task of providing timely redress to individual victims in communities still struggling with the chaotic aftermath of war and political upheaval”. The speed of the trials also makes them more effective than national courts. Under national law, courts have 3 months to conclude sexual violence cases, and under-resourced national courts are often too slow to process cases which then get thrown out.

Alongside the trials, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative also works in conjunction with local civil society groups and the South Kivu Bar Association to provide sustainable training on the rule of law, educate people about their rights, and offer medical help and counselling to victims. This offers a more holistic approach to dealing with the problem of sexual violence and goes beyond mere justice and begins to address victims’ other needs.

No silver bullet

Despite the positive work of these mobile gender courts, they have limitations. The speedy nature of the trials, while beneficial in one way, can also make summoning witnesses in time difficult. There is also a lack of resources for basic equipment like writing paper or computers, the prison system is inadequate, and the state has failed to pay out for any form of reparations as of yet. Overcoming these problems, however, requires addressing other areas of the DRC’s judicial system.

Mobile gender courts are no quick fix to the problems surrounding impunity and injustice in DRC. Just as the scope of the ICC and the national courts are limited, these courts can only reach out to some of the many victims. These itinerant courts could, however, be a crucial foundation upon which the national judicial system and restoration of rule of law can be strengthened. In conjunction with the ICC and national courts, mobile gender courts can help tackle impunity at various levels and inculcate a sense of accountability around sexual violence.

By reaching victims in remote areas and delivering justice quickly, these courts offer perhaps the most optimistic indication to date that justice for victims of sexual violence in the DRC could be an achievable reality.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

UN makes resounding vote in favour of Palestinian statehood


Overwhelming majority votes to recognise Palestine as non-member state as US and Israel are left to condemn decision

Palestinians celebrate in the West Bank

Palestinians celebrate in Ramallah after the general assembly voted to recognise Palestine as a non-member state. Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations general assembly voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to recognise Palestine as a state, in the face of opposition from Israeland the US.

The 193-member assembly voted 138 in favour of the plan, with only nine against and 41 abstentions. The scale of the defeat represented a strong and public repudiation for Israel and the US, who find themselves out of step with the rest of the world.

Thursday’s vote marked a diplomatic breakthrough for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and could help his standing after weeks in which he has been sidelined by Palestinian rivals Hamas in the Gaza conflict.

Abbas, who flew from Ramallah, on the West Bank, to New York to address the general assembly, said: “The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: enough of aggression, settlements and occupation.”

A Palestinian flag was unfurled on the floor of the general assembly after the vote.

Several hundred people turned out in Yasser Arafat square in Ramallah on the West Bank, waving flags and singing along to nationalist music to mark the occasion.

In his address, Abbas noted the symbolism of the date, the 65th anniversary of the UN partitioning what had been British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab countries. In the decades that followed, the idea of an independent Palestine had often been in danger of disappearing but had been “miraculously” kept alive, he said.

The general assembly resolution had finally given legitimacy to Palestine, he said. “The general assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine.”

Israel and the US immediately condemned the resolution. The office of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, described Abbas’s speech as incitement and full of lies about Israel.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said: “Because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.”

The only way to a Palestinian state was through direct negotiations, he said.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, described the vote as “unfortunate and counterproductive”. She said: “Only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace that both deserve: two states for two people, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

Thursday’s resolution raises Palestine from being a “non-member observer entity” to a “non-member observer state”. The key is the final word, which confers UN legitimacy on Palestinian statehood and, while it cannot vote at the general assembly, it will enjoy other benefits, such as the chance to join international bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

While important, the resolution is limited, elevating Palestine only to the status of the Vatican, which until Thursday had been the only other non-member observer state. For Palestinians, the idea of an independent state bears little reality on the ground, given the degree of Israeli involvement in the West Bank and Gaza.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, speaking after the vote, disputed that the resolution conferred statehood on Palestine. “Today’s grand announcements will soon fade and the Palestinians will wake up to realise that little in their lives has changed,” Rice said. “This resolution does not establish Palestine as a state.”

But the coalition against the vote was thin. Apart from Israel and the US, those voting against were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.

European countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland all voted yes. Britain and Germany both abstained, with Britain saying Abbas had failed to promise he would resume peace negotiations with Israel.

Some countries, especially in Europe, switched from abstention to support out of a feeling that Abbas needed to be bolstered after eight days of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians earlier this month. An estimated 158 Palestinians died in Gaza, and six Israelis were killed.

The Israeli and US governments had put pressure on the Palestinians not to press the issue to a vote and threatened significant retaliation –  mainly in the form of punitive financial measures. They have since largely backtracked over the threats, concerned that withdrawal of major funding might undermine Abbas at a time when he is particularly vulnerable.

The prospect of the Palestinians applying to bodies such as the ICC is one of the main reasons for Israeli opposition, fearful that the Palestinians might try to launch a case over Jewish settlements on the West Bank or over military attacks on the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian officials say they have no immediate plans to do so but it remains a new and useful lever for the future.

The Obama administration, in an effort to try to persuade the Palestinians to drop the vote, sent deputy secretary of state Bill Burns to see Abbas on Wednesday. But Abbas turned down his pleas.

The US, Israel and Britain wanted the Palestinians to give explicit pledges they would not seek to join the ICC any time soon and also to resume peace negotiations with the Israelis that were abandoned in 2010 over a settlement expansion.

In Ramallah, hundreds watching on a television in the square cheered enthusiastically for Abbas as he denounced Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza.

When the Israeli ambassador began addressing the UN, the crowd in the square watching on a giant television screen began booing. Prosor’s speech was suddenly cut, and nationalist music fired up.

But the mood of the crowd did not appear to be that of people who thought they were marking a great national moment, or who had hope that the general assembly’s recognition of Palestinian statehood amounted to anything like the birth of a real country.

Crusading Spanish judge is suspended for career-ending 11 years

10TH FEB, 2012  MADRID — Spain‘s most famous judge, heralded abroad for seeking to put dictators behind bars, has been found guilty of overstepping his authority in a corruption probe here.

Baltasar Garzón won global fame for indicting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. He’s been dubbed a “dictator-hunter” abroad for championing the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” the idea that some crimes are so heinous that they deserve to be investigated, no matter where or when.

But his crusade hit a snag Thursday in Spain. The country’s Supreme Court convicted Garzón of misusing his authority while investigating alleged corruption involving figures in Spain’s now-ruling conservative party.

The high court barred Garzón, 56, from the bench for 11 years, a decision that cannot be appealed and that effectively ends his career in Spain because he will be past retirement age when the suspension ends.

But it’s unclear what effect, if any, Thursday’s ruling will have on Garzón’s international work. He has served as an advisor to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and has investigated political crimes and genocide in Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, Rwanda and Tibet. Garzón even tried to investigate former U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales for allegedly authorizing torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That case was dropped amid fierce American diplomatic pressure.
“Judge Garzón is still a heroic figure in many parts of the world, and he’s not going to have difficulty finding people who want to use his investigative skills,” said Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer with Human Rights Watch who knows the judge personally and traveled to Madrid to watch his trial.

Garzón’s conviction came in one of three trials against him. He is awaiting a verdict in a case that wrapped up Wednesday, involving his probe into more than 100,000 deaths and disappearances that date back to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. Garzón is accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law that prohibits investigations into political crimes from the war and nearly 40-year military dictatorship that followed.

A third case, involving alleged payments from a Spanish bank, has yet to begin. It is the only case that carries the possibility of jail time if Garzón is convicted.

Garzón’s job as an investigative judge at Spain’s National Court was like that of a U.S. district attorney. For years, he helped put drug barons, Basque terrorists and corrupt politicians behind bars. In 2009, Garzón ordered wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between inmates and their lawyers, as part of a larger corruption probe involving the conservative Popular Party.

Garzón’s hunch was right, and one of the lawyers was indicted. But the seven-member Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that those wiretaps were illegal.

Brody said some of Garzón’s colleagues backed his decision to order the wiretaps.

“There are many judges who agreed that it was proper for Judge Garzón to do what he did,” Brody said. “Yet he’s the one who is being prosecuted for it.


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