Archive for Africa

Kagame’s third term bid and the African Union’s silence

By Sylvester Uhaa, former Human Rights Advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at Columbia University


I read with concern a report regarding a referendum to amend Article 101 of the Rwandan Constitution to allow President Paul Kagame another seven year term. A few days ago, the Rwandan Senate voted to allow him a third term.

d4388b385c0844d39574a83eb34f9873_18Kagame ascended to power in 2003 and was re-elected in 2010. By 2017, he will have spent 14 years in power as President. With the referendum likely to be in his favour, his victory at the polls will allow him to be president for 21 years.

It was with great discomfort that I first heard about this on CCTV News last April, at the peak of the political turmoil in Burundi, following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s similar moves for a third term. Nkurunziza succeeded, but not without the bloodshed of thousands of people, with thousands more continuing flee the country for safety. As the crises heightened, the EU and Brussels have also asked their citizens to leave.

I am not from that region, and I do not happen to be an expert on Rwandan politics, but I am an African who is concerned about the spread of tenure elongation on the continent and its implications for peace, political stability, economic growth, the rule of law, and human rights.

Experience has shown that constitutional amendments for third term ambitions in Africa often trigger violence by opposition or other interest groups, either for the sake of protecting the constitution and the rule of law, or simply out of mistrust for the entire process. There is no guarantee that this will not happen in Rwanda, if not now, then later. The voices of the 10 individuals who opposed the referendum, out of the over 10 million who voted for it, according to the AFP report, could multiply into thousands and even millions of opposing voices and throw the country into chaos. For a country that is just beginning to heal from the wounds of the 1994 genocide, this would be catastrophic.

Most fundamentally, tenure elongation undermines the rule of law and citizens’ right to choose their leaders, which along with the freedoms of expression, religion and association, form the foundations of democracy.

1411335851SenatorsArticle 101 of the Rwandan Constitution sets the tenure of the president at two terms. Of course, constitutions are not written in stone, and a referendum is a legitimate and legal process by which to amend a constitution. However, the amendment of constitutions should not be solely in the interest of a single individual, as it would be in this instance. Africa needs leaders who uphold, defend and protect the rule of law and human rights, not those who bend, amend, manipulate, misinterpret, and violate human rights to suit their personal interests.

Another concern is the precedent this might set for the future. Are the Rwandan people really prepared, for the sake of one man they like, to risk coping with future presidents they may not like for 21 years or more? While this is too much of a risk in my opinion, the recent referendum seems to suggest that it is one Rwandans are willing to take.

How can anyone be sure that Kagame, unlike Oliver Twist, will not ask for a fourth term? Why did he not groom a successor, who would continue his policies and style of governance if he is doing this for the sake of the people, as he says? Even the idea of grooming a successor is not entirely democratic; the people must be allowed the right to choose freely those who will lead them. But it is a lesser evil compared to tenure elongation by the same individual.

I am also worried that Rwanda will add to the number of African nations who have yielded to the strong, autocratic and manipulative influence of rulers who will do anything to stay in power. This would increase the popularity of power elongation on the continent.

Kagame’s third term bid might rekindle ethnic tensions in a country that has not forgotten the horrors of the 1994 genocide. Obama’s words in Ethiopia in July may be instructive: “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it [the country] risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path.”

Paul Kagame

Under international law, the international community has the responsibility to protect (R2P) citizens of a State when that State fails to do so itself. This responsibility has three aspects – the responsibilities to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. The most important of these is the responsibility to prevent.

If world leaders are serious about the R2P doctrine, then this is the right time. A stitch in time saves nine!

I applaud the condemnation of the military coup by the African Union (AU) in Burkina Faso and the intervention to restore civilian rule in that country. But I fault the silence of the AU on the ‘civilian coup’ by President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, and the coup currently being staged by President Kagame to overthrow both the rule of law, and the constitution  of Rwanda,  and the right of the Rwandan people to freely choose who will govern them.

The international community must apply every diplomatic and other means to stop Kagame from overthrowing the will and right of the people to freely choose their leaders. The Constitution of Rwanda sets the president’s tenure at two terms, and upholding this and the rule of law is the same as upholding the foundations of democracy.


Sylvester Uhaa is the Executive Director of CURE-Nigeria. He was a human rights advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in 2013 and is currently a Commonwealth Scholar in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK.

Blood Timber: A Resource Curse

By Rachel Riegelhaupt, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University


b3b4f58d-3328-4662-beba-a93a5beaa454When asked about buying conflict-timber from the Central African Republic during an undercover investigation led by Global Witness, a representative from the French manufacturing company Tropical Bois responded, “It’s Africa. War is so common we don’t really pay attention…it’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by violence since November 2012, when predominately Muslim Seleka rebels began to take up arms. In March 2013, they overthrew the president in a bloody coup d’état and pursued a campaign of violence throughout the nation, provoking a violent backlash from the Christian Anti-Balaka militia in September 2013. Although a transitional government is currently in place, with the Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia serving as interim president, the balance of power is still rocked by clashes between ever-present armed groups. War atrocities such as the use of child soldiers, rape, summary killings, enforced disappearances, and torture have been prevalent, and thousands of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, and half a million have fled to neighboring countries since the fighting began.

One of the main funding streams behind this violence has been the country’s primary export, timber, leading the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to recognize logging companies as a key source of income for armed forces in the CAR. As Seleka rebels gained power, they instantly began to monopolize on the country’s prized natural resource; anti-Balaka movements have recently been taking over the country’s rainforest for the same reason. These armed groups sell timber to logging companies based in Europe, China, and Lebanon, who then illegally export it to their home countries. The companies with the largest presence in the CAR are IFB from France, SEFCA from Lebanon, and Vicwood from China—together, they account for 99% of the country’s timber exports.

4c2f5ca5-548d-4f1f-87fc-b578b16fe7a0According to Global Witness, all three of these companies frequently make payments to the Seleka rebels, “as bribes, to pass roadblocks, for armed escort, and for the protection of their logging sites, including a single transaction of nearly 381,000 euros by SEFCA to the Seleka government.” Based on the sheer size of these payments, these companies essentially fund the war, rendering them accessories to war crimes. However, foreign trade of CAR timber has only increased. Europe is the main destination for illegally harvested timber, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CAR’s total exports. In fact, the French company Tropical Bois, the CAR’s biggest trader, increased profits by 247% over the course of the current conflict in the CAR (they are conveniently co-owned by the biggest logging company operating within the CAR, SEFCA).

Ironically, European governments have provided thousands of troops and invested hundreds of millions of euros to peacekeeping operations in the CAR. France deployed 1,600 troops to the CAR in 2013 in an attempt to disarm the Seleka rebels, along with 700 peacekeepers to maintain security. The UN peacekeeping mission currently has nearly 12,000 troops maintaining security in the CAR. Despite this, European governments have not taken adequate measures to block conflict timber from reaching EU markets. In 2013, the EU initiated the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in order to regulate illegal logging. Its stated purpose is to “guarantee that any wood exported from a timber-producing country to the EU comes from legal sources [and to] help the partner country stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation.” Once a VPA is established it is legally binding—both for the timber exporting country and for the EU countries importing timber. Though the CAR signed on to the agreement in 2011, the ongoing conflict has made it impossible for the CAR to maintain its end of the agreement. However, European companies have also ignored the agreement and continue to import and trade illegally harvested timber from the CAR.

99be3ff5-ab56-4177-9c09-40dc6acafcedIn contrast, the CAR was suspended from the Kimberley Process just two months after the coup d’état in 2013, prohibiting the country from exporting diamonds—the CAR’s chief export at that time—to international markets in an effort to control violence. The initiative is considered to be widely successful, and the trade of conflict diamonds has fallen significantly. Similar steps were taken to control exports of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone a few years before. While the issue of blood diamonds has received international attention through groundbreaking exposés, shocking media campaigns, and beloved Hollywood films, blood-timber is seemingly less sexy. The lack of a substantial media campaign against conflict timber stops it from ever reaching the court of public opinion, giving companies no genuine incentive to enact risk-based due diligence measures and giving governments no real incentive to better regulate the trade of conflict timber.

Some may argue that sanctioning timber may inadvertently do more harm than good by hurting the CAR’s economy; they may argue that imposing sanctions against the Central African Republic violates the CAR’s Right to Development. Firstly, there cannot be sustainable development in the context of a war-zone. Secondly, while it would be ideal to hold only the companies at fault (and not the entire industry) accountable for their complicity in war crimes, the existence of the corporate veil makes this option tenuous. Even if litigation were to be brought against specific logging companies and were to be successful, the punishment would simply take the form of monetary compensation—a punishment not nearly substantial enough to bring an end to the company’s illegal activities. Thirdly, it should be noted that robust sanctions are not being suggested, but simply the sanctioning of the timber trade—the industry fueling CAR’s war. While the overall harvesting and sale of timber may create jobs and bring money into the country, these gains are insignificant when considering the role of timber sales in perpetuating the country’s instability and conflict.

Perhaps we need another Hollywood screenplay. Perhaps Edward Zwick and Leonardo Dicaprio will come together to disseminate another message about the resource curse to their audience, steering the public to hold its companies more responsible for their actions. Or perhaps it is time for the EU to properly regulate its timber imports and hold its companies accountable for complicity in war crimes. Or maybe, perhaps it is finally time for corporations such as IFB, SEFCA, Vicwood, and Tropical Bois to step it up themselves—to end illegal logging, to enact proper supply-chain due diligence measures and to ensure that their businesses are not fuelling conflict, human rights abuses, and the continual underdevelopment of the Central African Republic.


Rachel Riegelhaupt is an M.A. Candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses primarily on conflict resolution, peace-building, and women’s rights.

On Being LGBT in West Africa

By Philip Rodenbough, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Columbia University.  Twitter: @prodenbough


The Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) is a program organized by the US Department of State through which students work part time on a project under the direction of a mentor at State, USAID, embassies abroad, or other government agencies. The e-internship is completed entirely online, so anyone can participate from anywhere. During the previous academic year, VSFS offered over 300+ positions to students, many of which were human rights related projects.

Through VSFS, I was fortunate to participate in an independent research project on the LGBT experience in West Africa, with the guidance of a USAID mentor. Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, I researched country conditions, collected media reports, conducted interviews, and authored original detailed descriptions on the LGBT experience in West Africa. This research was developed to to help form baseline data that informs on the needs of the local LGBT communities, in addition to assessing the impact of future programming.

West Africa LGBTUSAID has always been committed to global prosperity, and in recent years that commitment has grown to include a focus on LGBT communities. On December 6, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies abroad to ensure that US diplomacy promotes and protects the human rights of LGBT persons. Later that same day, Secretary Clinton delivered an historic speech on the human rights of LGBT individuals while commemorating Human Rights Day. Secretary Kerry continued to advance this cause by participating in the first UN ministerial event on LGBT rights. USAID has responded to such leadership by launching its LGBT Vision for Action as part of its policy framework for 2011-2015. Perhaps most hearteningly of all, Secretary Kerry recently announced the appointment Randy Berry as first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. It was a pleasure and a privilege to complete this research project in the broader context of increasing inclusiveness of LGBT issues at the US Department of State and at USAID.

During the course of my research, I found homophobia is rampant, discrimination is frequent, and stigmatization is common against the LGBT persons in West Africa. In some countries, legal barriers prevent LGBT persons from equal treatment. Where no formal barriers exist, strong negative social attitudes are often strong and pervasive enough to achieve the same end. Political leaders are generally hostile towards LGBT persons and virtually all countries in the region categorically reject official calls from the UN to respect the human rights of LGBT persons.

LGBT communities do vary from country to country within the West Africa region. Based on the research in this project, the situation for LGBT persons is best in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Cote d’Ivoire, where there is relative tolerance and freedom. The situation is worst in Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria, where LGBT persons are actively castigated and/or imprisoned. The case in Nigeria is particularly troubling due to the recent enacting of more severe anti-LGBT laws. Mauritania has the harshest anti-homosexuality laws and the subject remains strictly taboo, as it similarly does in Niger and Guinea.

Despite these challenges, there is still hope that the situation can improve. Most countries do have active pro-LGBT groups working to change the public mentality. Additionally, pro-LGBT opinion pieces do occasionally appear in local media. LGBT leaders in the region all express a common willingness to partner with development organizations such as USAID. Robbie Corey-Boulet, an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow studying LGBT advocacy in West Africa (whose works are often cited in this project) argues that these groups are often in need of small seed grants in order to find and promote their voice. Donor requirements such as official recognition by the state and previous experience managing large grants prove problematic for these emerging LBGT organizations. Despite the difficulties they face, LGBT leaders in the region are optimistic that over time they can work together to build a more inclusive and more equitable society.

As a student in a highly scientific and technical degree program, this project was a great opportunity to gain exposure in human rights research. My interest in West Africa stems from my Peace Corps service—I taught high school chemistry in Guinea and Burkina Faso from 2009 to 2011. Although my doctoral project is focused on synthesis and characterization of clean energy materials, my interests extend into science policy, international development, and human rights. My work with VSFS has provided me a greater appreciation for commonalities in seemingly disparate communities, LGBT or otherwise.

I am pleased to share with RightsViews the full and final report from my VSFS internship: Being LGBT in West Africa Project.

That TIME story that South Africa may outlaw spanking at home

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


On 30 July freelance reporter Melissa Locker reported for TIME Magazine that South Africa’s government, in cooperation with some notable children’s rights NGOs, is drafting a bill that would outlaw spanking at home. If the bill passes, South African parents lose their freedom to corporally punish their children, just like teachers did seven years ago. The article quotes Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, from the pro-ban camp, who argues for child protection, and an anti-ban spokesperson from the Christian organization Focus On The Family, whose weird notion that for most children “the removal of pleasures or privileges is actually more painful than a spanking” is supposed to represent the anti-ban camp.


That’s about all the author chose to cover in the 200-odd word article. But there is a whole lot more to say about ‘spanking’ in South African homes, though.

To get an idea of what TIME is talking about, a bit of background and context does wonders. According to a study by RAPCAN, a Cape Town-based children’s rights NGO, 57% of interviewed South African parents (from all backgrounds, ages and income brackets) smacks or spanks their children with their hands. Thirty- three percent use a belt or other object. Corporal punishment, as presently condoned by South African law, means inflicting “moderate and reasonable chastisement on a child for misconduct provided that this was not done in a manner offensive to good morals or for objects other than correction and admonition”. In other words, the parent or care taker gets to decide whether his physical violence is in accordance with acceptable corrective intentions and with the morals he himself deems ‘good’ to positively shape the child’s behavior. But ‘spanking’, the seemingly innocent term TIME chose for title, is only one part of the story. A story that also includes (and is certainly not limited to) “hitting children with a hand or object, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting or pulling their hair, forcing them to stay in uncomfortable positions, locking or tying them up, burning and scalding” (some acts that the UN CRC include in their definition of corporal punishment).

TIME also forgets to mention that, because of its unique history of institutionalized colonial and apartheid violence, South Africa happens to be one of the most violent countries in the world, its injury death rate being twice the global average. Women and children are the most vulnerable to this violence. Current and accurate statistics on violence are difficult to obtain, partly because much of the violence happens within the homes and goes unreported. But research and reports by several NGOs and service providers give us a solid clue about the extent of the violence that children face. In 2012, for example, the mental health and trauma centre Ekupholeni, which is based just outisde Johannesburg, helped 501 sexually abused children, of whom 148 were between two and seven years old. And in 2011, the South African Medical Research Council organized a meeting on youth violence, which revealed that “for children of all ages, the apparent manner of death was primarily the scourges of violence and traffic – 35% and 20% respectively”. The data also showed that violence was responsible for 10% of children’s deaths. Over 30% of violent deaths of 5 to 9 year olds were caused by firearms. Of overall youth violence, around 40% of deaths are said to be caused by sharp objects, blunt force objects and firearms.

And according to UNICEF, between 2010 and 2011, no less than 54.225 crimes against children (younger than 18 years old) were reported. 84% of these cases involved violent acts against children by someone known or trusted by the child.

While it might be tempting for many to drop these numbers in a separate violence file, and treat the well-intended spank on the bottom by a parent or caretaker as a separate issue, the simple fact that both categories involve intentionally inflicting physical pain on children demands for the relationship to be taken seriously. Violence against children doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Unlike what TIME’s choice of wording implies, these realities go way beyond the use of “a flat hand on a child’s bottom”. What this tells us is that a ban on corporal punishment is not about some nanny state being unhappy about the occasional ‘slap on the bottom’, but that a highly vulnerable group of citizens might finally get the legal protection against types of violence that is not allowed against adults.

Some have expressed their annoyance with this, in their eyes, inappropriate conflation of corporal punishment with violence. Others call the debate on corporal punishment needlessly polarized and propose that, rather than being ‘pro’ or anti, we might want to think about allowing limited forms of corporal punishment. With the harmful ‘flat hand on the bottom’ type of spank in mind, this seems a sensible statement to make. Until the boundaries between violence and acceptable corrective pain need to be set. (When does a constructive spanking turn into abuse? What does a responsible bruise look like?) To separate corporal punishment from ‘actual violence’ in a country where fatal violence is a reality in all too many households, and try to define what ‘acceptable’ physical harm actually means is not only an unachievable and undesirable undertaking, it also ignores the roots of corporal punishment and how it has historically intertwined with often lethal state violence.

Corporal punishment was one of the many violent tools for the colonial and apartheid ruling class to instill discipline and maintain control. At white settler schools , for example, boys were (for a long time) disciplined physically to harden them and maintain white supremacy. Corporal punishment, then, can at least partly be seen as one of the left-overs of nearly 350 years of white minority rule, which shaped much of today’s normalized violence. And there are many more reasons, not just historical ones, to reject the idea that corporal punishment and violence against children can be treated in isolation. If you grow up in a world where pain is intentionally inflicted on others in order to correct them or to resolve some sort of conflict, chances are you grow up thinking you can treat others, such as your girlfriend, that way too. If the aim of spanking a child is to instill good morals in them, (and we understand good morals as non-violent ones), corporal punishment is likely to have the exact opposite effect. As Lorenzo Wakefield, a researcher and expert on children’s rights, wrote in reference to a recent study of the University of Witwatersrand “there is a strong link of convicted perpetrators of rape — especially those who raped young children under the age of three — who were all corporally punished when they were younger. Research has shown that children who are physically punished or humiliated are more susceptible to carrying out acts of violence in their adult years”.

And there are more studies that confirm this correlation. But this hasn’t convinced everyone that children need this kind of protection. Some have played the Christian card to contest the proposed ban, when others view corporal punishment as a cultural right. But since both culture as well as religion are a matter of interpretation (and culture is never static anyway), they can and have been used to defend the ban as well.

Khaye Nkwanyana worries that “if this law is passed it will represent the power of the resourceful lobbyist NGO that stands in range against the entire society. It will represent the will of the University of Western Cape against the entire South African society. And as active South Africans we cannot countenance such a tendency where those with money can impose their will and cultural choices to all of us”.

Which begs the question: who is part of this ‘entire’ South African society? Do children count too? Because, as we look at some recent numbers, about a third of South Africans is under 18 years of age. (Some say 0-14 year olds alone account for 28,4% of South Africans). So if we talk about the ‘entire society’, what is their place? Are they citizens or simply possessions of the entire adult society? And since the entire discussion is about their fate, who has asked them how they feel about it? Next to a few outdated studies that present some accounts by children who describe the degrading and abusive treatment they had suffered, the actual opinions of children are nowhere to be found in mainstream media.

Some teachers, on the other hand, put forward more instructive concerns by complaining that the ban on corporal punishment in schools has led to a decline in discipline. Which can either mean that corporal punishment is the only way of maintaining order and disciplining children, or that it is the only method they know.

Corporal punishment perpetuates South Africa’s crisis of violence. The proposed ban sends out a strong message that children are more than the possessions of their parents and that they have a right to the same legal protection from violence that is granted to adults. They also deserve the chance to voice their opinions, get represented in the media and participate in the debates that affect them.

Is a ban the answer to the violence that children face? Will it reduce the levels of violent young deaths? Or stop the well-intended smacks on the butt? Probably not. After all, despite the ban at schools, it appears to still be widespread there too. Which is why South Africa needs a serious campaign that educates entire society on alternative disciplining methods. Methods that, unlike corporal punishment, will teach children about desirable behavior in a constructive and effective way.

If the South African government takes its responsibility to protect its children seriously, it should intensively work with children, NGOs, caretakers and teachers to develop, support and sustain campaigns that offer alternative, child-friendly alternatives to corporal punishment. One NGO who works on positive parenting programs and develops parental guides is Childline South Africa. Their resources for parents can be downloaded here.

This post appeared previously on Africa is a Country on August 23, 2013.

Maria Hengeveld is a Human Rights graduate student at Columbia University in New York. She is interested in women’s rights, youth and gender in Southern Africa.

Halfway There: The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project – “For Our Children’s Sake”

Students at breakfast at Kutamba School

By Morag Neill, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


The hustle and bustle of the city was not forgiving on my first day in Uganda. I attempted to maneuver through Kampala’s town center searching for the shared taxi headed for Luafu stage, the minibus stop where the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project offices were located. After an hour of confusion and with the help of both curious and kind strangers, I finally found myself at the black gates in the quiet neighborhood of Makindye. A wide-smiled lady named Barbara greeted me at the reception and handed me the guestbook to sign as I waited for my supervisor, Jennifer Nantale to emerge. As I sat there, proud of myself for finding my way to the cool offices decorated with pictures of graduating students draped in their academic garb, I had no way of knowing that the next few weeks were going to be as impactful and challenging as they turned out to be.

The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project (NAOP) was established in 2001 by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, 2012 CNN Hero and an alumnus to ISHR’s Advocate’s Program at Columbia University. I had the honor of joining the NAOP family as their development intern with the task of broadening their local fundraising strategy in Uganda. Consistent with the nature of NGO work, Nyaka is in constant search for new funders and innovative ways to maintain the multiple programs that the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project houses. NAOP has over 600 students enrolled in their two primary schools. Alongside the two schools and their libraries is the ever-prospering Mummy Drayton School Clinic; the Grandmother Project which supports over 7,000 grandmothers in the area; the Desire Farm which facilitates both schools’ nutrition programs; the Clean Water System which provides running water to the communities in both districts through a gravity-fed pump; and the pending construction of the secondary vocational school and boarding houses.

In my third week in Uganda, I took a break from the city life and travelled 12 hours southwest to Kanungu and Rukungiri districts. Thus far, my week in the field has been the highlight of my time in Uganda. Our first stop was the Nyaka School and we arrived just as the students were getting out of class. Proudly displaying their bright purple uniforms, the students darted across the school compound playing basketball, netball, volleyball and football (soccer). Our trip was especially important as we brought with us nine donated computers for each of the classroom teachers at the Nyaka School and connected the library with satellite internet. Jennifer and I held a workshop to ensure that the teachers could maneuver through Microsoft Office and access their emails. In the following days, we were able to visit each of the projects under NAOP, including a day visit to the Kutamba School. To top off the end of each busy day, the teachers, interns and some of the student athletes competed in a grueling volleyball tournament which brought everyone together before the sun set and the mosquitoes began biting.

After reading Jackson’s book “A School for my Village” which details the first few years of the NAOP’s journey, it was inspiring to see how much progress the organization has achieved. The trip was personally fulfilling as it gave meaning to the seemingly arbitrary fundraising research that had me occupied in Kampala in the preceding weeks. It demonstrated the extent to which Jackson’s vision for implementing a holistic human rights-based program to end the systematic deprivation, poverty and hunger has been realized. The passion that surrounds NAOP is undeniable and has made my job in sharing the organization with new funders less daunting. Nonetheless, the eight weeks that have been assigned to the fundraising project is hardly enough to make as big of an impact as I would have liked. I’m happy to have gotten the chance to crack the fundraising prospective for NAOP, however, there is so much more in store for the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear from Jackson himself on October 1st at 12:15pm at the Jerome Greene Room 103 at Columbia Law School.

Learn more about the NAOP and how to get involved at:





Hailing from Zambia, born in South Africa and raised in Botswana, Morag Neill is completing her M.A. in Human Rights Studies at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Morag’s studies focus on the rights of African refugee women. 

Sex Work in South Africa: Shaming Sex Workers Away From Human Rights

By Maria E. Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


southafrica1Think about this: If the Netherlands, the country that was one of the first to legalize sex work thirteen years ago, still benefits from its capital’s red light district as one of its main attractions for both national and international tourists, what kinds of questions does this raise about the treatment of sex workers outside the regulated district? For one, it suggests there are very few places on this planet where the shaming and ridiculing of both sex workers and their clients is not socially acceptable.

The Dutch red light district remains a site where women who earn their money through sex—some by choice, some by force—is objectified and ridiculed. It’s fun to walk past them, amusing to observe them, and outright hilarious to shame and fool them[1].

We call it stigma.

Notwithstanding the violations and harsh realities that many sex workers in the Netherlands continue to endure (especially those who are working against their will),  sex workers’ stigma reveals itself in different, and often even grimmer ways in poorer, less equal and more violent countries, where sex work remains illegal.

The South African Context

While the country’s Constitution, ratified in 1996, has often been credited as being the most liberal in the world for safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups, sex workers remain excluded from constitutional protections. Forced underground, their profession’s stigma reveals itself in daily violations of their basic human rights. This means rape. It means beatings. It means extortion and an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.

How? Angie, a 54-year old street-based sex worker from Cape Town explains. Drawing on 20 years of experience, she says that out of all the risks, brutalities, condescension, and threats she and her colleagues face, most sex workers fear the police the most. According to Angie, “They target you, threaten to arrest you and then demand bribes or sex.” She went on to explain, “After raping the girls they often drop them in deserted areas.”

She also noted “to not leave any trace of evidence, they often use condoms, which they throw away afterwards.”  And just as condoms serve as a tool for erasing a sex crime, they are simultaneously used as evidence for sex workers’ alleged criminal activities. According to Angie, many police men consider carrying many condoms as proof of sex workers exchanging sex for money; one reason why many girls decide to either take less condoms with them or hide them somewhere near their base.


Nosipho, a 29-year old mother from Durban, whose cousin introduced her to sex work on the streets of Durban’s Morningside area in 2008, affirms the terror-tainted relationship with the police.

“We are so used to the beatings and the rapes that, once it’s over and you make your way back to the other girls, you can only try to laugh about it. If you’re raped so many times by clients and police men you develop some sort of flow of coping,” Nosipho acknowledged.

This tends to be the case, unless the brutality is out of the ordinary such as the one night in Durban, only a few months ago, when Nosipho encountered the police. “As always,” Nosipho recalls, “we were well aware of the necessity to not provoke any cops that night, so when I noticed a police car driving towards us, I quietly walked away. This one cop called on me, ordered me in his car and took me to the Burman Bush, a deserted and terrifying place where many girls have been found dead.”

She was given a choice to give him the sex he wanted or be left on her own. Nosipho recalled, “He started to touch me, pulled up my skirt and raped me anally. I couldn’t stop screaming from the pain. Afterwards, I had no option but getting back into his car again.” Because sex work is a criminal offense and given the ever-present risk of incarceration, there was no place to report the abuse Nosipho had suffered.

She also did not think that visiting a clinic for medical help was an option. Nosipho lamented, “The nurses treat you like dirt, will call you ‘bitch’ in front of everybody or tell you that, as a sex worker, you ask for getting raped.”

Next to shaming, many sex workers have complained about the reluctance and refusal of public health centers to provide sex workers with STI tests or treatments for injuries. “And meanwhile”, Angie continues, “people accuse us of spreading HIV.”  Next to exposing them to police brutality, condoning public shaming, and legitimizing the violation of their right to health in clinics, the current criminalized state of the profession also severely weakens sex workers’  negotiating position towards clients. This renders them substantially more vulnerable towards abuse, blackmail, diseases, violence and extortion.

Angie explained, “I remember this very quiet night, when I had hardly any business. A client told me to get in his car and took me all the way to Athlone, where he demanded sex without a condom.  He said he wanted flesh to flesh sex. When I refused he pointed a gun to my head. I didn’t give in, though. Then he decided to only pay me half of the agreed price and dropped me somewhere in Wynberg, very far away from my base.”

Other clients take advantage of sex workers’ exclusion from legal protection by pretending to be cops themselves and demanding sex or money in exchange for letting them go. By rendering sex work illegal, South African laws justify these discriminatory, derogatory and abusive treatments of sex workers. Treatments that not only take a physical and financial toll, but also have the ability to deeply affect sex workers’ sense of self. “You internalize the idea that what you’re doing is wrong,” says Nosipho, “and that you’re a naughty girl, when you’re really just trying to make a living and take care of your children, which is the reason many of us start the work in the first place.”


One organization that offers support for sex workers is the Cape Town based non-profit organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). SWEAT defends and promotes the human rights of sex workers through advocacy, community outreach, skill training, education, legal assistance, counselling and active lobbying for decriminalization. By engaging in dialogues with community leaders, health clinics, trade unions, parliamentarians and police, they seek to empower sex workers and create a more humane work environment. According to SWEAT’s advocacy officer Ntokozo Yingwana, this plethora of violations that sex workers face at the hands of clients, clinics and police are a direct result of the current criminalized state of sex work. She argues that “with regards to funding and supporting programs that protect sex workers’ rights, government’s hands will be tied as long as the work is criminal.” This means that access to condoms, ARVs, STI tests, tailored counselling, and mental health support remains extremely hampered.

Decriminalizing sex work will also positively impact the highly problematic relationship with the police. As Angie put it, “the police will have to take our cases.” And beyond the spheres of the practical, the legal and the physical, there’s the dignity factor too. According to Nosipho, “decriminalization would mean we are recognized as human beings. Everyone makes us believe we’re not worth anything. If we are recognized by law, and if clients know we can report them to the police if they violate our rights this will change the power dynamic between us. The Constitution must recognize my right to choose my profession. That’s all I want.”

And it’s not like South Africa legislation is unfit to move in the right direction; Section 12.2 of the South African Bill of Rights grants all citizens the right to security in and control over their body, but extending this right to transactional sex needs a political champion of the cause. Amidst widespread social and emotional anxieties about sex work, the fear of HIV/AIDS, arguments about the trade’s inherent exploitative nature, and the framing of the matter as a moral or ideological issue, Ntokozo explained that a politician’s push for sex workers’ rights, “could mean political suicide.” Yet, elevating sex work to the legal sphere will in fact empower sex workers to demand safe sex and enables the state to offer targeted health support and sensitize the public, police and clinics.

Thus, whether South Africans like it or not, it is time they recognize that sex workers will always be around and that they are human beings, with a right to health, protection, dignity, and autonomy over their own bodies. Angie and Nosipho’s stories urge South Africans to no longer let emotions, ideological interests, and sexual moralism trump basic human rights. But there is reason for optimism. On May 16th, the external Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) sided with SWEAT and announced they favor the repeal of all laws against consensual adult sex work, thereby explicitly calling for decriminalization. Ntokozo, evidently welcoming this move, believes it provides them with a “strong tool for lobbying” and convincing the government that sex workers’ rights are, indeed, human rights.”

Honor your commitment to equality for all, South Africa. Decriminalize sex work.

Maria Hengenveld studies women’s rights at Columbia University. She is interested in youth and gender in Southern Africa and writes for different websites, such as Africa is a Country and Dutch feminist magazine Tijdschrift Lover

This article previously appeared on “The Feminist Wire” on June 21, 2013. 

[1] Respected newspapers have referred to sex workers’ clients as ‘whore-walkers’ (hoerelopers) on some occasions.

“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network.  To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012.  Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries.  Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.


Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?

Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies.  There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with.  It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.


M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?

T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.


M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.  In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?

T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention.  We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments.  The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.


M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?

T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process.  Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […]  Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.


M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?

T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.


M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society).  In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?

T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.


M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?

T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.


M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?

T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […]  Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.


Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

ISHR Event: Honoring Indigenous Women at Columbia University

By Megan Baker, student at Columbia College

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

On May 24, 2013, the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenas (International Indigenous Women’s Forum), or FIMI, honored two indigenous women, an elder and a youth, with the 2013 FIMI Leadership Award at the “Honoring Indigenous Women’s Visions and Creativity” awards ceremony held at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University. The awards ceremony was hosted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program in partnership with FIMI. This award marked these women’s demonstrated exceptional leadership and the impact they have had in their communities, countries and at the international level defending and advocating for human rights.

The first to be honored was Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous Miskita woman from the community of Waspam in Nicaragua. Ms. Cunningham began her career as a primary education teacher, but left her community to study medicine and surgery. She became the first female Miskita doctor and worked for the Ministry of Public Health, but following the armed conflict in the late 1970’s, she returned to Waspam as a community health organizer. Ms. Cunningham also later became the first female Miskita governor in the autonomous region’s regional government. In the 1990’s, she founded and served as the director of the University of the Autonomous Region of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, also known as URACCAN, which sought to facilitate a intercultural university community for indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. Today, she is the current Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and its Chairperson in 2012, and the President of the Center for the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) in Nicaragua.

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

The second indigenous woman to be honored was Mphatheleni Makaulule, a South African indigenous leader recognized for her work in the VhaVenda region of South Africa. There, she works alongside other indigenous women leaders called Makhadzis in a group called Dzomo la Mupo. These women leaders are custodians of the sacred natural sites and the traditional knowledge regarding seeds and soils. Together, they have been working to secure food sovereignty through the recuperation of local seed varieties and the rituals in which particular plants are used.  In addition, they stand up against threats to their land and culture, such as mining projects in the region. The knowledge of the Mikhadzis is crucial in maintaining environmental stability in the VhaVenda region.

This awards ceremony marked the conclusion of FIMI’s and Columbia’s “Indigenous Women Leaders at Columbia University, a two-day seminar,” which was hosted by ISHR’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia’s Deutsches Haus, May 15 -16, 2013. Participants of the seminar are a part of the first annual Global Leadership School of Indigenous Women of FIMI, which also includes online and in-person classes and attendance at the annual session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The women of the Global Leadership School come from indigenous communities from across the globe, including Sudan, Nepal, Ecuador and Peru. This two-day seminar aimed to provide the participants with a human rights and capacity-building curriculum that will give them the opportunity to explore a broader context of human rights topics and advocacy. The lectures and discussions of the Columbia two-day workshop were conducted by Columbia faculty, Prof. Elazar Barkan, Prof. Elsa Stamatopoulou, Mr. John Washburn, Visiting Scholar, Prof. Tone Bleie,  Prof. Michael Silverman,  Prof. Amalia Cordova from New York University and UN Legal Affairs expert Ms. Anne Fosty. The lectures included topics such as “Situating human rights in International Law,” “The International Criminal Court and its relevance for indigenous peoples,” and “Ethics and compliance: the challenges of managing organizations.” The FIMI Global Leadership School, which began in February 2013, will conclude August 2013. With the success of its first year, FIMI looks forward to continued programming for the Global Leadership School and ISHR, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program and Columbia University look forward to hosting our partners and affiliates again in the future.

Megan Baker is a senior at Columbia College where she is double majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and Ethnicity and Race on the American Indian Studies tract. She is president of Native American Heritage Month and publicity chair of the Native American Council.

Notes from the Field: Securing Women’s Land Rights in the Acholi sub-region in Northern Uganda

By Allison Tamer, MA student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

For many people living in Northern Uganda, land is their only means of survival. Land is such a prized possession that disputes over land is a common occurrence, frequently escalating into aggressive and sometimes violent situations.  For example, one man in the Amuru district attempted to poison a village’s water source so he could take over the deceased’s land. In 2010, a family in the same district lit another family’s home aflame during the night over a land dispute. This act of violence took the lives of two young girls who were sleeping during the attack.

As land conflicts intensify in this region, the situation for women and their right to land seems to be getting worse.  Gender and socio-cultural factors compounded with the aftermath of the two decades of civil war in Northern Uganda has made the struggle for women’s right to land more difficult.

Women’s land rights are protected under Uganda’s 1995 constitution and the Land Act 1998, which defines the types of land ownership that are legally recognized. In Northern Uganda, however, the majority of land ownership is under the customary tenure system and is typically passed from one generation to another. This type of land ownership is guided by informal rules that are reinforced by the Acholi traditional clan structure.  This means that land is under the custody of clan heads (i.e., family heads) and elders, who are almost always men. Often times, male clan leaders refuse to grant their female relatives land ownership, as they believe that land should be transferred through male heads of household.

The customary land tenure system makes it difficult for women to navigate and advocate for their land rights.  Many widows, divorcees and separated women are denied land by their own relatives, and live, often with children to support, in misery and destitution. In a non-industrialized region with low unemployment, having nowhere to farm means no food on the table or money for children’s school fees

This summer, I worked with Charity for Rural Development (CHAFORD) in Gulu, Uganda. CHAFORD teaches women how land ownership can improve their livelihood and how they can protect themselves from unforeseen circumstances such as divorce or widowhood.  CHAFORD formed one group of about twenty-five women in Attiak, a sub-county in the Amuru district, and provided them with a safe outlet to discuss their land rights and receive educational training in the value of land ownership.

CHAFORD understands that women must have the economic means to purchase land in order to truly exercise their rights to land. Therefore, CHAFORD works with women in various ways to increase their income through training in various vocational skills, providing seedlings and facilitating village savings and loans associations so that the women can buy land.

Photo: Allison Tamer

During the summer, I met Alice, an active member of CHAFORD’s land rights group. She was the first and only member of the group to purchase land. When I spoke to Alice, she explained to me how the land rights group inspired her to follow through with her goal of purchasing land. CHAFORD’s staff, along with the women in her land rights group, motivated her to start a butchery business so that she could obtain the income necessary to buy land. Two years later, she purchased a piece of land under her name. She said that she hopes her two daughters will follow her example and own land one day too.

CHAFORD takes small steps to create change in the communities where they work. While there are many local NGOs working in Northern Uganda, few are working specifically on land rights for women. In addition, many NGOs including CHAFORD are quite young, and lack the resources and institutional capacity to tackle women’s land rights in a consistent and long-term way.

Women in the Acholi sub-region of Northern Uganda encounter multiple barriers in claiming their land rights. The most significant obstacles to securing women’s land rights can be found within the customary tenure land system. Women’s land rights will not improve until there are effective, long-lasting solutions to overcome the many dimensions that impede women’s access to land. Until this is done, local NGOs in Northern Uganda will continue to struggle to secure women’s land rights.

Allison Tamer is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She was a participation in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights Graduate Student Volunteer Program in Gulu, Uganda this summer.



Indictment, Trial and Verdict: The ICC’s First-Ever Conviction

An interview with conveners of the American Coalition for the ICC (AMICC), John Washburn and Matthew Heaphy

As the final salvos of the KONY 2012 debate began to retreat from Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has finally announced its first-ever conviction. On March 14th 2012, judges in The Hague found Thomas Lubanga Dylio, 51, guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” of committing crimes of conscription, enlistment and use of children to participate in hostilities under the Rome Statute Article 8.2 (b).

Thomas Lubanga on trial at the International Criminal Court. © Ed Oudenaarden/AFP/Getty Images

Lubanga was a major figure in the Second Congo War (1998-2003) and the Ituri conflict (1999-2003) that saw Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) participate in murder, torture and rape on a massive scale. Ituri is a fertile region in North-East DRC rich in gold, diamonds, and oil and was often referred to as the bloodiest corner of the DRC—as the longstanding local dispute between the Hema pastoralists (Lubanga’s tribe) and rival Lendu agriculturalists was exploited by regional actors.

The Lubanga case is a watershed moment for the ICC. The chamber disagreed with defense claims that Lubanga, as UPC president, had no direct involvement in child conscription and instead reaffirmed his superior responsibility; citing forensic evidence, such as a video footage of Lubanga exhorting a group of child soldiers, and relying on witness testimony that Lubanga had a personal guard of child soldiers.  Lubanga has 30 days  from the release of the French version of the judgment to appeal the verdict.

The debate surrounding the ICC, and the Lubanga conviction specifically, is manifold. ICC advocates emphasize the narrowing impunity gap and the potential deterrence affects on future mass atrocities. Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch observes, “military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC’s powerful message: using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead to the dock.”

Antony Njuguna, Reuters, Files

However other human rights groups have sharply criticized the ICC Prosecutor Louis-Moreno Ocampo for his case-selection strategy and allegedly myopic prosecutorial approach—reducing the vast array of crimes committed by Lubanga to charges of child recruitment. Ocampo has also been criticized for, at least initially, breaching Lubanga’s fair trial rights by refusing to release potentially exculpatory evidence. More generally, critics also charge that the ICC is expensive, with an overall expenditure of $900 million, but only this one result since its inception in 2002.

Below I chat with John Washburn and Matthew Heaphy, Convener and Deputy Convener of AMICC, about the Lubanga conviction. AMICC is a coalition of non-governmental organizations that works to raise US domestic support for the ICC, and is a program of the ISHR.

1) A major criticism of the Lubanga trial is the narrow scope of charges the accused was charged with. What are the major benefits of this prosecutorial strategy? Drawbacks?

MH: One of the major benefits of this strategy is, on one level, special attention given to this crime—which has not been a consistent focus of international attention. Particularly, the plight of children in armed conflict. In this case, the Prosecutor embraced the opportunity to bring attention to this serious crime and to have a simple case to establish substantive jurisprudence and case law.

This case also helps clarify and define what it means to be someone who is accused of committing this crime. It also defines what it means to be a victim of child conscription—that enlistment first begins when the child is brought into the ranks of the militia and doesn’t end until they turn fifteen, when the conflict ends, they are released or when the child soldier is demobilized. This jurisprudence will certainly be elaborated on and cited in future child soldier cases that are expected to come before the Court.

As far as the narrow list of charges, in an ideal world individuals are made to answer for the crimes that they allegedly commit. The reality the Prosecutor faces is that he or she needs to go to trial with the evidence available. The evidence at hand and available at the time of Lubanga’s arrest presented an overwhelmingly strong case against Lubanga for the conscription and use of child soldiers. However, the Prosecutor has also shown a willingness in an upcoming case against Lubanga’s co-accused—who is still at large, Bosco Ntaganda—to substantially expand the list of charges.

 JW: It is also noteworthy that the child soldier charges are broader than they first appear: they involve abuse of the child soldiers, boys and girls, including sex slaves, torture, and inhumane treatment.

2) Approximately 123 victims participated in the Lubanga trial on their own behalf. How did this work in practice during Lubanga’s hearing?

JW: Victim participation gives judges a larger sense of the context—it’s very helpful for judges that are not part of the culture or specific situation to understand the larger picture surrounding the conflict. The Court also noted that people did crowd in areas where they were televising the video and that the audience identified with the victims.

 MH: One of the novel challenges facing the Court was the participation of victims—something that has never happened at this level in an international tribunal. Here, we have victims filing applications directly with the Court or legal representatives—not being called as witnesses by either the Prosecutor or the defense, but to represent only themselves and to have the opportunity to participate on their own.

We don’t know how many victims the Court can handle, but there are going to be efforts to ensure that victims’ participation remains meaningful and does not slow down a process that is complicated and perceived by many as being already too slow.


3) Are there potentially negative implications on the legacy of the Lubanga conviction given “right to fair trial” concerns?

MH: The Rome Statute requires that the Prosecutor hand over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. However, the Prosecutor was concerned about protecting the confidentiality of individuals and victims whose identities would be released. Upon an order from the Trial Chamber, the Prosecutor negotiated with sources to permit the judges to review the evidence to determine if it was indeed exculpatory—and thus had to be shown to Lubanga’s defense. The result was favorable to everyone; some sensitive evidence remained confidential and fair trial rights were upheld.

 JW: This procedural jurisprudence was an enormous boost to the credibility and standing of the Court. The judges were prepared to place extreme pressure on the Prosecutor to comply. The Trial Chamber should, and did, instruct the Prosecutor to do what due process rights demand and what the rights of the accused require.

4) How do you see the Lubanga verdict influencing/complementing the efforts of AMICC to increase support for the ICC in the United States?

JW: Even if we have changes due to the appeal process, this was a successful case. The verdict was solid and extensive; well-reasoned and well-written. For starters, the document is a consensus document—remarkable in a situation as complicated as the Lubanga case. Therefore, the ruling will help convince people that the Court is fair, professional, and meets our very own standards of due process.

MH: The support of the Court in the U.S. is broad but shallow. When people learn about what the ICC does, they tend to express support but don’t necessarily know the details of how the Court works or what cases are before it. Now that we have a conviction—this will help to change that. Lastly, it is positive that the Court is ready and able to proceed with the next batch of trials—this shows that there are continuing efforts to try individuals for the most serious crimes and that the ICC has a life following the Lubanga conviction.

5) Moving forward, what are the other lessons learned from the ICC’s first-ever conviction?

 JW: It was also very clear that the reason that the trial was as good as it was, and as compelling as it was, was Lubanga’s committed and resourceful defense. This was a defense that was aware, even vigilant, with regards to protecting the rights of the accused. These are outcomes you get only in an effective adversarial proceeding.

MH: The ICC is a young, maturing institution. A lot of the headlines discuss the millions of dollars spent and the fact the there is only one verdict. However, it’s important to recall that in addition to conducting these trials, the world is building an international organization from scratch and building an institution that will be more and more effective at investigating and prosecuting atrocity crimes in the future. And so I like to think that while there was some slowness, the institution will continue to learn and improve if ICC States Parties continue to invest political and financial capital in it.

For further information about the AMICC’s work on the Lubanga verdict, see their recent papers:

And for readers on Columbia campus next week, be sure to see this ISHR/ AMICC event with US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Stephen J. Rapp.

Derek M. Welski is a M.A. candidate in the Human Rights Studies program at ISHR. Derek’s focus is on international criminology and jurisprudence arising from International Criminal Tribunals.