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Elizabeth Blackney on sexual violence in the DRC, transitional justice and reparation

The challenges and obstacles to justice begin with our systems of government, of caste, and societal norms that center patriarchal notions of who is, or is not, recognized under the law as being “worthy” of equity and justice. But it is also more intimate than that. Supporting Survivors requires people who are actively doing the work to shed their bias against Survivors inherited from those systems. Centering Survivors makes people very uncomfortable as it forces them to step aside, to lay down their expert status, to lay down their self-perception as “helping” or “serving” Survivors.

Elizabeth Blackney is a Strategic Media and Crisis Communications Advisor focusing on human rights, geopolitics, and philanthropy. A survivor of sexual violence, an advocate, mother, and writer, she previously served as the Senior Media Adviser to Dr. Denis Mukwege, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Co-Laureate, including at the 2019 World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland. She leads Survivor Circles, helping Survivors and Advocates navigate and create healthy workplaces.


Interview by Clémence Poetschke (2023)


 

The interview was conducted in the spring of 2023 and has been edited for clarity


The Mapping Report, the UN investigation into crimes committed in the DRC between 1993 and 2003, established a list of perpetrators but only the investigation of Lumbala has taken place in ten years. Do you think that one day this document will serve as a basis for judging the guilty?

Yes. The Mapping Report clearly illustrates the outsized and violent influence of other nations, particularly Rwanda. The need for transitional justice is apparent and urgent. Since the Interhamwe came across the border following the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, this crisis in the DRC has taken the lives of more than six million Congolese. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped.


My dear friend and former colleague, Dr. Denis Mukwege, built Panzi Hospital in 1999 to deliver maternity care to women in rural areas near Bukavu in the South Kivu province of the DRC. His first patient arrived with horrific injuries that resulted from a violent rape. She was the first of more than 70,000 Survivors of sexual violence that Panzi Hospital has treated.


Tens of thousands of Congolese citizens have stood up in the last decade because of his leadership. Demanding accountability for corrupt government officials and demanding justice for all Congolese is central to the future of the nation. My hope is that the rising calls for transitional justice lead to new leadership for the nation.

Is the international community in a position to take concrete action against this sexual violence perpetrated during these conflicts?


Yes. Supporting transitional justice mechanisms is key. Nations need to come together to support an international mechanism via a binding treaty that codifies protections for all Survivors.


Amanda Nguyen and her group Rise developed a Survivors Bill of Rights that was passed as a non-binding resolution by the United Nations General Assembly last year. There is a coalition of women in more than 120 countries that are leading an effort to get a binding treaty. The time is now.


On March 7, Germain Katanga was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the DRC, but not of rape. Do you feel that crimes against women take second place?


Too often, rape and violence against women is dismissed.


In 1997, Jean-Paul Akayesu was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of using mass systemic rape as a tool of genocide for his actions during the Rwandan Genocide. There is legal precedent at the international level.


In December 2017, a local court in Kavumu convicted 11 men of raping dozens of very young girls. Just two weeks ago, a local military court in Mangombe, Kamanyola convicted a colonel in the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) for raping a 14-year-old girl.


Yet, most rapes are never prosecuted. Organizations like Panzi Hospital fund the processes for Survivors to seek justice because women cannot afford the legal support required to pursue charges.

Access to justice is an inherent human right. All barriers to women’s full participation in society must be removed. We are equal in every way and all laws must reflect this. All genders must have equitable access to society, justice, and hope.

In your opinion, what are the current challenges for the implementation of reparations for female victims of sexual violence in international crimes?

The challenges and obstacles to justice begin with our systems of government, of caste, and societal norms that center patriarchal notions of who is, or is not, recognized under the law as being « worthy » of equity and justice. But it is also more intimate than that.


Supporting Survivors requires people who are actively doing the work to shed their bias against Survivors inherited from those systems. Centering Survivors makes people very uncomfortable as it forces them to step aside, to lay down their expert status, to lay down their self-perception as « helping » or « serving » Survivors.


There is also a significant gap in international law. Nearly 75% of all women and girls in the world lack protection under a binding treaty or protocol. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) fails to directly mention sexualized or domestic violence.


What mechanisms do you consider to be efficient for the implementation of these reparations?


A new and binding protocol to CEDAW, or a free-standing treaty could extend protection to all kinds of women in every corner of the world. Any treaty should be led by a coalition of nations, especially those in the Global South, and include a comprehensive package of proven interventions for nations to implement. Recognition of the cascading issues that follow sexualized violence, and interpersonal violence which spikes during and following conflict, must be factored in. Violence against women is a health crisis. It’s an economic crisis costing 5.5% of the Global Economy – or roughly $4.7 Trillion.


For Survivors to truly pursue justice, they need full agency in the process. The Global Survivors Fund, led by Dr. Denis Mukwege and his Co-Laureate for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, Esther Dingemans, has taken the lead on developing a pathway to meaningful reparations for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict, and post-conflict, zones.

They undertook a Global Reparations Study. Their findings should inform both content and performance indicators for any future protocol or treaty. In 2017, I joined the initial convening of their SEMA Network in Geneva, Switzerland, and have been consistently impressed and pleased to see the dedication of the EU-based staff and how they implement the expertise of Dr. Denis Mukwege. Denis pioneered a model of holistic healing for Survivors that is transformational.


Survivors must partner with local and regional leaders to apply pressure on the national political and legislative policymakers to consider full recognition and become signatories to the Rome Statute. Further, strengthening the International Criminal Court, and other mechanisms like the Committee Against Torture, will advance our shared pursuit of a freer, more equitable, and just world.


 

About the interviewer: Clémence Poetschke recently graduated from the Master in International Security at Sciences Po, with concentrations in diplomacy and intelligence. She has lived on the African continent for 15 years and she is passionate about studying security issues and the rights of victims of armed conflict in Africa.

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