Panel event "Justice denied? Access to justice for victims of sexual violence"


How do we end the climate of impunity and ensure perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice? What can humanitarian organizations do to support survivors of sexual violence while preserving the organization's neutrality? And what does “justice” mean for survivors?

These were some of the questions raised and debated in front of an engaged audience of over 200 people at “Justice denied? Access to justice for victims of sexual violence”, a panel event on Wednesday, 11 September in Geneva. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hosted the event, co-sponsored by CERAH, Médècins Sans Frontières (MSF), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the Refugee Law Project.


Helen Durham, Director of Law and Policy at ICRC, delivered opening remarks, underscoring ICRC's strong commitment to addressing sexual violence, which is widespread in conflicts and emergencies. She reminded the audience that sexual violence is the only crime in which society often stigmatizes the victim, not the perpetrator. She also gave an overview of the jurisprudential development around sexual violence that started in the ‘90s, following hundreds of sexual violence cases in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. Recognizing sexual violence and rape as crimes was an important step forward for many survivors. As one told Durham, “I know now that what happened to me wasn’t an inevitable consequence of conflict, but a crime”.

Dr. Meg Davis, Coordinator of courses on sexual violence in conflicts and emergencies at CERAH and moderator of the event, framed the discussion and highlighted the importance of bringing the issue of sexual violence into the public eye. As a survivor herself, she said that many survivors see access to justice as essential to their recovery, but she also reminded the audience how rare it is for survivors to feel safe enough to report the crime or to find satisfaction in the criminal justice system. She called for a conversation between humanitarian and human rights organizations about how they can pragmatically work together to address this gap.


Cecile Aptel, Director of the Policy, Strategy and Knowledge Department at the International Federation of the Red Cross, gave an overview to the international legal framework. She explained that thanks to progress in recognizing sexual violence as a crime in international humanitarian law and in human rights law, the problem doesn’t lay in the law, but in its implementation at national levels.

Claude Maon, legal manager at MSF, shared that MSF has provided thousands of survivors with medical certificates, an essential piece of evidence needed to pursue charges in court. She discussed some of the challenges with delivering medical certificates to survivors, and accompanying survivors to bring their cases to court.

Christine Alai, an independent human rights lawyer with expertise on training medical and legal experts to gather evidence who serves on CERAH's steering committee on sexual violence, gave a harrowing account of 2007-2008 and 2017 post-election sexual violence in Kenya, her own country. She told the audience that, after more than a decade of political rhetoric, not a single perpetrator has been held accountable for any of the 900 documented cases of rapes that happened in 2007-2008, and not a single survivor has received compensation or support to address the health, psychological and socio-economic consequences of sexual violence. For Alai, discrimination and stigma are underlying factors that fuel sexual violence, and remain the most critical barriers to achieving justice. Alai also discussed the role of humanitarian organizations, and the need for these organizations to find practical ways to increase their collaboration with domestic organizations, INGOs and UN agencies. Davis noted that while many organizations prefer to leave the work of legal aid to national NGOs, domestic legal aid services are chronically underfunded by both domestic and international donors.

The lively panel discussion was followed by an interesting Q&A session where more issues were discussed, including the fact that men and boys face specific risks and barriers in disclosing the crime and accessing justice, and the pivotal role of education in changing the narrative around sexual violence and the stigmatization of survivors.

At the same time, the panelists were careful to stress that "culture" cannot be blamed for sexual violence. As former UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Mme. Zainab Bangura, has said, no country or continent has a monopoly on sexual violence, which is widespread everywhere. At the same time, researchers have found that there are armed groups that prohibit and sanction sexual violence, which means that sexual violence is not inevitable in conflict, and that addressing the culture of armed groups and ending impunity can have a positive impact.

Joanina Karugaba, Senior advisor on Sexual and Gender Based Violence at UNCHR and member of the CERAH steering committee, gave closing remarks, calling for continued conversation and collective action. She also warmly noted the contribution of Prof. Doris Schopper, Director of CERAH, who has championed work on sexual violence in conflicts and emergencies and who co-founded CERAH's widely recognized course on this issue.

To watch the video of the event click here.