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Calling it what it is

24 January 2019
International movement to define ‘sexual violence’
Dr Rosemary Grey joined a panel of experts as the International Criminal Court (ICC) convened for the 17th annual session of the Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the Rome Statute
International Criminal Court

International Criminal Court

Dr Rosemary Grey, Postdoctoral Fellow - Sydney Law School and Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, believes that international criminal justice should be inclusive and gender-sensitive. Over the last ten years, she has focused her research around gender justice, especially the prosecution of sexual crimes in times of genocide and war.

Her work has taken her to many parts of the world, collaborating with international organisations, law enforcement, advocacy groups and leading researchers to achieve long-overdue reform.

Among the many challenges of prosecuting sexual violence as an international crime, one of the fundamental challenges is the difficulty in defining, “what makes violence ‘sexual’?”.

In December, Rosemary teamed up with Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice to launch the start of a global grassroots campaign to answer that question. The launch featured an expert panel which spoke to delegates of International Criminal Court (ICC) member states and human rights defenders at the World Forum in The Hague.

The panellists included Patricia Sellers, the ICC Prosecutor’s Gender Advisor; Jihyun Park, a human rights activist and refugee from North Korea; and Rosemary. There were also remarks from supporting Ambassadors, including Australia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, who sponsored Rosemary’s participation at the launch.

The discussion highlighted the need for a clear and culturally sensitive understanding of ‘sexual violence’ in international criminal law, and examined the barriers that ICC prosecutors had faced thus far in prosecuting this crime.

“The ICC is the first international tribunal whose statute recognizes a wide range of sexual and gender-based violence,” explained Rosemary. “However, neither the Court’s statute nor its case-law explains what makes an act of violence ‘sexual’, and initial efforts to prosecute forced nudity and forced circumcision as ‘sexual violence’ in the ICC have failed.”

In response to these experiences, Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice has initiated a campaign aimed at developing a working definition of ‘sexual violence’, with input from human rights organisations around the world.

Dubbed “Call it what it is”, the campaign seeks to “develop a civil society definition [with aid of an international survey], in the form of a non-exhaustive list of acts that could be considered an ‘act of a sexual nature’ to assist judges, investigators, lawyers, victims and perpetrators to better understand what crimes of sexual nature could entail.”

“Importantly, such a definition would consider acts that may be intended as sexual by perpetrators, and/or perceived as such by victims in specific cultural environments.”

Rosemary says the initial responses to the survey illustrate the range of thinking at play.

“Crimes such as rape, forced abortion forced pregnancy and genital mutilation can cause lasting physical damage, can traumatize the victims for the rest of their lives, and socially stigmatize them within their communities," she explained.

“By listening to diverse interpretations of the concept of ‘sexual violence’, the ICC can better understand how this type of violence is experienced around the world.”

The campaign will run for a year, with the aim of presenting the proposed definition of ‘sexual violence’ at the next annual meeting of States Parties to the ICC.