UN readies for another resolution while Australia stands in the way of ending impunity for wartime rape

The UN Security Council is in the process of developing a new resolution on Women, Peace and Security. The resolution has been anticipated for several months and is due to be passed as part of the Council’s annual open debate on conflict related sexual violence which is due to be held in New York on Tuesday. An Arria formula meeting was held earlier in the year to prepare council members for the debate, with a particular focus on ending impunity for conflict related sexual violence. Conflict related sexual violence is the focus of four of the existing eight resolutions on women, peace and security. But even the Council has bemoaned the lack of prosecutions for these crimes.

Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad will address the Council during the Open Debate. She has spoken out time and again for justice for survivors from her community who experienced sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide at the hands of Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. For all the times the international community has shone a spotlight on her tears, we have still failed to do what she asks.

Germany, the current President of the Security Council and chair of this week’s debate is the only country to put a member of Da’esh on trial for any of these gendered crimes. But tens of thousands of foreign fighters travelled from countries around the world and committed these crimes. Many of those foreign fighters come from countries that are States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and are therefore obliged to investigate and prosecute these crimes in their own court systems.

Both houses of Australia’s Federal Parliament passed multi-party motions calling for the investigation and prosecution of Australians who may have perpetrated sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Several federal ministers have reinforced this obligation. These ministers have included Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, Peter Dutton as Minister for Home Affairs and Linda Reynolds as Assistant Minister for Home Affairs.

Despite this, the government has failed to implement the strategies required to make such investigations and prosecutions are reality and they have invested energy into policies and legislation which prevent such action. Chapter eight of the Commonwealth Criminal Code clearly articulates the crimes that are laid out in the Rome Statute and ensures that Australian authorities have jurisdiction over such offences even when they are perpetrated overseas, against victims from another country. But this legislation has never been tested in court. The Australian Federal Police require the funding and other resources to stand up unit dedicated to such investigations. No such funding was made available in the latest federal budget.

In order for these prosecutions to occur, the perpetrator must be in federal custody. But the government has pursued a range of legislative and policy processes removing this probability. Given the parliament passed legislation allowing the government to revoke the citizenship of anyone who travelled to Iraq or Syria to join Da’esh, the government was obliged to include an administrative step determining if such individuals perpetrated war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide before making a determination about citizenship revocation. The citizenship review board that advices the Minister for Home Affairs on such matters has apparently continued to fail to account for such obligations. Now, over a dozen individuals, some of whom are known to have perpetrated heinous crimes against women have had their citizenship revoked, further reducing the likelihood that their victims will see the justice they so rightly deserve.

There is a group of Yazidi women who are fighting for access to support services under Australia’s victims of human trafficking schemes. These women were purchased by an Australian man, for the purpose of sexual slavery, and repeatedly sexually and violently abused. Under Australia’s own criminal laws, those women count as victims of human trafficking, modern slavery, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But rather than allow them justice, the government revoked the citizenship of their abuser. If they so choose, they could bring a case against the Commonwealth for failure to uphold their obligations under the Rome Statute. Their country of residence, or any other country of interest could take Australia to the International Court of Justice for failing to fulfil our obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Early in the new year, the government tried to go even further, seeking legislative changes that would allow them to revoke the citizenship of even more people, and enforcing Temporary Exclusion Orders to delay Australians of counter-terrorism interest from re-entering Australia. This is yet another policy that would prevent the arrest or detention of individuals responsible for conflict related sexual violence.

At the Arria formula meeting earlier in the year, civil society presenter Akila Radhakrishnan from the Global Justice Centre said achieving accountability for conflict related sexual violence “requires more than just eloquent rhetoric; it will require Council members to take concrete action and display considerable political will. Sexual and gender-based violence is, at its core, an expression of discrimination, patriarchy and inequality.” Countries like Australia must stop getting in the way of justice and follow up the global rhetoric with the actual action required to end impunity for conflict related sexual violence. We must investigate and prosecute these crimes now!

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Greens policy on ME/CFS

The Australian Greens have launched a policy on the debilitating neurological disease myalgic encephalomyelitis, a type of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome known in Australia as ME/CFS. Senator Jordan Steele-John has campaigned passionately for patients with ME since coming to parliament in 2017. This is the first ever political policy to be released on ME/CFS and is well timed with a Federal election due in May.

The Senator was kind enough to call me today to discuss the new policy. After years of campaigning with the hashtag #millionsmissing from their normal lives, the Senator explained this policy was an important way to show the patient community that they were no longer invisible. “When the evidence shows that a disease like this is real, it doesn’t mean that people automatically stop experiencing stigma.” He went on to say this policy was designed to show that it was not just his words that the Greens had to offer ME/CFS patients, but the whole Green movement now had a plan for action to help make their lives better.

The Greens’ policy has four parts. The first is to increase funding for biomedical research to $15 million dollars that would be administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council. This would allow funding for a range of innovative work being done across Australia by a range of different organisations. It would be enough to cover the gap in funding to scale up the sample size of calcium ion channel research being undertaken by the National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases, as well as a range of other significant biomedical research projects. Since the release of the Greens’ policy, the Coalition Government has announced $3 million dollars in ME/CFS research funding.

Secondly, they propose a national ME/CFS summit to bring together patient advocates, biomedical researchers, clinicians, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), Department of Human Services, and Department of Social Services. Such an event could be facilitated in such a way that it would catalyse policy alignment between all these groups, with a particular focus on government departments, service providers and medical practitioners. At present, the discrepancies between current research, medical practice, the NDIA and other government departments pose a significant barrier to the health and wellbeing of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who suffer from ME/CFS.

In many cases, patient advocacy groups have been the only source of support and guidance through these frought bureaucratic processes that combine to discriminate against people with ME/CFS. These groups have run on the smell of an oily rag for decades but take a leading role in coordinating communication and advocacy to improve the standard of care for ME/CFS patients. Funding and support of these groups is the third component of the Greens’ policy and it is long overdue.

The fourth component of the policy is a promise to provide participant pathways for people with ME/CFS to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS was established with the explicit purpose of supporting Australians with disabilities to access social, economic and community life. Senator Steele-John was infuriated by the revelations that the NDIS had vastly underspent this financial year, but was still failing so many Australians in need of support.

There are a range of reasons given to the scores of people with ME/CFS who are rejected from the scheme. Some reasons relate to outdated research that suggested Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Graduated Exercise Therapy would make them better; making them ineligible under the criteria of ‘permanence’. Others find themselves caught up in the stigma and misconception of medical professionals who misdiagnose them with Conversion Disorder or Somatic Symptom Disorder. If all the symptoms experienced by a person with ME/CFS are described in either the International Consensus Primer or the Canadian Consensus Criteria, then they will not meet the criteria for Conversion. But approximately 80% of people with ME/CFS are women, who for centuries have had their physical symptoms disregarded as mental illness. In addition to advocacy efforts to have ME/CFS added to List B of the NDIS, Senator Steele-John spoke about aims to continue working with his colleague Senator Rachel Siewert to reform the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to improve its fairness and reasonableness in NDIS appeals. He also spoke about the relationship between the AAT and abusive behaviour towards people with ME/CFS, which may mean it falls in the remit of the Royal Commission into violence and abuse of people with disabilities, the terms of reference for which are due to be finalised before the election.

Senator Steele-John’s efforts to support the ME/CFS community are commendable. It is a source of great hope that he has been able to expand on the good work undertaken by his predecessor Senator Ludlam and bring his entire party on board to work for the improvement of the lives of people living with this debilitating commission. He is facing a tough re-election campaign, facing off against candidates from the One Nation party. We can only hope that the good people of Western Australia get out to support his campaign and vote him back into the Senate in May so he can continue his invaluable work for Australians with disabilities, including those living with ME/CFS.

Where’s the Governor-General when you need him in a constitutional crisis?

Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC

The power of the Governor-General is prescribed in the constitution and detailed in constitutional practice.  While the Governor-General customarily acts on the advice of relevant ministers communicated through the Federal Executive Council, there are times when the Governor-General can act without, or contrary to that advice. Overall, the Governor-General has the responsibility of  ensuring the execution and maintenance of the constitution.

The Coalition currently holds 76 seats in the lower house, the minimum number required to form government. Barnaby Joyce MP and Senators Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan, all of the National Party, currently have cases before the High Court to determine if their dual citizenship precludes them from holding federal office.

Section 44 of the constitution is worded to ensure no federal member is beholden to a foreign power. There may be some room for interpretation for individuals who unwittingly held dual citizenship with another country whose head of state is also Queen Elizabeth II. Can one truly be considered beholden to a foreign power if said power has the same head of state as Australia? However, there is no room for such interpretation when the dual citizenship is held with a country outside the Commonwealth. For example, the meaning of the constitution would be quite clear if someone were a dual national of Italy, as is Matt Canavan.

On the face of it however, all three members appear to be in breach of Section 44 of the constitution. Their eligibility to sit in parliament could not be subject to more serious questioning. Remaining in cabinet under such conditions is phenomenally irregular. However, the High Court is unlikely to make a decision before October. Then, if Barnaby Joyce is ineligible to hold office, his seat would likely be re-decided in a by-election.

In the mean time, could the government itself be considered unconstitutional? If Barnaby Joyce is ineligible then the Coalition only holds 75 seats in the lower house. It has been reported that when parliament next sits, if Joyce doesn’t refrain from voting, Labor will seek to have all votes deferred. Is this a basis on which the Governor-General can be assured of the Coalition’s ability to maintain government?

More broadly, in section 64, the constitution also states that no minister can hold office for any longer than three months without being elected to parliament. While common law protects the decisions made by those who thought they were acting out the duties of their rightful office, neither Joyce nor Nash have resigned from cabinet since learning of their predicament. As such, the decisions they make moving forward cannot fairly be interpreted as made while thinking they were performing duties of rightful office.

Given such a constitutional crisis, where is the Governor-General and what is he saying on the issues at play? At present, it seems the Prime Minister, and the government more broadly are waiting for the High Court to decide the fate of the suite of parliamentarians who have discovered they are dual citizens.  The High Court is unlikely to make a decision before October. However, especially considering the number of individuals who have not resigned, but retained their office and in some cases, cabinet positions, the time has come for greater oversight and employment of the responsibilities of the Governor-General.

It’s time to prosecute – sexual violence by Da’esh in Iraq and Syria

Last month, the United Nations Security Council met for its annual open debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). In their statement to the Security Council, the Permanent Representative from Iraq called for assistance strengthening their capacity to address sexual violence perpetrated against women and children by Da’esh.

This year marks the sixteenth anniversary of the first WPS resolution, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325. UNSCR 1325 emphasised “the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls”.

There are now a total of eight WPS resolutions, many of which focus on prevention of, protection from and ending impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. The most recent, UNSCR 2242 reiterated the need for the “implementation of relevant obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” It also affirmed “the primary role of Member States to implement fully the relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security”.

International campaigns such as Stop Rape Now have sought to bring attention to sexual violence in armed conflict. But these gendered crimes are often being perpetrated outside the jurisdiction of institutions willing and able to bring the perpetrators to justice. In 2014, Angelina Jolie and William Hague launched the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with projects to aid in the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict. Despite advances at the International Criminal Court, these crimes are often still overlooked.

In Iraq and Syria, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to end impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. Da’esh have used sexual violence as a weapon of war, constituent of genocide and in crimes against humanity. Since 2011, over 30 000 people have travelled from 89 countries to fight with Da’esh and other extremist organisations. Many of those people come from countries where war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are outlawed under domestic legislation.

If countries prosecuted their own nationals for these crimes we would finally go some way to achieving justice for the victims, ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, and implementing the WPS agenda. In countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity are outlawed in domestic legislation.  Finland and Sweden have already bought cases against their nationals.

Sexual violence can be prosecuted as a violation of the laws or customs of war, Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions, the Fourth Geneva Convention, or both Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions.  In Australia, war crimes and violations of the laws and customs of war are criminalised in the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 (last updated in 2009) and the War Crimes Act 1945 (last updated in 2010). These two acts have been incorporated in Division 268 of the Criminal Code Act 1995.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognises rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilisation and other forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity if the action is part of a widespread or systemic practice.

Da’esh has indeed developed a widespread and systemic practice of sexual slavery and rape. There is dedicated infrastructure for the enslavement, trafficking and rape of women and girls. Investigations have uncovered a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them. Da’esh has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by their own court system. They have published an entire doctrine codifying their practices. In order to comply with this doctrine, women are forced to take oral contraceptives to ensure they are not pregnant while being raped.

yazidi-protest

The principle of complementarity of the International Criminal Court obliges States Parties to investigate and prosecute the crimes outlined in the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute is integrated into Australian law with the International Criminal Court Act 2002  and the International Criminal Court (Consequential Ammendments) Act 2002.

For sexual violence to be considered “a constitutive act with respect to genocide,” it needs to have been committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The United Nations Human Rights Council has published a damning report, outlining Da’esh’s ongoing genocide of the Yazidis. Genocide has been a crime under Australian domestic law since 2002, when the federal government finally passed the Genocide Convention Act 1949.

Friday 25 November marks the beginning of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. It will be marked by the launch of the ‘prosecute; don’t perpetrate‘ campaign, calling on the Australian government to investigate and prosecute Australians who have perpetrated these crimes. It is high time we used our own laws, to investigate and prosecute our own citizens for sexual violence perpetrated by Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. Today is the most pertinent day to turn our minds to ending impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. These laws exist; we know the crimes have been perpetrated. Now we need to develop the political will to allocate the resources, investigate individual cases and prosecute them.