The beauty of Tootsie

Tonight was a very special night for me. I went to the launch of the Kennedy Award, an exhibition of paintings, finalists in a competition with the theme of beauty. The idea was to take the theme beyond the superficial.

It was special night for me, because I was in the exhibition, the subject of a painting over a meter tall painted by the wonderful Marieka Hambledon. Being painted by her was a wonderful experience. I would have loved for us to win. But we didn’t and both of us were overjoyed. We were overjoyed because the painting that won is incredible. It was called ‘Tootsie, just an Old Drag Queen’.

Today was also wear it purple day, an annual awareness day for LGBTQI people. In Australia, young LGBTQI people are five times more likely to attempt suicide and twice as likely to engage I self-harm compared to the general population.

Tootsie, the subject of the winning painting, was 20 years old when he was imprisoned just for being gay. When the judges announced the award, they said you could almost smell the subject. It’s true. Though Tootsie is smoking one cigarette, the artist tells us he was in fact a chain smoker and the haze almost sits in the room with him, with his lipstick smeared coffee cup.

But why we were so happy this painting won over ours is because there is an incredible beauty in Tootsie and his story, so vivid on the canvas, eyeshadow still on his frail skin. There is beauty in this tale that is so different than those on magazine covers or billboards. That beauty is well worth the prestigious Kennedy Award of $25,000. And may that beauty be a lesson to us all.

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Australian company arms Saudi government department responsible for gender based violence

This week, the 104 countries that have signed up to the Arms Trade Treaty will be gathering for their annual meeting in Geneva. This year, their discussions will focus on gender-based violence.

Both the ABC and the Guardian recently published photos of shipments of weapons systems from an Australian manufacturer being shipped directly to the government of Saudi Arabia. The weapons systems were sold to the Ministry of Interior, the government department responsible for quashing public dissent and women’s rights.

Picture of a package label departing Sydney Airport.

Label of item for shipping at Sydney International Airport (Photo supplied by Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights)

This sale breeches our obligations under the international Arms Trade Treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty is supposed to stop the sale of weapons to countries responsible for significant human rights breeches.

The Ministry of Interior is in charge of the police, courts and prisons that are all responsible for gender-based violence. They are also largely responsible for implementing the guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, obtain a passport, or be discharged from prison.

Australian advocates for women’s rights who were at the UN for negotiations of the Arms Trade Treaty were part of the effort include gender provisions in the treaty. The aim of the activists was to help gender based violence by ending the export of the weapons used to facilitate that violence.

Ray Acheson was a leader in those negotiations. She is the Director of the Reaching Critical Will campaign of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They’ve been working on disarmament issues for over a century.

The legally binding clause of the treaty authorisation of exports must consider if they will “facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence.” Acheson said “Saudi Arabia is a known violator of women’s rights and LGBT rights. The risks of gender based violence inside Saudi Arabia are high.”

Indeed, a 2013 law supposed to reduce domestic abuse still allows male guardians to persistently abuse women. Male relatives are also able to bring legal claims against ‘disobedient’ female dependents who flee domestic violence. Human Rights Watch has documented cases where police have turned women away when they sought to report abuse.

Earlier this year, the male guardianship system returned to the Australian news when Rahaf al-Qunun’s attempted to flee to Australia, escaping her family due to fears for her life. The Ministry of Interior maintains an extensive intelligence network and special police force that has been used to prevent and punish such attempts to break free from the guardianship system.

Over the past twelve months, various elements of the Ministry of Interior have undertaken a campaign of arrests, imprisoning and torturing women’s human rights defenders. Women including Eman Al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Samar Badawi were among a dozen leading activists arrested after the ban on women driving was lifted in May last year. Each of them were reportedly tortured while in custody.

The Saudi Arabian public prosecutor’s office had announced that the group undertook “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom.” These security related charges could bring sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment. In reality, the women used social media to speak up about women’s rights in the country.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has called on the Saudi government to “ensure that women activists are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression and association” and that counter-terrorism law, the anti-cybercrime law and regulations for electronic publishing are not used to “abusively to criminalize women human rights defenders.”

The Australian Government needs to use this opportunity to re-examine its processes for authorising arms exports in accordance with the Arms Trade Treaty.

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!

Super department a bad sign for justice and the rule of law

Earlier today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the launch of a new ‘super department’ along the lines of the UK Home Office or the US Department of Homeland Security.

The move was not recommended by the recent review of the national security architecture by respectected Michael Le’Strange, was not endorsed by cabinet and has split the National Security Committee. The new department will capture the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Federal Police, Border Force and the Department of Immigration. It will be headed by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Many commentators have argued the only reason to create such a department is political, providing Peter Dutton with additional power as a means of steering him away from a leaderahip challenge. Although the government has not stated what benefits such a department would bring to national security, the new department would presumably be responsible for strategic planning and coordination of the agencies in its purvue. This is most concerning. 

The Australian Federal Police has historically been under the remit of the Justice Minister with a strong relationship to the Attorney-General’s Department. The Australian Federal Police are not only used for counter-terrorism and border control activities. The AFP has personnel deployed on operations all over the globe including on peace support operations with the United Nations. They are a significant tool in Australia’s strategic investment in a rules based global order more closely aligned with the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Defence Force.

On the other hand, Border Force and Australia’s immigration policies, particularly those relating to refugees and asylumn seekers, are broadly condemned as breaching international legal norms and human rights standards.

The AFP are the authority responsible for investigating and prosecuting such international crimes as war crimes, crimes against hanity and genocide when they fall under Australian jurisdiction. Each of these crimes is outlined under domestic legislation and has been included in the Criminal Code Act. Even though it is known that Australians have perpetrated these crimes while fighting with Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, no investigations of prosecutions have yet occurred. 

Indeed, rather than meeting our obligations to investigate and prosecute these crimes, Australia has supported impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict by revoking the citizenship of a key perpetrator known to have committed these crimes. That decision was made by the very man now given authority over all the agencies within thisnew department.

Amy Maguire has argued that Australia’s human rights obligations now need to be rechecked under the new departmental structure. I could not agree more.

Citizenship revoked

A few months ago, the Abbott government developed several proposals to strip Australian dual nationals of their citizenship should they join Daesh in the Middle East. They released a discussion paper which stated that “citizenship is a contract by which we all abide.” The paper talks about citizenship as a privilege that is “fundamentally linked to an ongoing commitment to Australia and participation in Australian society.”

First of all, citizenship is neither a privilege nor a contract. Citizenship is a right. Every human being has a right to statehood. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” Arbitrarily depriving someone of their nationality engages consideration of a legitimate objective, proportionality and due process. Each of these three considerations is questionable in this context.

It surprised me that this whole discussion began on the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, a document credited with the beginning of a western tradition of human rights and limitations on state power. Australia has the only copy of the Magna Carta in the southern hemisphere and it is permanently displayed in Parliament House. The most famous passage contained in this historic document can be found in Chapter 39 and states that, “no free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”

The right to citizenship is not one that can be revoked by Ministerial decree. This matter has been tested by courts in other jurisdictions. In 1958, in the Tropp v Dulles judgement, the United State Supreme Court stated “citizenship is not a licence that expires on misbehaviour… and the deprivation of citizenship is not a weapon that the government may use to express its displeasure at a citizen’s conduct, however reprehensible that conduct may be.” In that case, the Chief Justice, joined by Justices Black, Douglas and Whittaker concluded that “citizenship is not subject to the general powers of the National Government, and therefore cannot be divested in the exercise of those powers.”

In a recent article in The Conversation, Rayner Thwaites went beyond legal questions of the government’s proposals. He asked if revoking citizenship would be an effective “means of expressing moral opprobrium about terrorism?” I would argue that revoking citizenship is not a suitable means of addressing moral contempt of terrorism.

Captured women and children were treated as

Captured women and children were treated as “spoils of war”, the UN report said.
(Photo by AFP: Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

If an Australian citizen chooses to travel to Iraq or Syria and fight with Daesh and then chooses to return to Australia, they should be charged with the relevant criminal offences and prosecuted. Such offences could include treason, genocide and war crimes. In 2013, the Commonwealth Crimes Act was amended to update the definition of treason which could now cover acts undertaken by Australians fighting with Daesh in Syria or Iraq. The United Nations has suggested that Daesh is committing genocide against the Yazidi people. Genocide has been a crime in Australia since 2002, when the government finally passed the Genocide Convention Act of 1949.

There is also a vast body of evidence to suggest Daesh are committing a range of war crimes, or grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. A recent report by the Human Rights Council recorded the following acts which are defined as war crimes in the Rome Statue: murder, cruel or degrading treatment and torture; directing attacks against civilians or humanitarian workers; taking hostages; summary executions; rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution or forced pregnancy. The report documented particularly egregious violations against women and girls. As a result of this report, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has asked the Security Council to refer perpetrators to the International Criminal Court for further investigation and possible prosecutions.

In Australia, these acts are criminal offences under 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. Under the principle of complementarity of the International Criminal Court, signatories to the Rome Statue have the obligation, if they are willing and able, to investigate and prosecute these crimes themselves. If such crimes have been committed by Australian citizens, we will certainly have the jurisdiction, and should show a willingness and ability to investigate and prosecute.

During the late 1980s, concern “that a significant number of persons who committed serious war crimes in Europe during World War II may have entered Australia and become Australian citizens or residents” gave rise to the establishment, in 1987, of the Special Investigations Unit. The unit investigated Nazi war crimes, and was later used in investigations of crimes in the Balkans. But there has been a “lack of political will to cover the necessary financial costs” and the unit no longer exists. When Australian soldiers were accused of unlawfully killing civilians in Afghanistan, the body of law used in their prosecution was not the Geneva Conventions, but civil law relating to duty of care.

A just response to Australians choosing to join Daesh, one that falls within the human rights framework and supports the rule of law, would be to find sufficient evidence, charge the individuals in question, and prosecute them. Justice would be much better served if the Australian Government mandated, maintained and supported the relevant institutions and units required for this task. This is particularly pertinent given Australia’s public stance against impunity for sexual and gender based violence in conflict and would certainly go some way to meeting our obligations under the suite of United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security and Australia’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018.

Beijing +20

In 1995, people from around the world gathered in Beijing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Over 17,000 delegates and 30,000 activists attended. By the end of the conference, 189 participating countries had developed the most progressive blue print for women’s rights ever. The Beijing Platform for Action remains the gold standard for implementing women’s rights around the world. It comprises commitments under 12 critical areas of concern:

A. Women and poverty
B. Education and training of women
C. Women and health
D. Violence against women
E. Women and armed conflict
F. Women and the economy
G. Women in power and decision-making
H. Institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women
I.  Human rights of women
J.  Women and the media
K. Women and the environment
L. The girl child

This year, at the United Nations’ 59th Commission on the Status of Women, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. It was hoped that the Ministers in the General Assembly would release a Political Declaration on accelerated action on the Beijing Platform for Action, prioritising human rights and women’s empowerment, calling for irreversible progress on women’s rights by 2030. I would have liked to see references to violence against women and girls as a key issue for equality and development, and a reinforcement of the women peace and security agenda. Other important issues in the women’s movement include the protection of sexual and reproductive health rights, climate change, and indigenous rights.

Released in the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the Political Declaration was none of these things. It was merely a bland statement of support for the Beijing Platform for Action. During negotiations, specific needs and issues were shut out for fear of creating an unwieldy and unhelpful list of specificities. So there is no mention of disability; intersectionality; or women, peace and security. The Holy See, Russia and Member States in the G77 including China and Iran pushed to remove all references to human rights. Only three such references remain. There has certainly been discussion among civil society of the men in frocks wanting to take away women’s control of their own bodies.

The final document did maintain a reference to the specific goal on gender equality expected from the new development framework, the Sustainable Development Goals, which will replace the soon to expire Millennium Development Goals. Some of our Pacific neighbours fought hard to maintain references to the valuable work of non-government organisations and civil society in attaining gender equality. The Political Declaration also outlined the important role of UN Women in this process, which did not exist when the Beijing Platform for Action was developed, but now has the mandate to lead and coordinate the UN system’s work on gender equality.

Many people have been disappointed by the Political Declaration, and there is much hope that the General Assembly resolution on the working methods of the Commission on the Status of Women will keep the space open for non-government organisations to participate and advocate on women’s issues. Governments and civil society both need to be proactive to ensure the voices of young women and indigenous women are heard in these fora. It all goes to show what can be done when political and social movements seize the moment, as was done in Beijing. Now, the women’s movement needs to coalesce around what we do have, the Beijing Platform for Action and continue to push for its implementation. Rather than necessarily seeking new commitments, we need to see the implementation of the existing ones.

For ongoing updates from #CSW59, follow me on Twitter @SusansOpine.

I am participating in CSW59 as a member of the delegation from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, of which I am a member of the Australian Section and convenor of the ACT Branch.

I have been able to travel to New York to participate in CSW59 thanks to a grant from the Australian National University Gender Institute as well as funding from my College of Arts and Social Science.