Event Recap: Prosecuting ISIS Crimes Against women and LGBTI Persons

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On Wednesday, November 8th, 2017 OutRight Action International in collaboration with CUNY Law School, the Sorensen Center, Iraqueer, Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), Women’s International league for Peace and Freedom, and Madre, hosted an event with the honourable Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

The event centered around prosecuting ISIS crimes against women and LGBTI persons, specifically the presentation of a communication to the International Criminal Court with the documentation of gender based persecution and torture, pursuant to article 15 of the Rome Statute.

The communication outlines,

“In 2014, ISIS took control of large swaths of territory in Iraq. Since then, ISIS forces and imposed a reign of terror, perpetrating heinous gender-based crimes against civilians on a staggering scale. Human rights bodies and advocates have extensive documentation of ISIS’s practice of persecuting individuals because their gender or gender expression does not conform with the militia's strict gender norms...This impunity cannot stand...The ICC as an international body is best positioned to address the criminal responsibility of ISIS members”

Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, provided introductory remarks. Other speakers included Patrizia Viseur-Sellers (Special Advisor to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), Yanar Mohammed, (Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq), Nahla Vajli (Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General), Madeleine Rees (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), Amir Ashour (IraQueer),  Yifat Susskind (Madre), Maria Sjodin (OutRight Action International), Lisa Davis (Madre), Camille Massey (Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice).

Chief Prosecutor Bensouda, who gave remarks and then sat for a question and answer session with Mary Lu Bilek, Dean of CUNY, was also given the Dean’s Social Justice Award.

Prosecutor Bensouda, in her conversation with Dean Bilek, made clear that prosecuting gender based persecution was a priority in her office, saying, “I am going to make sure that we not only investigate and prosecute these crimes but that we do so effectively...The message should be clear – all efforts should be made that those committing these crimes should be held accountable.

Justice for the victims of these egregious crimes was a main topic of conversation in the room and was carried on to the second part of the event; a panel discussion featuring a diverse range of activists and academics, all of whom have been working on this issue for years.

Nahla Vajli, Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, moderated and asked the panelists a series of questions. Highlights of the conversation include the following:

Yanar Mohammed: “Women have been sexually enslaved by ISIS. When I say Women I mean women of all religions, and the kind of hatred that women face, they were different. Yazidis have been dehumanized, some died while being raped. They were just thrown in the garden and buried. Some were raped for sectarian hatred. Some are forcefully married. Women were heavily abused, sexually abused, enslaved, being sold for little amount of money.  Women had to go through all of these under ISIS, and the men who even looked like LGBT or wear tight jeans or had gel on their hair, were punished by ISIS. Enough is enough. We want to make sure that the rapists, killers of women, and the killers of the LGBT men, should come to justice.”

Amir Ashour: “We realized that ISIS is not only targeting LGBT people but is aiming at eliminating LGBT persons from the society. We keep being one of the most invisible groups in society. Through these efforts of documentation, we are hoping to bring those people to justice.”

Yifat Susskind: “Our goal is to eradicate patriarchy. And one of the strategies that this legal challenge gives us, is to work to disarm what we all understand to be the primary enforcement mechanism of patriarchy, which is gender based violence. It is the potential to change international law, but it is the broader culture change that is required to make legal change, and how it reinforces social change.”

Patrizia Viseur-Sellers: “I find it ironic, the question of how does LGBTI+ fit into persecution. It is part of the genesis of persecution.”

Maria Sjodin: “For those who want to know [more] on the LGBTI side, which is where my expertise lies, what you can actually do, I think you have to stay informed. It’s not always a great thing to organize a demonstration outside a mission or an embassy. You need to know what is actually helpful for people who live in the particular context and not just sort of what rhetoric works best over here….so please stay informed. There are definitely things that can be done about Chechnya, and about all those horrible things we hear on the news. But please stay informed before you do something...especially when organizing in the United States because of the heavy impact it has...all over the world.”

Lisa Davis: “Most importantly, support civil society. Because it’s civil society, in countries that are experiences conflict, like Iraq, it is organizations on the ground who are doing the bulk of the work. They’re going in and out of conflict zones, helping people to escape, bringing rape victims to places where they can stay in safe shelter, documenting crimes. They can cross over war lines. They can go into areas that the U.N. can never reach. They can find victims that international aid organizations would never be able to identify, who would never come forward to an international aid organization. They desperately and critically need the support and aid of the international community”

Madeleine Rees: “If we look at the law, and gender, and the way the ICC is working...what we’re attempting, more than anything else, is to institutionalize the social justice that we have been claiming and advocating for. [Gender] a progressive, useful, tool...why stop with the jurisdiction of the ICC. Let’s look at other jurisdictions and see how we can use law, develop law, again to accurately recognize what is really happening--[crimes against] LGBTI as genocide, potentially. Let us use it to keep advancing the law. Let us not stay with the definitions we have...push it so that we understand better, reflect better, what is actually happened to people, so that we all enjoy the law’s embrace.”

These discussions were organized by the Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice and the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and the livestream of this event will soon be available on their YouTube channel.