Feminist Interventions: Human Rights, Armed Conflict and International Law

Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Feminist Interventions: Human Rights, Armed Conflict and International Law


This panel was convened at 9:00 a.m., Thursday, March 26, by its moderator, Vasuki Nesiah of the International Center for Transitional Justice, who introduced the panelists: Doris Buss of Carleton University School of Law; Janet Halley of Harvard Law School; and Ratna Kaput of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research. *

The international landscape of conflict and peace-building has undergone a fundamental transformation over the last few years with developments as diverse as the inauguration of the ICC and the 'war on terror,' the institutionalization of large scale rule of law and good governance projects, and the deployment of unprecedented numbers of peace keeping troops the world over. Women's human rights, and sexual violence in particular, has achieved a new prominence in this landscape, and narratives of women's victimhood have been the primary entry point for feminist interventions in international law. From the Akayesu decision a decade ago to the 2008 passage of Security Council Resolution 1820 on ending sexual violence as a tactic in war, this focus has been pivotal in defining the legal and political meanings of feminism on an international plane.

This session will seek to assess the strategic import of international conflict feminism, its attention to sexual violence in armed conflict, and its mobilization of a victimhood framework. As noted in our panel description, we will look at:

   [W]hat this approach highlights and what it obscures, what it
   empowers and what it defeats. What were the strategic reasons for a
   focus on sexual violence in armed conflict and do these factors
   continue to obtain? What are the political, legal, cultural
   politics of feminism in relation to these new terrains? Does this
   focus obscure the myriad other ways in which women and men are
   affected by global systems of inequality, whether in the context of
   armed conflict or not? Who should be the subject of feminist
   interventions in international law? Do we need to 'take a break'
   from feminism?

Indeed, this may be a pivotal moment to look at the changing meanings of feminism and bring critical questions to the way in which global feminism constructs global subjects.

Let me set the stage for this conversation by briefly reviewing the different steps that moved us to the current conjuncture. Feminist interventions in the transitional justice field have sought to address the historic lack of acknowledgement regarding women's experience of armed conflict and the concomitant lack of accountability for human rights violations against women in such contexts. For instance, marked failures in international law (such as the unsuccessful accountability struggles regarding comfort women in Japanese occupied regions of Asia) fueled the work of international feminism in the contexts of war and mass human rights violations. Over the last decade, this movement has had many achievements in countering this legacy. In the 1990s, there were many jurisprudential successes in the work of the ICTY and ICTR such as the Akayesu decision recognizing rape as genocide and the Celebici decision convicting a superior officer for rape through the doctrine of command responsibility. Moreover, the passage of Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1820 brought unprecedented recognition of women' s experiences of conflict (particularly sexual violence) and their potential contribution to peace building. Moreover, the Rome Statute built on this jurisprudence and went beyond the structure of the ICTY and ICTR to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of gender based crimes.

Yet, as already noted, the achievements of the last decade have not been an uncomplicated victory and, in reviewing these developments, several lines of problematization have been highlighted over the past few years by different scholars. I would like to flag three broad areas of concern. Firstly, there is the focus on situations of violence in defining feminist agendas on the international plane. …

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