Event Summary: “Calling the Ghosts” and the continued fight to end violence against women

“Calling the Ghosts” and the continued fight to end violence against women

November 20, 2011
Hannah Ratner, Contributing Editor

Event Overview:

On Nov. 17th the Metro Chapter USNC of UN Women organized screening of “Calling the Ghosts,” an Emmy-award winning documentary about wartime rape in Bosnia. After the film, leading human rights activists Karmen Ross; political consultant and director of “Calling the Ghosts,” Kelly Askin; senior legal officer for International Justice in the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Ugoji Eze; Founder and President of Eng Aja Eze Foundation, engaged the room in a passionate discussion about violence against women and girls during armed conflicts. All three panelists have played essential roles in initiating a trend towards accountability and dissolving the culture of impunity that has historically surrounded these crimes. Their accomplishments include working on war crime tribunals around the world, hunting down war criminals and lobbying the International Criminal Court to include sexual violence against civilians as a crime against humanity (which it now does). During the discussion, Ross, Eze, and Askin outlined the progress that has been made, explained the new and persisting challenges, and provided resources for advocacy and awareness.

Full Event Recap:

On Nov. 17th, weeks after the execution of Gaddafi, a Morgan Stanley auditorium in midtown was packed for a screening of “Calling the Ghosts,” an Emmy-award winning documentary about wartime rape in Bosnia. After the film, leading human rights activists Karmen Ross; political consultant and director of “Calling the Ghosts,” Kelly Askin; senior legal officer for International Justice in the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Ugoji Eze; Founder and President of Eng Aja Eze Foundation, engaged the room in a passionate discussion about violence against women and girls during armed conflicts. The film remains astonishingly timely given the political turmoil around the globe, and specifically, the current investigation Gaddafi’s militia by the International Criminal Court (ICC). There is significant evidence that Gaddafi ordered the rape of hundreds of women as a weapon to evoke fear from and to suppress rebel forces. BBC reported allegations that he went so far as to buy “viagra-like drugs to ‘enhance the possibility of rape’ ” (June 8, 2011).

The underlying feeling at the event was one of necessity for the awareness, conversation, and activism to end gender-based violence and to stand in solidarity with victims of such human rights abuses. Though the film was deeply powerful and at times emotionally difficult, the conversation retained a hopeful tone, a feat I attributed to the relevance of the issues at hand and the opportunity to work through them with leading experts. If ideas and activism could be inspired anywhere, the conference room was that place.

The documentary gave an intimate look into the experiences of two women, Jadranka Cigelj and Nusreta Sivac, who survived massive human rights abuses during the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They referred to their lives before the war as those of “modern day women,” working as lawyers, and predominantly focused on their families and jobs. When she was younger, Cigelj said she never even thought about ethnicity, and neither woman considered themselves involved in politics. When the Serbian forces seized power of the city, Cigelj recalled the initial 13 hours of fighting that was the start of the ethnic cleansing of part of the city. Sivac said that she insisted the men leave while she stayed back with the children, thinking nothing could happen to the women. Both men and women were forcibly removed from the town, separated, and taken into camps. Sivac described her shock and incomprehension when she first arrived in the camp, thinking, “was this even possible in this era?”

Both women were imprisoned in the Omarska concentration camp, infamous for its brutality, where they were tortured systematically by the military gaurds. For a long time after the war, neither woman spoke of what had happened, Sivac saying “whatever we say is nothing compared to what we experienced.” Both women have since decided to share their stories, as activists in the broader fight against violence against women. Cigelj has spent years working with war crime tribunals to include rape as a crime of war and helping other women who survived abuses.

There is still much progress to be made, but it is important to recognize that for the first time in history, violence against women and girls in zones of conflict is recognized internationally as a crime of war. Stories of women brutalized in the Rwandan genocide, Bosnian genocide, and of the comfort women of World War II surfaced around the same time in the mid-1990s, sparking an international campaign to recognize rape as a systematic crime of war. “Calling the Ghosts” played a critical role in this campaign, in lobbying the UN and U.S. congress. More perpetrators have been persecuted more in just 20 years than all history combined (Askin). The International Criminal Court (ICC) now defines the systematic rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity against civilian populations as crimes against humanity (Rome Statute, Article 7).

Panelists Eze, Ross, and Askin have each worked on and with war crimes tribunals, which have been essential in initiating a trend towards accountability and dissolving the culture of impunity that has historically surrounded these crimes. In situations of mass atrocities like in the Bosnian or Rwandan genocides, where huge portions of the population is guilty of committing violent crimes, it is not only difficult to identify the perpetrators but also to determine how to hold perpetrators accountable. The capacity of the tribunals forces them to direct most of their focus on persecuting the individuals that were leaders in the genocides and were responsible for directing and committing mass crimes against humanity.  Because of this, Askin called attention to the need for domestic courts to persecute war criminals in the post-conflict period. Askin has served as advisor and trainer to prosecutors, judges, and registry for mass atrocity crimes tribunals around the world, and has written multiple books on war crimes against women. Ross worked with tribunals and spent years finding and persecuting war criminals that escaped to the United States. Eze is the founder of the Eng Aja Eze Foundation, which focuses on women and children in conflict and post-conflict zones, working to bring the plight of women in zones of conflict to international attention.

Amidst these remarkable accomplishments, where can we, as individuals in a non-war society with careers outside of human rights activism, fit into the global challenge of gender-based violence? Simply starting conversations to educate and draw attention to the issues at hand (as modeled by the Nov. 17th event) can help. The way we treat survivors of crimes against humanity impacts their ability to heal and to share their story. When individuals are treated as victims first rather than as the strong survivors that they are, it puts their experience of abuse before themselves as individuals. Many women choose not to discuss their experiences because of the stigmas associated with victimization, which vary between cultures and can be as severe as placing the blame on the woman for the abuse. Through education and advocacy, we can work transfer the stigma of cowardice and atrocity onto the perpetrators and alleviate the stigmas that prevent many survivors from reporting their experiences.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognizes the unique impact of armed conflict on women and women’s contributions to conflict resolution and prevention. It is binding to all UN member states and calls on all parties in an armed conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. It stresses the responsibility of all states to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls. With inspiring figures like the women featured in “Calling the Ghosts” and the expert panelists on Nov. 17th, it is important to continue to raise awareness to these issues and support measures to prevent violence against women. Each person must find their own vehicles for activism and fortunately, there are many resources available to help get involved. Examples include raising awareness for Resolution 1325 and becoming a part of campaigns like the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, which began on Nov. 25th.

For more information, visit the UN Women website and check out the PBS series “Women, War, and Peace” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/women-war-and-peace/

http://www.saynotoviolence.org/join-say-no/2011-16-days-activism-against-gender-violence-campaign