International Courts Face a Female Power PushBy Amy Lieberman

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Over the next few years campaigners will be trying to boost the number of women running and serving in the tribunals and offices that make some of the most consequential decisions in international justice.

A meeting of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Credit: OEA – OES on Flickr, under Creative

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Viviana Kristicevic had heard complaints from other lawyers about the scarcity of women in international tribunals and monitoring bodies. So, she had an idea that the data on women serving as judges and key representatives would not be great.

But she was “absolutely shocked” by what she and her team have found about the male domination of these posts.

The tribunal where Kristicevic herself has litigated cases is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This autonomous court in Costa Rica, where human rights violations in the Americas and Caribbean are considered, has had four female judges out of its total 35 since its establishment in 1979.

The International Court of Justice, the official court of the United Nations, has only had four female judges out of 106 since it launched in 1945.

The Geneva-based International Criminal Court, formally established in 2002, looks best for female authority figures, with women holding 14 of its 40 posts across the institution. This court consists of several different branches, including a group of high-level judges who preside over the court, a separate batch of judges who serve as a jury and also issue sentences, as well as an office of prosecutors, now led by a woman, Fatou Bensouda.

“If you run the numbers and look at them historically it is appalling,” said Kristicevic, executive director for the Center for Justice and International Law, a human rights organization with offices in Latin America and the U.S., in a phone interview. “They do not show an incremental move towards parity or improvement, so there is no linear progress. Some bodies you can see go back and forth.”

Kristicevic says these tribunals and bodies are at the center of some of the most consequential decisions taken in international relations: “They are deciding issues of war and peace, genocide, on the scope of human rights protections and it is troubling that women would not be a part of those decisions.”

The word “advocate” itself comes from the Roman word for lawyer. While the campaign is not spotlighting any particular female jurist’s advocacy achievements on behalf of women, the importance of female judges to issues affecting women is famously personified by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who has been a vigorous and often dissident defender of women’s reproductive rights.

In September, Kristicevic’ s Center for Justice and International Law launched the “Campaign for Gender Parity in International Representation” or Gqual, as it is known. Its purpose is to encourage governments to select more women to run special tribunals, regional and international courts.

Pledges to Nominate More Women

The campaign’s first stop was the United Nations Headquarters on Sept. 17 during the General Assembly plenary session. Ambassadors to the U.N. from Argentina, Costa Rica, Norway, Panama and Sweden signed a pledge at the event to nominate an equal number of men and women whenever the opportunity arises.

The Gqual campaign, which will research and advocate for parity, plans to continue working for several years with international organizations and bodies to make their election processes more transparent. It will be looking for pledges from between 35 and 40 countries to consider gender parity when they nominate and vote for candidates for international positions.

On Nov. 6 the campaign will be giving a briefing in Geneva at the next session of the Committee to End All Forms of Violence Against Women or CEDAW, a major women’s rights treaty and body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the agreement. Many countries have ratified the treaty. So far the United States has signed but not ratified it.

Catalina Botero Marino, who recently served as special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, says that in her experience the disparity and lack of leadership opportunities for women are “visible to almost no one.”

“They [men] don’t understand the difference because they are not women,” she said in a phone interview. “They are not feeling the impacts of the discrimination. It costs a lot more for women than it does for men. This is a challenge, to show the discrimination and to also show that the female perspective matters.”

Cecilia Bailliet, an advisor to Gqual, directs the public international law master’s program at the University of Oslo.

She says weak political will helps explain the paucity of women in international judicial systems. So does a process where selection–either by voting or nominations–is controlled by a limited number of government officials or heads of state, among whom women are under-represented.

Female Judges Bring Special Perspective

Yasmine Ergas, the director of gender and public policy at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs, says that when women consider criminal law and human rights they draw from their experiences and that offers a unique perspective.

She says it would be difficult to imagine the gradual acceptance of gender-specific crimes like sexual violence as a weapon of war, as worthy of being tried in these courts, without the mobilization of female jurists.

“It’s just the simple fact that women and men should both be represented and seems to me a question of justice,” she said. “Everyone should have an equal shot and the fact that women are not; there is a problem.”

Some women, such as Louise Arbour, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, have held powerful, high-profile positions in the United Nations. Margot Wallstrom, the former U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, also joins these ranks.

But these women don’t represent the larger picture.

Overall, as of September 2015, women occupy only 17 percent of the key authority positions within major international tribunals. That percentage rose slightly to 25 percent when considering regional human rights courts, according to the campaign.

Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She recently completed a post-graduate investigative reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School.