Unofficial Accountability: A Proposal for the Permanent Women’s Tribunal on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict

By Fleming Terrell

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Winner, Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights (2005)


The ongoing sexual violation of women during recent conflicts stands in sharp contrast to increasing recognition that rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence in armed conflict violate international law. This paper argues that State-based fora cannot adequately hold individual perpetrators and State sponsors of such violence accountable. Accordingly, it posits that “unofficial” mechanisms—created by private individuals without authorization from any State—be considered as means to eliminate impunity for sexual violence committed during armed conflict. To that end, it evaluates the “people’s tribunal” format, in which proceedings similar to a judicial trial are organized and carried out by private individuals. The paper traces the historical development of people’s tribunals, focusing on their use by the international women’s movement. A close analysis of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery during WWII illustrates the potential effectiveness of the format for addressing sexual violence against women during armed conflict. Based on this example, the paper argues that a people’s tribunal could serve not simply as a last resort for victims denied justice in other fora, but rather as a lasting compliment to established international legal institutions. Accordingly, the paper concludes by proposing the creation of a Permanent Women’s Tribunal for Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict and describing the attributes that would best enable the Tribunal to serve as a legitimate source of justice for victims, while also having a progressive influence on State-based legal institutions and society as a whole.

Project & Publications Type: Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights