Hear no evil, hear no truth

A culture of human rights and democracy (in the best-intended sense of the word) must include a commitment to the transformation of gender norms in a post-conflict society where men confront each other through women’s bodies. The social response to collective sexual violence should encompass justice, accountability, impunity and truth. Accountability and impunity fall within the jurisdiction of an ad hoc international criminal tribunal (ICT) as punitive justice, offender-based forums focused on a narrow range of offenders and violations. Realistically, an ICT cannot prosecute all offenders, hear all victims and protect all witnesses. Being the easiest to charge and hardest to prove, sexual offence cases brought before an ICT are afflicted by the same problems as rape cases at domestic law level. When a victim or witness appears before the ICT, she cannot testify without interruption, scepticism or hostility as a complainant without much credibility whose memory cannot be trusted. As a result the majority of victims and witnesses of mass-rape suffer in silence – their experiences unheard and unrecorded. Even when prosecutors obtain an indictment with the highest probability of success, legal affirmation of a social wrong is not enough to create a shared knowledge of exactly what happened and why it happened.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, is designed to air the truth in a holistic process focused on harm caused by crimes and victims who fall through the cracks of punitive justice.

Mass rape and armed conflict cause social breakdown on a catastrophic scale, leaving room for further physical and psychological victimisation of the most vulnerable members of a post-conflict society.

 This parallel forum is premised on the idea that telling and hearing the truth has healing and restorative power for victims and post-conflict communities. Measures to prevent future brutality and aggression may be structured as truth and reconciliation commissions, story-telling workshops, living memorials and/or community-based initiatives to deal with atrocities of war and legacies of violence. The common denominator is that offenders, victims, witnesses and anyone else affected by violence may tell their stories with the help of facilitators and mediators.

Because of the immense public education value of the restorative justice process, it is an excellent place to encourage discourse around social values and behaviours as well as underlying gender norms contributing to sexual violence, in armed conflict and after a ceasefire. Discussions would assemble an understanding of the link between sex and identity, how a people think about men and women and their roles and relationships in family, community and society. These forums would also allow women to recognise their own experience within the broader context of political, economic and social marginalisation.

Mass rape and armed conflict cause social breakdown on a catastrophic scale, leaving room for further physical and psychological victimisation of the most vulnerable members of a post-conflict society. Restorative justice forums can contribute to the restructuring of society and its gender norms by building the experiences of women into collective memories and historical truths. This is especially important where forums based on accountability and impunity fail to secure lasting peace and justice for victims and witnesses. Acknowledgment and discussion is only a starting point for the envisioned transformation though. It may not entail one all-encompassing truth or explanation for sexual violence and atrocities of war. However, it is important that gendered harms suffered in private become a visible social suffering – allowing victims and witnesses to tell their truth and stake their historical claims.