The good news about post-conflict societies

July 8, 2011

Tucked away in the 2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women report is some good news about how changing values are changing the prospects for women in societies that are crawling out of conflict into post-conflict transitions.

The impact of conflict on women is now well-documented. First, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war cuts across time, place and culture. Second, women disproportionately shoulder the burden of displacements and other breakdown of normal life. This makes them more vulnerable to domestic violence, sexual violence outside the home, trafficking and other exploitation.

This report points to and maps the evolution of thinking about this question in international law and it reflects that thinking.

Unanimity seems to have emerged that sexual violence as a part of conflict is unacceptable. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity. The five United Nations Security Council Resolutions that deal with women in conflict echo this thinking. 1325 mandates including women in peace processes and transitional arrangements. 1820 calls for prevention of sexual violence and an end to impunity for sexual crimes. 1888, 1889 and 1960 reinforce these two, calling for measures and precautions to be undertaken by conflict parties, governments and international organizations.

The 2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women report points to some good tidings. First, this changing international legal environment means that sexual crimes have been prosecuted and convictions have followed in post-conflict trials in at least three contexts, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. It is still a challenge to get women to testify and many obstacles remain from logistical issues like childcare and financial assistance for legal counsel to having more women judges preside in such courts.

Second, as women have been mandatorily included in peace processes, a variety of arrangements have emerged that address their concerns, take cognizance of their conflict experiences and provide for their presence in the politics of post-conflict societies. The report points out (page 100) that where on an average women made up 14% of parliamentary membership in non post-conflict settings, in post-conflict settings they make up 27%. Indeed, the country with the largest percentage of women in Parliament (51%) is Rwanda. Correspondingly, the report shows that 93% of post-conflict constitutions include anti-discrimination causes (as opposed to 61% non post-conflict) and 21% mention violence against women (as opposed to 10%).

As the report states:

“The post-conflict moment opens up the possibility of reframing the political and civic leadership, with women at the centre. Women’s participation in the design of all post-conflict justice mechanisms, in peace processes and in political decision-making is essential for ensuring the post-conflict State advances women’s rights and justice for all.” (page 101)

Progress of the World’s Women: UN Women’s first report

July 8, 2011

UN Women, which came into existence just last March, has released its first report, the Progress of the World’s Women. Acknowledging a century of progress, from 1911 when only two countries granted women the right to vote, the report focuses on women’s legal and political rights and their ability to access justice.

The report marks a return to thinking about institutional arrangements rather than civil society or market-led initiatives. It culminates with a set of recommendations “to make justice systems work for women” based on successful initiatives across the world. Repeatedly, the report makes the case for law as a vehicle of social change and demonstrates the positive impact that including more women in the decision-making process can have.

This remarkable report deserves to be read because it actually serves well as a brief history of the struggle for women’s rights across the world. For instance, it includes a section describing landmark court judgments in this struggle. It works not just as a policy brief but also as a secondary text to a class on global feminism or social change.

The report may be accessed at The website is also set up in a very user-friendly manner to allow parts of the report to be accessed and used individually.

What fate worse than death

May 23, 2010

The question of capital punishment squarely spotlights the close relationship between human rights and security. In India, the debate on capital punishment is limited, muted and occurs in an episodic fashion. India revisits this debate in the wake of death sentences recently awarded in prominent cases.


In the last month, Indian courts have handed out the death penalty thrice in high-profile cases, two involving terrorism and one involving sexual violence.

1. April 23, 2010: Three persons convicted in a fourteen year-old Delhi bomb blast case were sentenced to death.
2. May 4, 2010: Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman of the Mumbai attacks, seen by millions live on television, was sentenced to death.
3. On May 12, 2010 Surinder Koli who was convicted of rape and murder in the second of 19 cases registered following the recovery of human remains in a Nithari  yard, was sentenced to death.

The question of capital punishment squarely spotlights the close relationship between human rights and security. In India, the debate on capital punishment is limited, muted and occurs in an episodic fashion.

The Supreme Court of India held in a judgment that the death sentence must be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases.

Kasab joins others on death sentence list, Press Trust of India/, May 6, 2010.

The last death sentence carried out in India was in 2004, when Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was convicted of raping and murdering a 14 year old girl, was hung to death.  Since then, the man who carried out the sentence, India’s last official hangman, has died.

But all this is trivia. I want to raise two questions in this post.

Why is there so little debate in India about the death penalty? Is it because the courts themselves recognize it to be an extreme measure? Yes, there is debate in the wake of such sentencing, but a cursory look at civil society and popular culture suggests that this is not an issue about which Indians debate anyway. I cannot think of civil society organizations whose single issue is abolition of capital punishment, rather it is part of a package of liberal ideals, emphasized in relation to the issue at hand. Similarly, you don’t see school and college debates about the death penalty. Cinema is ambivalent about the death penalty, including it as a plot detail rather than problematizing it or glorifying it. In vigilante films, of course, death is summarily handed out to the villains. To my mind, the question remains: in a society where people are politically aware and especially articulate in the discourse of rights, why is there no special concern about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment?

What is changing about India’s politics and society? Why have there suddenly been so many sentences? In the last two or three years, the mobile revolution has powered the rise of “citizen journalism,” best symbolized by ‘sms voting’ (voting by text messages) and most recently by the recourse to Twitter quotations by both print and electronic media. Much is written about the intemperate tone of the electronic media, but surely it is effective only because it resonates with people. The sense of “India besieged,” “the ordinary person short-changed,” “justice delayed and denied” playing in parallel to a sense of entitlement which is closer to that of a consumer than a citizen prompts people to press for action. And where the slower than due process time horizons of Indian courts represent inaction, perhaps the death sentence represents decisive action. Is popular pressure to act, expressed through citizen journalism and the social media, resulting in a more frequent recourse to capital punishment? Or are the ‘rarest of rare’ cases becoming less and less rare?

Debates in democratic societies about terrorism are about human rights and security with multiple arguments and points of contention. Human rights violations lead to terrorism. Both antagonistic sides are responsible for human rights violations; the polemical tug of war is about who is worse. State responses to terrorism are scrutinized by human rights activists. States accuse them of being soft on terror. Others accuse the state of being afraid to act. So when a terrorist, filmed by closed circuit cameras and spotted on television, is convicted to death, is that appropriate or inappropriate?

In closing, I also want to point to the implicit equation of terrorism and gender violence as exceptionally brutal crimes. Those of us who write about gender violence as insecurity do so partly as intellectual argument and partly as a very political act of securitization—that is, trying to draw the same attention, resources and sense of urgency to this issue as war and peace merit. But there are two cautions to be made here, if it is a concern with human rights that engages us in working on gender violence in the first place. First, securitization leads to greater secrecy and less accountability. Second, a very severe sentence is a sentence by definition less frequently awarded, so that a heinous crime may actually ultimately go unpunished.

Read more on capital punishment in India and glimpses of the emerging debate:

Only 58 countries still award death penalty, Times of India, May 10, 2010.
Sanjoy Majumder, India and the death penalty, BBC News, August 4, 2005.
India and the capital punishment (Video), from Times Now.
Amnesty International USA, Document – India: The Death Penalty in India: A lethal lottery: A study of Supreme Court judgments in death penalty cases 1950-2006 (summary report), May 2008. Full Report here.
Articles on the death penaltry at Legal Services India site.
Rakesh Shukla, Playing God: The arbitrary nature of capital punishment,, November 2006.
Is it time to end the death penalty in India? Reuters, May 20, 2010.
Jug Suraiya, Hang in the balance, Times of India, May 5, 2010.
An eye for an eye, says urban India, TOI Crest, May 15, 2010
Saabira Chaudhuri, Why kill Kasab, LiveMint, May 14, 2010.
Manoj Mitta, Death sentence: How the die is cast, TOI Crest, May 15, 2010.
T.M. Krishna, Death of a humane society? The Hindu, May 16, 2010.
Neetu Banga, Is death penalty the right way to punish terrorists? Merinews, May 17, 2010.
Kalpana Sharma, Sentenced to death, The Hindu, May 16, 2010.
Bikramjeet Batra, Justice or revenge? Frontline, May 22-June 4, 2010.

Democracy and Security: “To The Last Bullet” by Vinita Kamte

March 27, 2010

What is the relationship between democratic governance and security? A recent book about the events of November 26, 2008, in Mumbai offers an insight.


What began as a bereaved wife’s quest to understand her husband’s last moments has crystallized into the foundation of public discussion on India’s security preparedness.

I have been meaning to get hold of a copy of “To the last bullet: The inspiring story of braveheart Ashok Kamte” by Vinita Kamte (With Vinita Deshmukh) (published by Ameya Prakashan,Pune, 2009) ever since I read press excerpts and discussions about five months ago. I finally read it earlier this week. The book is written in two parts, essentially. The first reconstructs the events of “26/11,” first from Vinita Kamte’s perspective and then through interviews and most importantly wireless transcripts obtained from the police. The second is about Ashok Kamte’s life and career.

The first part is of great interest, partly because it raises many questions about what happened that night. Unable to get answers to simple questions about her husband’s location and why he was there, Vinita Kamte used one of India’s most recent democratic tools—the Right to Information petition—to access transcripts of wireless communications that night. These reveal goof-ups, cover-ups, gaps in communication and not unpreparedness but an inability to use what was available in a timely fashion.

Since the Right to Information (2005) Act was passed, Indians have enthusiastically used it to push back the fortress-like walls that surround government in the name of secrecy or security and government has mostly responded by opening up and trying to improve governance. Ms. Kamte’s use of an RTI petition raises new possibilities. A question that both theoreticians and practitioners should consider: What changes can we anticipate when the security sector—anywhere—is forced to open up, answer questions and act with accountability, not to a committee or governing board but to citizens? There is nothing that stops any citizen, as Ms. Kamte, has shown from making what they learn publicly accessible.