Sexual violence occurs in many different forms. However, no universally accepted definition or understanding exists as to what makes violence “sexual”. The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence attempt to fill this gap.
The Principles provide guidance for activists, lawyers, and other practitioners on the interpretation of the concept of sexual violence to ensure violence is not overlooked or trivialized by those who may not always recognize such acts, and to provide survivors with recognition and validation of their experiences.
The Principles consist of three documents:
1) the Civil Society Declaration on Sexual Violence, providing general guidance on what makes violence “sexual”, especially to survivors;
2) International Criminal Law (ICL) Guidelines on Sexual Violence, a tool for ICL practitioners explaining when acts of sexual violence in the Civil Society Declaration amount to international crimes; and
3) Key Principles for Policy Makers on Sexual Violence, 10 key principles derived from the Civil Society Declaration to incorporate in policy development and implementation, legislative strategies, and legal and judicial procedures.
The Hague Principles are the outcome of the Call it what it is campaign, which gathered input from more than 500 survivors, civil society organizations, expert practitioners, and academics from around the world to translate the views and expertise of survivors into a practical guide and crucial reference point for practitioners – the Civil Society Declaration of The Hague Principles.
The campaign was launched in December 2018 by the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice (WIGJ), an international human rights organization advocating for gender justice through the International Criminal Court (ICC) and national mechanisms.
The first step of the campaign was to conduct extensive desk research on the use of the term “sexual” in various codifications of sexual violence in national and international criminal laws.
In an online survey, 525 respondents from 84 countries and various cultural backgrounds provided input on the concept and examples of specific acts of sexual violence. Respondents were presented with several questions on their view on what makes violence “sexual”.
From March through September 2019, WIGJ partnered with various national and local civil society organizations to conduct consultations with self-identified survivors of sexual violence from 25 countries. Approximately 500 survivors took part in consultations.
Based on the consultations, Rosemary Grey of the University of Sydney and the WIGJ team prepared a first working draft of the Civil Society Declaration, which was then reviewed by a panel of international experts.
In December 2019, the Principles, including the Declaration, were presented during the Assembly of States Parties of the ICC.
It is envisaged that the Principles will be a living set of documents which will be periodically reviewed and updated.
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Sexual violence is a difficult topic to navigate and is often not well understood. While it occurs in many forms, there is no universal view as to what makes an act “sexual”. Drawing directly from extensive consultations with more than 500 survivors and 60 civil society organizations from around the world, The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence provide widely shared views on sexual violence in all its forms.
Oftentimes, laws and policies that address sexual violence do not reflect the lived experience of survivors, and as a result, victims are at risk to be ignored and forgotten if certain acts are not recognized. The Hague Principles seek to ensure that practitioners – ranging from legal practitioners to NGO workers to policy-makers – do not trivialize or overlook certain types of sexual violence.
The Principles consist of three elements: 1) the Civil Society Declaration on Sexual Violence, providing general guidance on what makes violence “sexual”, especially to survivors; 2) International Criminal Law (ICL) Guidelines, translating the Civil Society Declaration into practical guidance for lawyers; 3) Key Principles for Policy Makers on Sexual Violence include ten basic concepts to guide policy makers.
Guidance on sexual violence
A key element of The Hague Principles is the Civil Society Declaration on Sexual Violence, which includes an explanation of the concept of “sexual violence” is, especially for survivors.
Understood broadly, the concept of “sexual violence” encompasses all acts that take away someone’s freedom to make own decisions about their own body or sexuality. It is often characterized by humiliation, domination, and destruction.
The survivors we consulted shared that to them, acts of sexual violence can fall into two categories. On the one hand, acts of a sexual nature can be inherently violent, such as sexually harassing someone by making gestures with a sexual overtone or sending sexually explicit messages; or depriving someone of access to menstrual products. On the other hand, acts may amount to sexual violence if they are committed forcibly or without a person’s consent, for example kissing and biting, sharing nude pictures, or having someone feign sexual enjoyment.
Use of the Principles in practice
The Declaration can be used to better understand sexual violence and identify more victims, to teach others about the topic, and to work with politicians and decision-makers to broaden laws and policies. Though The Hague Principles are not law in themselves, they can give activists guidance and more legitimacy in their work. If sexual violence is better understood, it can be addressed more effectively.
Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice (WIGJ) is very grateful to all contributors to The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence. Thanks to all contributors, these Principles — comprising the Civil Society Declaration, the International Criminal Law Guidelines and the Key Principles for Policy Makers — will contribute to advancing accountability for sexual violence, including by ensuring a better prevention and response to this violence.
WIGJ would therefore like to thank:
All the survivors who took part in the consultations, who shared their experiences, expressed their voices within the Call It What It Is campaign, but also all the survivors who have the courage and the strength to speak out to advance justice.
The other experts, academics and practitioners who contributed to the drafting, editing and finalisation of the documents include Ruby Axelson, Laurel Baig, Céline Bardet, Linda Bianchi, Anne-Marie de Brouwer, Diane Brown, Lucie Canal, Anne-Laure Chaumette, Christine Chinkin, Elizabeth Dartnall, Aurelia Devos, Chris Dolan, Ingrid Elliott, Julian Fernandez, Sarah Fulton, Sunneva Gilmore, Priya Gopalan, Rosemary Grey, Niamh Hayes, Raegan Hodge, Michelle Jarvis, Wayne Jordash, Nada Kiswanson, Malini Laxinarayan, Maxine Marcus, Luke Moffet, Najwa Nabti, Valerie Oosterveld, Akila Radhakrishnan, Indira Rosenthal, Libby Salmon, Philipp Schultz, Rebecca Shoot, Grant Shubin, Alison Smith, Aviva M. Stein, Léa-Rose Stoian, Alejandra Vicente, Patricia V. Sellers, Manouck Wagner and Beini Yi.
The partners and supporters of the Call it What it is Campaign include the Mukwege Foundation, SEMA — Global Network of Victims and Survivors to End Wartime Sexual Violence, We are not Weapons of War (WWoW), Amnesty International, Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Global Justice Center, REDRESS, Impact, MADRE, Parliamentarians for Global Action, All Survivors Project, Center for Constitutional Rights, Global Rights Compliance, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, AMICA e.V., Advocacy Forum, No Peace Without Justice, TRIAL International, Medical Human Rights Network IFHHRO, Journals for Justice, Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic — CUNY School of Law, Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique, Catalystas, Medical Mondiale, Survivors Speak OUT Network, Centre for African Justice, Peace and Human Rights, Mukuru SGBV Awareness CBO, Social Media Matters, Refugee Law Project, Sexual Violence Research Initiative, SURKUNA — Centro de Apoyo y Protección de los Derechos Humanos, HIAS, Women Empowerment Organization, Angels Refugee Support Group Association, Justice and Reconciliation Project, Wangu Kanja Foundation, The Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, Society for Protection of Rights of the Child (SPARC), Humanas Colombia, Humanas Chile, Justice International, Women’s Link Worldwide, Borisov Female Public Association “Provincia“, Centre d’éducation et de recherche pour les droits des femmes, Iranian Center for International Criminal, Nigerian Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Ligue pour la solidarité congolaise, Encadrement des femmes indigènes et des ménages vulnérables, International Centre for Women Rights Protection and Promotion “La Strada“, Georgian Centre for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, Justice without Frontiers, The Red Elephant, Actions des femmes pour les droits et le développement, Women Public Association “South-West“, Bulgarian Women’s Lobby, ADHOC, Emma Organization for Human Development, Lawyers & Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR), Parliamentarians for Global Action.
WIGJ’s team: Samantha Addens, Valeria Babără, Marianne Besson-Burke, Sally Eshun, Siobhan Hobbs, Daniela Horta, Nicole Jagonase, Zhengqi Liu, Dorine Llanta, Chiara Loiero, Cristina Luque, María E. Mingo Jaramillo, Fabiana Núñez del Prado, Melinda Reed, Lina Stotz and Alix Vuillemin Grendel.
Lastly, WIGJ would like to thank the States and States representatives who offered their political and financial support.