Last year, on December 13 2022, an international conference, organized in Poland by Regional Bar of Attorneys in Law in Opole, Poland, IAWL – Institute for African Women in Law, Federation Des Barreaux D'Europe (FBE), The Women in Law Initiative, Vienna, European Association of Lawyers (AEA-EAL) under honorary patronage of Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) was conducted in relation to the European Lawyers Day and International Human Rights Day on a unique issue of ‘Women in Times of War: The Role of Women Lawyers’.
The conference was the first initiative of its kind held at that time mainly in context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict which culminated with a commitment to continue the work in this area and to operationalize the support and solidarity with survivors in days to come.
Unfortunately, merely eleven months on from this landmark conference, we are witnessing another grave humanitarian catastrophe unfold before our eyes in the middle east, this time in the context of Palestine which has made it important for us to revisit the role of women lawyers in times of war and to take steps to translate our role into tangible efforts towards peace and resolution of armed conflicts and violent escalations through dialogue and discourse instead.
The speakers at the conference last year shared the importance of developing networks that could increase integration and sharing of knowledge and brought forward the plight of victims and survivors of war and other conflict happening in Nigeria, Iran, Ukraine and elsewhere.
More importantly, the role of female lawyers was highlighted and what they could do to improve access to justice and to international forums and how they themselves could both be victims of conflict but also agents of change.
Women’s leadership roles as creative thinkers, as peacemakers having higher rate of success and holistic commitments for socio-economic and political space was also highlighted.
One of the most endearing speeches was made by Professor Marci Shore - a historian who spoke about feminist inspired ethics of care and of the need to redefine strength through care as opposed to strength through violence.
She highlighted how the feminist narratives had changed and challenged the traditional toxic slogans within domestic violence sphere which she used as a metaphor to explain how the same strategies could be adopted to challenge toxic masculine concepts such as strength through violence and force and replace them with the idea of strength in care.
She also said something very interesting, that the concept of law is essentially a concept of boundaries, of limitations that civilization accepts for order in social relations and structures.
Any steps that challenge those boundaries or break down those barriers through populist ideals basically lead to a false sense of liberation at the higher cost of losing the truth embedded in empirical evidence for a post truth world.
Other speakers spoke about need to set up a compensation framework for state that is illegally and forcefully invaded as well as for training of lawyers in how to handle cases involving war crimes, how to collect evidence and argue such matters before relevant forums through continuing legal education programmes.
Speakers from Ukraine also stressed on the need to set up special committees for coordination with lawyers who remain based in conflict hit zones so that they can continue to offer some input. Some of the other speakers particularly highlighted the implications of sexual violence on women from conflict hit zones who may find themselves in multiple legal challenges when the countries they seek refuge in do not legally offer abortions for instance.
Like in every other conflict, the internal displacement of thousands of people in middle east, will likely have disproportionate impacts on women, children and other vulnerable persons long after any ceasefire, pushing them into poverty, prostitution, forced or early marriages, removal from schools, precarious health conditions especially if pregnant or during natal and neonatal care and period poverty.
At the conference last year, Dr. Alix-Frank Thommaser, who heads The Women in Law Initiative in Vienna, highlighted the need to take positions in times of war and also spoke about the many challenges one can face in doing that and how those could be addressed when faced with such difficult scenarios and with implications that could have grave consequences for people.
We are seeing those consequences unfold in present crisis as well with people losing their jobs, their housing and their projects, and their life and safety at stake in places other than the middle east as well.
Professor Jarpa Dawuni had raised a very pertinent need for lawyers to be given mental health support during and post conflict which the Bar associations and civil society organisations could provide. She drew comparisons with the oxygen mask in an airplane that one is advised to put on before one helps another and said that it is crucial that lawyers be supported so that they could in turn, support others in need.
The need for this cannot be stressed enough. It has been harrowing and frankly paralyzing to witness the immense human suffering over the past three weeks. It has been unfathomable and beyond expression.
I’m not sure if recovering from this trauma would ever be completely possible but perhaps whatever little role we can play towards our collective healing as human beings beginning with our calls for ceasefire and access to humanitarian aid in the very least, might be worth a whole lot more than we can imagine.
I spoke about expanding the understanding of ‘conflict’ to include not just any on-going wars but also those instances where there has been long standing occupation as well as instances where spillover effects of war and war-like conditions on third countries that may lead to violent repercussions and backlash in form of increased violent attacks on targeted groups or civilians at large.
I began my presentation by acknowledging that the fact that such a conference was happening (focused on women in times of war) by women in law was itself evidence of the role that female lawyers could play in highlighting and addressing this issue.
I also spoke on how obscured definitions of war against labels such as ‘terrorism’ changed the conventional idea of war, that was historically envisaged between two or more states, to one that now was against an entire ideology or against concepts that had no boundaries, no beginnings and no end such as for instance the ‘war on terror’ ‘war against corruption’ etc.
I explained how such a conceptual shift brought the war home to the South Asian region in a way that eroded the ground rules and a whole new wave of warfare against ideologies resulted in the many spillover impacts of such wars to territories and domains outside of what would be considered a traditional war zone or battle ground.
I also highlighted how instances of discrimination between refugees and survivors from different countries and regions have come to surface and stressed that there should be no discrimination in our support for them. Today, I reiterate the same and advocate for equal rights and treatment of victims and survivors of violent conflicts irrespective of their identities.
The situation in Gaza requires a strong and urgent reiteration and commitment towards our shared values and principles to uphold human life, dignity and rights of all people without distinction as to class, gender, color, ethnicity, caste, nationality, religion, political affiliation or other markers of identity, particularly of civilians, children, non-combatants, protected persons and organizations; and to ensure that emergency aid services and civilian infrastructure remains protected and accessible at all costs.
In times of grave crisis comes even greater responsibility. The responsibility to choose humanity, the responsibility to choose the principles that make the rules-based order function. No amount of violence can ever be the means to settle any dispute, let alone one of territory and self-determination. Only political discourse and dialogue can achieve these results.
As people and as professionals who stand by humanity and dignity of all beings, principles of equity and justice, rule of law and rights of all persons including, most of all, children, it is imperative that we come forward to play our role for peace and call for immediate ceasefire and enforcement of rights of victims and survivors for accessing aid, emergency facilities and justice.
The international legal order, human rights and principles that we hold so sacred and the world as we have known it have all been victims in the present crisis. People are losing hope in the international justice order. Human rights are being dubbed as farcical. The sanctity of the values that have been promulgated post World War II are all being called into question. The shared values and rules-based order are not the only victims of this crisis. The human casualties that have resulted from the on-going conflict in middle east are amongst the most heart-wrenching and devastating in recent times having far reaching implications.
We have seen how the implications of this can adversely impact people and result in hate-based crimes or in increased violence on people based on their identities and ethnicities rooted either in Islamophobia or in antisemitism, both of which are completely unacceptable and unfortunate.
It therefore merits call for immediate and collective efforts of all people in the world who believe in democracy, rules-based order, political dialogue, sanctity of human rights, upholding human dignity and in peaceful resolution of disputes, to come together and call for immediate ceasefire and advocate for unhindered access to humanitarian aid for survivors and for resolution of the long-standing conflict through political dialogue in accordance with international law. As women in law, I reckon that we would be among those people of the world.
We must at all times remain committed to our shared and fundamental values of equality, non-discrimination, justice and human rights and uphold them without discrimination for all people. There has been a growing consensus in the UN General Assembly towards safeguarding civilians in times of war and ensuring access to aid in such times.
We are also seeing the solidarity of people coming out in huge numbers all over the world calling for ceasefire and for an end to hostilities to uphold our collective humanity - humanity, that should reject any and all forms of violence towards other human beings, especially children.
People are taking this step because they believe in safeguarding civilians and civilian infrastructure in times of conflict. They are doing this because no child, no hospital, no paramedic staff should ever be a target. They are doing it because collective punishment is illegal under international humanitarian law.
As female lawyers we have both, an internal and an external role to play for women in times of war. We are aware of examples of how women from different regions in Africa for instance have used advocacy to build consensus and negotiated peace agreements with more socio-economic commitments than their male counterparts resulting in better and lasting peace deals. It is now time that we again come together to play our role as women lawyers in times of war and at the outset call for:
a. Immediate ceasefire AND
b. Commencement of political dialogue to end the long-standing conflict.
Female lawyers of the world must unite to call for ceasefire and peaceful and political resolution of this conflict.
We must also thereafter, endeavor to conduct a gender audit of all international instruments and treaties addressing law of war as well as an audit of the mechanisms and procedures for redressal to see how they can be made more accessible through digital networks, technology and other avenues etc.
More importantly, we should all collectively advocate for the ‘right of protected access of lawyers in conflict zones in international humanitarian law’, in a similar fashion as doctors have under Geneva conventions so that greater legal representation of survivors from conflict zones can be ensured for asylum, refuge or for realization of other human rights.
Women in Law Initiative Pakistan has also called for
a. Unhindered & immediate access to aid and assistance of those affected by the conflict and ensuing violence on either side,
b. Restoration of utilities & communications wherever they have been affected by the escalation of hostilities in the middle east and
c. Accountability of those in breach of international law.
Our colleagues from around the world are urged to support us in demanding the same within their spheres of influence and operations for putting an end to this humanitarian crisis so that we can fulfill our commitment to continue the work in this area and to operationalize the support and solidarity for victims and survivors of violent conflicts without discrimination or distinction, particularly those who are most vulnerable.