Worldwide, “one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or abused during her life time.” According to UN Women, rape has become a widespread tactic in modern wars with estimates suggesting that “20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while approximately 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were targeted in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.”

On April 9, 2014, in conjunction with the American Society of International Law and the International Refugee Law Interest Groups, American University Washington College of Law hosted the 16th Annual Grotius Lecture on Women and Children: The Cutting Edge of International Law. Speakers included renowned Women’s rights activists, Special Representative Radhika Coomaraswamy, Professor Diane Marie Amann, and the Dean of American University, Claudio Grossman. Ms. Coomaraswamy served as the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women from 1994-2003 and is currently serving as the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.  Diane Marie Amann is the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law, Professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, and is currently serving as the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Special Adviser on Children in Armed Conflict.

Ms. Coomaraswamy began her discussion by framing the different ways that women and children’s rights have impacted International Law. She explained that, despite the focus on security and war, a “revolution” in the area of women’s and children’s rights has developed with far reaching consequences for International Law and its place in the legal world. Additionally, Ms. Coomaraswamy stressed that, more than any other issue, concern for women’s rights and children’s rights pierce state sovereignty. As an example, Ms. Coomaraswamy described the Vishakha case in India where the Indian Supreme Court incorporated language from CEDAW to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace.  Ms. Coomaraswamy maintained an optimistic demeanor as she described the progress made, noting that almost all countries have now passed legislation against domestic violence as compared to a decade ago when only a handful of countries had legislation addressing domestic violence.

However, Ms. Coormaraswamy noted that significant issues remain in regards to implementation of this legislation. She pointed out that, although countries pass legislation to prohibit violence against women and children, they often fail to implement these laws because of either a lack of political will or a lack of resource availability, thus allowing the violence to continue with impunity.  Furthermore, Ms. Coormaraswamy emphasized that states have begun to use private actors to evade responsibility for violations against International Law. Thus, Ms. Coormaraswamy emphasized that states have a duty to prevent, prosecute, and punish private actors committing crimes of violence against women. Ms. Coormaraswamy also emphasized the importance of avoiding primarily retributive justice against perpetrators by stating restorative measures may be more appropriate at times. Lastly, she acknowledged that disparities and double standards do exist between the global south and global north, ending her remarks by stating that “moral outrage cannot be selective, it must acknowledge issues of global north and global south.”

Professor Amann thanked Ms. Coormaraswamy for her optimistic attitude, but expressed that she believes there is still much progress to be made regarding women’s and children’s rights. Ms. Amann highlighted that though the ICC has a legal definition of rape, it has yet to convict someone of sexual violence. Furthermore, Professor Amann emphasized that vulnerability- not age or sex- should be the deciding factors when determining whether individuals warrant protection.