Forced marriage as an independent crime against humanity in the ICC decision confirming the charges against Dominic Ongwen

International human rights law prescribes that marriage shall only be entered into with the free and full consent of both spouses.[1] Forced marriage thus constitutes a human rights violation and is also a criminal offence in the domestic law of some countries.[2] Additionally, international criminal courts have recently determined that forced marriage may amount to a crime against humanity when forming part of a systematic or widespread attack against a civilian population. The present post analyses the evolution of this new crime against humanity, from its conceptualisation as a form of sexual slavery to its recognition as a separate crime against humanity falling under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’. The latest stage in this evolutionary process was reached by the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (‘ICC’) in its decision of 23 March 2016 confirming the charges against Dominic Ongwen.[3] By acknowledging the particular features of forced marriage and distinguishing it from sexual slavery, this decision critically enables the prosecution of the crime in situations as prima facie different as the phenomenon of ‘bush wives’ in African armed conflicts and the state policy of ‘group marriages’ enforced in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

Forced marriage as subsumed by the crime of sexual slavery

The practice of forced marriage in conflict situations has been prevalent in countries including Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Within these contexts, it has generally involved the abduction of young women ‘taken as wives’ by rebel soldiers and thereafter exposed to enslavement, rape, forced labour and forced pregnancy. Forced marriage was charged as a crime against humanity for the first time before the Special Court for Sierra Leone (‘SCSL’) in the case of Prosecutor v. Brima, Kamara and Kanu (‘the AFRC case’).[4] The main point of contention regarding this charge in the SCSL Trial Chamber’s decision was whether to characterise forced marriage as a separate crime against humanity, under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’ in article 2(i) of the SCSL Statute, or as a predominantly sexual crime amounting to a form of sexual slavery.

The Prosecution argued that acts of forced marriage are ‘distinct from sexual acts, because they force a person into the appearance of marriage by threat or other coercion.’[5] Accordingly, it alleged that forced marriage qualified as the crime against humanity of an ‘other inhumane act’, the key element for its characterisation as such being that the conduct is of similar gravity to other listed crimes against humanity.[6] The Trial Chamber, however, rejected this view on the basis that the evidence was not capable of establishing a crime of forced marriage distinct from sexual slavery. It determined that the relationship between the perpetrators and the victims of forced marriage was one of ownership – a constituent element of the crime of sexual slavery – and that the use of the term ‘wife’ merely indicated the intent of the perpetrator to exercise said ownership.[7] The Trial Chamber held that the victims of forced marriage within the armed conflict in Sierra Leone did not endure particular trauma from the mere use of the label ‘wife’, over and above the harm ensuing from the ‘sexual slavery’ element of the crime. It went so far as considering that, even if there had been evidence of such additional trauma, the crime would not be of similar gravity to the other listed crimes against humanity, a condition for being characterised as an ‘other inhumane act’.[8] The majority of the Trial Chamber, Justice Doherty dissenting, concluded that forced marriage is completely subsumed by the crime of sexual slavery and that ‘there is no lacuna in the law which would necessitate a separate crime of ‘forced marriage’ as an ‘other inhumane act.’[9]

Forced marriage as a separate crime against humanity

The SCSL Appeals Chamber overturned this decision on the basis that forced marriage as practised in Sierra Leone amounted to more than sexual slavery both in terms of the conduct itself and of the ensuing harm.[10] In the first place, it considered that ‘the perpetrators of forced marriages intended to impose a forced conjugal association upon the victims rather than exercise an ownership interest and that forced marriage is not predominantly a sexual crime.’[11] The Appeals chamber emphasised that this marital relationship entailed mutual obligations for both parties, the ‘wives’ being coerced into performing various duties, including sexual intercourse, domestic labour and forced pregnancy, while the ‘husbands’ provided food, clothing and protection, notably against rape by other men. It underlined the exclusive character of the relationship, at least on the part of the victim, as an element distinguishing forced marriage from sexual slavery and giving a different dimension to the crime.[12]

Contrary to the Trial Chamber, the Appeals Chamber also considered that the imposition of marriage on the victims resulted in suffering of similar gravity to that caused by the other listed crimes against humanity and that forced marriage was thereby capable of qualifying as an ‘other inhumane act’. It stressed that, in addition to the harm ensuing from the ‘sexual slavery’ element of the crime, ‘bush wives’ and their children born from the forced marriage ‘suffered long-term social stigmatisation’ by their association with the perpetrators and faced difficulties in reintegrating their community after the war.[13] The Appeals Chamber defined forced marriage as ‘a situation in which the perpetrator through his words or conduct, or those of someone for whose actions he is responsible, compels a person by force, threat of force, or coercion to serve as a conjugal partner resulting in severe suffering, or physical, mental or psychological injury to the victim.’[14] It found that, when forming part of a systematic or widespread attack against a civilian population, this practice amounts to the crime against humanity of an ‘other inhumane act’.

The phenomenon of ‘bush wives’ differs in several respects from forced marriage as practised in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In the latter context, forced marriage was one element of a state policy aiming to assert complete control over every aspect of the lives of individuals, including their sexuality. It involved the selection of spouses by the regime leadership on the basis of their membership to a same category of people. Their marriage in ‘group weddings’ were solemnized by the swearing of an oath of loyalty to the Khmer Rouge.[15] Forced marriage in Cambodia pursued the primary aims of severing pre-existing family ties, in order to guarantee complete loyalty to the regime, and controlling the procreation of individuals, rather than subjecting the victims to sexual slavery.

In the closing order of case 002, the Co-Investigating Judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (‘ECCC’) qualified forced marriage as the crime against humanity of an ‘other inhumane act’, following the definition set out by the SCSL Appeals Chamber.[16] They determined that acts of forced marriage practised under the Khmer Rouge satisfied the elements of this definition since they were part of a widespread attack against the civilian population and entailed the forced imposition of a marital status on the victims, which resulted in severe physical or mental suffering of a degree of gravity comparable to the other listed crimes against humanity.[17] The applicability of the SCSL Appeals Chamber definition to situations as different as the ‘bush wives’ phenomenon in African armed conflicts and the Khmer Rouge policy of forced marriage seems to confirm the viability of this crime as a separate crime against humanity distinct from sexual slavery.

The evolving position of the ICC

In the decision on the confirmation of charges against Katanga and Ngudjolo, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber I seemed to agree with the SCSL Trial Chamber that forced marriage is a form of slavery. Indeed, when considering a charge of sexual slavery, it held that this crime ‘also encompasses situations where women and girls are forced into “marriage”, domestic servitude or other forced labour involving compulsory sexual activity, including rape, by their captors.’[18]

However, in the more recent decision on the confirmation of charges against Ongwen, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber II took note of the evolution of the definition of forced marriage in the case-law of the SCSL and of the ECCC. It confirmed that forced marriage ‘constitutes the crime of an other inhumane act within the meaning of article 7(1)(k) of the [Rome] Statute’, warranting a charge distinct from sexual slavery.[19] The ICC Chamber concurred with the SCSL Appeals Chamber in finding that ‘the central element of forced marriage is the imposition of “marriage” on the victim, i.e. the imposition, regardless of the will of the victim, of duties that are associated with marriage, as well as of a social status of the perpetrator’s “wife”’.[20] It also underlined the exclusivity of this conjugal relationship as ‘the characteristic aspect of forced marriage’, an element distinguishing the crime from sexual slavery and other crimes against humanity.[21] With regard to the ensuing harm, the ICC Chamber held that the social stigma resulting from the imposition of marriage entails ‘that the victims of forced marriage suffer separate and additional harm to those of the crime of sexual slavery, or other crimes under the Statute.’[22] Indeed, it determined that the interest protected by the characterisation of forced marriage as an ‘other inhumane act’ is ‘the basic right to consensually marry and establish a family’, as enshrined in international human rights instruments, which differ from the values underlying the crime of sexual slavery, i.e. physical and sexual integrity.[23]

Conclusion

International criminal courts appear to have settled on the view that forced marriage, when forming part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, may amount to the crime against humanity of an ‘other inhumane act’ if the conduct satisfies two elements, irrespective of whether it also amounts to sexual slavery. The first is the imposition of marriage on the victims without their consent. The second requires that this forced conjugal association inflicts severe physical or mental suffering on the victims. This definition has proved to be, on the one hand, wide enough to adequately capture the main features of the crime as committed in very different contexts and, on the other hand, narrow enough to distinguish it from the often analogous crime of sexual slavery. It will be interesting to see if the constituent elements of the crime will be confirmed by the Trial Chambers of the ICC and of the ECCC in the two cases involving a charge of forced marriage that are currently pending before those courts, thereby completing the decade-long process of elaboration of a new crime against humanity.

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948) UN Doc A/810 91, art 16(2); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (16 December 1966) 999 UNTS 191, art 23(3); Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (10 December 1962) 521 UNTS 231, art 1; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (18 December 1979) 1249 UNTS 13, art 16(1)(b).

[2] For example, English law has recently been amended to make forced marriage a criminal offence liable to a maximum sentence of 7 years’ imprisonment, see section 121 of the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, entered into force 16 June 2014.

[3] Situation in Uganda, Prosecutor v Ongwen, Decision on the confirmation of charges, Case no ICC-02/04-01/15, 23 March 2016.

[4] Prosecutor v Brima, Kamara and Kanu, Trial Judgment, Case no SCSL-04-16-T, 20 June 2007.

[5] Ibid, para 701.

[6] On the elements of the crime of other inhumane acts, see ibid, para 698.

[7] Ibid, para 711.

[8] Ibid, para 710.

[9] Ibid, para 713.

[10] Prosecutor v Brima, Kamara and Kanu, Appeals Judgment, Case no SCSL-04-16-A, 22 February 2008.

[11] Ibid, para 190.

[12] Ibid, para 191.

[13] Ibid, para 199.

[14] Ibid, para 196. See also Prosecutor v. Sesay, Kallon and Gbao, Appeals Judgment, Case no SCSL-04-15-A, 26 October 2009, para. 736.

[15] See Neha Jain, ‘Forced Marriage as a Crime against Humanity: Problems of Definition and Prosecution’ (2008) 6 Journal of International Criminal Justice 1013, 1024-1025. See also Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Case 002 Closing Order, 15 September 2010, paras 841-861.

[16] Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Case 002 Closing Order, 15 September 2010, paras 1442-1445.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Prosecutor v Katanga and Ngudjolo, Decision on the confirmation of charges, Case no ICC-01/04-01/07, 30 September 2008, para 431.

[19] Prosecutor v Ongwen, Decision on the confirmation of charges (n 3), para 95.

[20] Ibid, para 93.

[21] Ibid, para 93.

[22] Ibid, para 94.

[23] Ibid.

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