Achieving Gender Parity in International Courts and Bodies: Does Diversity Matter?
From October 3 to 5 2017, women’s rights advocates, feminist scholars,
Ambassadors, Heads of Government, policy practitioners and supporters of women’s rights convened in the beautiful city of Den Haag in the Netherlands. Viviana Krsticevic, Maria Noel and the entire team at the GQUAL Campaign organized this conference which had a twofold purpose; first, to celebrate the second-year anniversary of the GQUAL Campaign, and second, to bring together participants under a conference theme “Changing the Picture of International Justice.” The highlights of the three-day event included an exciting plenary session with speakers like Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, the current President of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Judge Gurmendi, while acknowledging the gains made in achieving near gender parity on the ICC bench, cautioned participants and feminist advocates that such gains could easily be reversed. The court reached a high of eight women judges out of eighteen in 2003, but was reduced to six out of eighteen by early 2017. With the ICC elections in December 2017, women took five of the six available seats. Out of the five women elected, two were from the continent of Africa, Judge Reini Alapini-Gansou of Benin and Judge Solomy Balungi Bossa of Uganda. Another highlight of the plenary session was the speech by the current Vice
President of Costa Rica, Her Excellency Ana Helena Chacón. While reflecting on her experience in the parliament of Costa Rica and now in the office of the Vice President, Mrs. Chacón hinted at the fact that women have to work together to push women’s equality forward, noting further that “together we can and we should change the face of international quality; democracy is real if we leave no one behind.” Dr. Theresia Degener , Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), gave moving remarks on the imbalance in the UN body, noting in particular the challenges she has had to face as the only woman in the Committee at one point during her tenure. She called for more efforts to nominate women. The rest of the conference was filled with insightful panels and workshops aimed at addressing central questions such as why equal participation of women matters, the international obligations of states in promoting gender equity on international courts and bodies, and strategies on how to achieve gender parity on these bodies. The conference concluded with the adoption of an Action Plan to achieve gender parity.
The overall goal and theme of the conference, was to acknowledge modest gains, while mapping a strategy for moving the campaign forward. The question that remains to be answered is how do we move this agenda forward? I provide a few strategies, which I believe are important for the overarching goal of changing the picture of international justice with the goal of achieving gender parity on international courts and bodies. In the first place, it is important to acknowledge, celebrate and develop a conscious effort to acknowledge all forms of intra-group diversity. To borrow from the acclaimed poet, Maya Angelou, “we all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” The global feminist movement has come under attack from tendencies to reproduce the very gendered and privileged hierarchies which it purports to fight in the first place. For Black feminist scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, developing the concept of intersectionality provides a new prism through which feminist scholars can begin to question the multiple and intersecting layers different women face in their struggles against patriarchy and other forms of dominant discourse. The call for acknowledging diversity has also come from what some call “Third World Feminists”. Scholars like Chandra Talpade Mohanty have criticized the western notions of womanhood and the incipient tendency at “othering” non-western women in her powerful piece “Under Western Eyes”. African feminist scholars such as Filomina Steady, Amina Mama, Oyeronke Oyewumi and Akosua Adomako Ampofo have increasingly called for a recognition of African notions of womanhood and the impact of imperialist and globalist layers of oppression in challenging the traditional notions of womanhood and women’s agency. Chicana feminist such as Gloria Anzaldúa, and feminist scholars from Asia such as Trinh Minh-ha, each remind us of the need for the global feminist movement to acknowledge, celebrate and imbibe a truly diverse global ethos of feminism.
So, how can the plethora of feminist voices be incorporated in the global agenda for more women on international courts in order to create an all-inclusive bench? The answer is simple; that in adopting strategies to increase gender parity on international bodies, these efforts should focus on adopting all-inclusive strategies that advocate for the “best woman candidate”, irrespective of national origin, geo-political affiliation, sexual orientation or other identity marker. This sounds like a simple suggestion; however, it requires that feminist scholars develop an understanding of the historical, social and political context from which different women come from. No doubt the domestic politics of judicial nominations will have to be examined as well. Ascribing personal agency to some women from particular regions of the world and not to others— which has tended to plague the global feminist movement, will need to be addressed in the global efforts demanding the nomination of more women. If indeed, feminist scholars and advocates are interested in achieving gender parity, it must be a gender parity that fully embraces intra-group diversity. The multilayered and intersecting identities women come with, will need to be fully recognized, acknowledged and accepted.
Another important strategy for the success of the GQUAL Campaign will be the cross-pollination of ideas and strategies. In other words, we need to learn from one another in terms of what has worked in some places and not so well in other places. Let me pause by noting that I am fully aware of the plethora of different variables at play here—the different legal traditions, the different political systems, the multiplicity of selection methods and the varying levels of political will to name just a few. Nonetheless, as I argued in my presentation at this conference, based solely on my research findings from the continent of Africa, women across the African continent have done relatively well, within a relatively short time period in not only accessing the judiciaries, but rising to the top as Chief Justices. At the international level, women from across the continent of Africa have made immense gains as international judges—both permanent courts and ad hoc tribunals.
Though the gains are not uniform across the continent—and that should come as no surprise for the second largest continent of 54 nation-states, yet certain patterns are evident. The success of African women as judges on international courts at the global and sub-regional levels in the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights are noted in a recently published edited by Josephine Dawuni and Akua Kuenyehia---- International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives (Routledge, 2018). Using legal narratives, this book presents the lived experiences of seven women judges from Africa. It challenges exiting notions of gender and judging, it elevates the voice of the woman judge and it leaves a legacy for the future through the voices and lives of these remarkable and accomplished women judges.
Telling the narratives of women who have blazed the trail in the international judiciary is important for raising awareness not only to stakeholders, but also to future generations that “yes women can!” Documentation through theoretically grounded research and the development of context relevant epistemology, such as the matri-legal feminist theory I have argued elsewhere is important for moving the gender equality agenda forward. Other speakers at the conference highlighted developments that have taken place within the African context. Osai Ojigho highlighted the developments within the African Court which led to the current situation with the African Court being the most gender balanced international court as of this writing. In an earlier post, I highlighted the African Court as a roadmap for achieving gender parity and encouraged other courts to follow suit. The African experience provides many lessons which the rest of the world can learn from. To think that in its eleven-year history of existence, it has achieved gender parity, a goal and aspiration which the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights are yet to attain. Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea highlighted the developments that have taken place within the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights where women have made gains as Commissioners.
Lastly, it is necessary for the survival for a movement, or campaign like GQUAL, that we engage in research as a tool and mechanism for awareness raising. Justice Mary Mamyassin Sey, a Justice of the Supreme Court of The Gambia and first woman judge in The Gambia discussed her experiences across multiple jurisdictions, spanning The Gambia, and as a Commonwealth judge in Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Liberia and Vanuatu. While discussing the challenges of working in different cultural contexts and often being the “first” and often “only woman”, Justice Sey noted that her call to duty, integrity and personal work ethics contributed to her success in these multiple arenas. Indeed, being at the intersection of multiple identities has come with its own costs, for instance with the threat on her life and threat of deportation for her decision in the Vanuatu Supreme Court that led to the conviction of 14 members of parliament. The foregoing summary is my personal de-briefing from the wonderful conference in The Hague. Many strategies and action plans were adopted during the workshops held over two days. We look forward to more engaged, vibrant, diverse and theoretically relevant and practically plausible strategies that will be developed out of this conference. Many questions abound, such as the issue of setting aspirational targets as posited by Professor Nienke Grossman. For other practitioners such as Osai Ojigho who poignantly asserted “why walk when you can fly?”, quotas should be used as a necessary strategy to achieve gender parity, Ojigho further argued that “women should not be shamed into thinking that quotas or affirmative action lacks merit.” Gender equality matters not because it is a women’s issue, but because it is a human issue. Together, we can make gender equality on international courts and bodies a reality! Join the movement by signing the GQUAL Campaign Pledge!
 See, Dawuni, Josephine. (2018). Matri-legal Feminism: An African Feminist Response to International Law. In Ogg, Kate and Rimmer, Sue Harris (eds.). Feminist Approaches to International Law. Edward Elgar Publishing. (Forthcoming, 2018).