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Delivering justice & human rights: 5 key take-aways from Trócaire’s Strategic Litigation research

New research into Trócaire’s justice work explores critical factors to doing strategic litigation well. Going beyond the legal cases, we need to mobilise communities, empower survivors, champion gender equality, and support the psychological wellbeing of communities.

Some of the Maya Q'eqchi' women of Sepur Zarco in Guatemala who experienced sexual violence and sexual slavery at the hands of the military in the 1980s. After fighting for justice for decades, a landmark legal ruling in 2016 found two military commanders guilty of committing crimes against humanity. Photo: Mark Stedman / Trócaire. Some of the Maya Q'eqchi' women of Sepur Zarco in Guatemala who experienced sexual violence and sexual slavery at the hands of the military in the 1980s. After fighting for justice for decades, a landmark legal ruling in 2016 found two military commanders guilty of committing crimes against humanity. Photo: Mark Stedman / Trócaire.

In the early 1980s, many indigenous Q’eqchi’ women from Sepur Zarco in Guatemala suffered a horrific ordeal. They were forced into sexual slavery by Guatemalan military commanders, during one of the most violent and repressive periods of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

Supported by Trócaire through our local partners, the women bravely fought for justice for decades. In 2016, a landmark legal ruling proved historic when two military commanders were found guilty of committing crimes against humanity, including sexual violence and sexual slavery committed against 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ women.

This case was an example of strategic litigation – an approach which aims to obtain justice, realise human rights and achieve systemic change. These cases involve setting precedents in law, changing policy and influencing public opinion to prevent further violations from happening again in the future.

“We were consulted on everything, what we wanted to do and what we didn’t want to do. We did nothing on our own, nor did they on their own, everything was in consensus”

This quote from one of the indigenous Q’eqchi’ women illustrates a key finding from Trócaire’s new research on Strategic Litigation. Namely, that the approach should be empowering and democratic for survivors.

This Q’eqchi’ woman was one of the people who participated in research on Strategic Litigation in Guatemala and Honduras that Trócaire commissioned in 2019 and 2020. She spoke about how the lawyers and civil society organisations leading the case took an approach that ensured that the survivors’ voices, needs and priorities guided all major decisions in relation to how the case was fought and won.

The research focuses on four strategic litigation cases that Trócaire has been supporting over several years. It explores the experiences of the indigenous and peasant women and men at the heart of these cases.

1. Strategic Litigation goes beyond just a legal ruling

 

“Territory, water and seeds” reads a mural celebrating indigenous peoples struggle for their resources, Honduras. Photo: Garry Walsh “Territory, water and seeds” reads a mural celebrating indigenous peoples struggle for their resources, Honduras. Photo: Garry Walsh
  • Strategic Litigation is not just about using courts and judicial bodies
  • Taking a Strategic Litigation approach means using a range of legal and complementary strategies, including community mobilisation, advocacy, communications, psycho-social and security strategies
  • Cases can take many years to build, prepare, pursue, and close, and so should be understood as multi-faceted processes that are very resource intensive and require a long-term commitment from a range of stakeholders
  • While obtaining a favourable legal ruling could be the end goal of a case, it is often not the end of the process. A favourable legal ruling may achieve justice and accountability on paper, but the ruling needs to be implemented for justice and accountability to be achieved
  • Three of the cases studied involve trying to obtain recognition and enforcement of indigenous or campesino collective natural resource rights, such as land and water
  • However, community activists involved in peacefully defending these rights against big business interests have been unfairly jailed for their dissent by the State in collusion with the extractive and agrobusiness companies, accused of being criminals and “anti-development terrorists”. In these cases, the strategic litigation efforts have focused on trying to obtain their release and clear their names as well as stop the extractive projects or obtain the land rights.

 

2. Empowerment of women and men needs to be at the heart of cases

 

The women of Sepur Zarco at the trial to convict their perpetrators of sexual slavery. Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo The women of Sepur Zarco at the trial to convict their perpetrators of sexual slavery. Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo
  • The Q’eqchi’ women involved in the Sepur Zarco case became politically empowered by virtue of their participation in the case, while the defendants of the other three cases had already a certain level of political empowerment prior to their arrest. They were already active defending their community water source under threat from mining pollution
  • Their level of empowerment and the strength of the citizen collectives they belong to, along with the solidarity approach of the civil society organisations they chose to ally with, ensured they have been active participants in the strategic litigation processes
  • Indicative of this is that in all four cases, all major decisions relating to legal strategy and procedure were taken democratically, generally in assemblies or community meetings.

 

3. A women’s empowerment approach is best practice

 

Adilia Castro (48), from Trócaire's partner FSAR (San Alonso Rodríguez Foundation)  gives a speech during the Cumbre Municipal Assembly held in Tocoa to declare the municipality free from mining. Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz Adilia Castro (48), from Trócaire's partner FSAR (San Alonso Rodríguez Foundation) gives a speech during the Cumbre Municipal Assembly held in Tocoa to declare the municipality free from mining. Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz
  • In the Sepur Zarco case, a deliberate women’s empowerment approach was taken from the outset, which can be highlighted as best practice. 15 Q’eqchi’ women survivors of sexual slavery decided to pursue justice in 2010. They became the Jalok U Collective and entered into alliance with 3 feminist civil society organisations
  • The whole case was designed to ensure the needs and priorities of the indigenous women remained at the centre. Women received gender-sensitive and culturally appropriate accompaniment before, during and after the trial: this included survivor-centred legal aid, culturally appropriate psycho-social support over 16 years, enabling spaces for peer support, honouring their native Q’eqchi’ language via translation and interpreting throughout the process and citizen empowerment via human rights training and other capacity-building
  • The women survivors were consulted on all important decisions. They consulted their sacred fire in Mayan ceremonies before giving their opinion on what decision should be made, as well as how and when it should be executed. They were also represented by women lawyers and supported by women directors and staff of the civil society organisations.

 

4. Women’s role in strategic litigation is not always visible or valued

 

  • Women of the affected communities in the other three cases have made huge contributions to each strategic litigation process, albeit not always in recognised leadership or frontline roles. Yet these contributions were not made visible or valued from the beginning
  • In practice, women have replaced male leaders, when detained, taken important political decisions, resisted security forces (e.g at the Guapinol protest camp in Honduras), and increased their presence over time in public events such as town hall meetings, legal hearings, rallies, etc.
  • Beyond the criminalised HRDs, the wives, mothers, daughters and fellow frontline defenders, female and male, have all been involved and affected by the human rights struggle. They require differentiated support towards their political empowerment and their emotional stability and integrity.
At the Guapinol river. Gabriela and Briana are daughters of two of the men that have been in jail since 28/08/19. Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz At the Guapinol river. Gabriela and Briana are daughters of two of the men that have been in jail since 28/08/19. Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz
In practice, women have replaced male leaders, when detained, taken important political decisions, resisted security forces, and increased their presence over time in public events

5. Critical to provide psychosocial support to survivors, their families and affected communities

 

Two daughters of the imprisoned human rights defenders from Guapinol in Honduras, Liss Jireth Cedillo Zúniga (7) and her friend Cristhel Alejandra Romero Portillo, holding their drawings in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The sign in the background says “Guapinol is resisting”. Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz Two daughters of the imprisoned human rights defenders from Guapinol in Honduras, Liss Jireth Cedillo Zúniga (7) and her friend Cristhel Alejandra Romero Portillo, holding their drawings in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The sign in the background says “Guapinol is resisting”. Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz
  • While the Sepur Zarco women in Guatemala received comprehensive and professional psycho-social support, in the other three cases they only received minimal ad-hoc psycho-social support
  • Although professional psychological help was not provided, affected rights-holders felt morally and emotionally supported through practical solidarity actions on the ground. Conversely, the closest family members of the criminalised HRDs at the heart of the other three cases such as the wives, intimate partners and mothers, did not receive any targeted support
  • These women have been providing huge emotional, moral, and practical support to their criminalised husbands, partners, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and have been greatly impacted emotionally by the ongoing struggles for natural resource rights and associated legal disputes. A key recommendation from the research is to provide more comprehensive longer-term psychosocial support to a wider cohort of affected community members.

To read more, including all recommendations, download the English research summary and also the annex on women’s participation in strategic litigation.

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