Change a word and change the world. In 1998, a coalition of activists successfully advocated to replace the word “sex” with “gender” in relation to persecution in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC). In doing so, they helped transform the future of gender justice and open up the protections of international criminal law to anyone targeted for discrimination because of their gender.

Twenty-six years later, the legacy of that victory lives on in Lisa Davis. At the City University of New York School of Law’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic (the Clinic), they studied under Rhonda Copelon, who led the coalition that drove the change to the Rome Statute. Today, they build upon Copelon’s legacy in many roles. Davis is a professor of law and the Clinic’s co-director, and they served as the first special advisor to the ICC on gender persecution.

In May 2023, Davis spearheaded a convening of experts at the Bellagio Center focused on establishing a shared understanding of gender persecution and creating the tools to prevent it, while ensuring that survivors are protected and able to participate in the process of seeking justice.

How is your work helping to address gender persecution?

In establishing gender persecution as an international crime, the Rome Statute defines gender as the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. This opaque definition led to uncertainty over who was included as victims – such as LGBTQI+ people – and how the statute covered acts that regulate or punish those who are perceived to transgress “accepted” forms of gender expression. Partly because of this problem with the definition, there has been a dearth of prosecutions of gender persecution under international criminal law, despite being on the books for decades.

After I started teaching, I began asking, “Why haven’t we done anything on this?” I wrote, advocated, and talked to ICC member states, looking at what it means legally. In 2021, the ICC Prosecutor appointed me as special advisor on gender persecution. He asked me to write a policy paper which could clarify what this charge means, how we charge it, and how it legally includes LGBTQI+ victims. Today, our first cases are moving, including the Al Hassan case, the first ICC case to bring gender persecution charges.

In May 2023, the Clinic partnered with the ICC Office of the Prosecutor to bring together human rights and international criminal law experts to discuss principles on gender persecution, prevention, protection, and survivor participation. The attendees also thought it was critical to encourage treaty bodies to come out with comments on gender persecution, and persecution in other intersecting forms, which could signal that these types of persecution needed to be recognized by their member states and within the ICC.

The goal is to gather input on the principles, from grassroots advocates who are working in and on the frontlines of conflict or post-conflict settings, as well as UN experts, academics, advocates, and states. This input can be used for treaty bodies as well. With support from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Uncommon Collaborations program, MADRE is hosting five regional convenings, along with a series of virtual trainings and workshops to reach as many civil-society actors as possible.

Read the full article about gender persecution at The Rockefeller Foundation.