Sexual violence is common in all current conflicts. Despite growing international legal efforts, only in 1992 was it recognized as a crime against humanity, and it remains largely unpunished.
Sexual violence as a weapon of war
Syria, Myanmar, Libya… In all present-day conflicts, rape is extensively used as a weapon of war. Contrary to popular belief, sexual crimes are not isolated incidents only involving women, even if they are the main victims. Wide-scale rape is a military strategy of submission through terror, the disintegration of communities, sometimes even ethnic replacement. For this reason, sexual violence also affects men, in Libya for example, and children, as in Syria.
According to the United Nations, there were nearly 250 000 sexual abuse victims during the Rwanda conflict, 200,000 in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 60,000 in the war in the former Yugoslavia. The report by the NGO Human Rights Watch published in October 2017 documents that there were several hundred victims (surely below the true number) in the Central African Republic between early 2013 and mid-2017. These women are raped and sometimes detained as sex slaves by both the Muslim-majority Séléka militia fighters and the Christian and animist Anti-balaka armed fighters at war with one another in this ethnic and religious conflict. In Bangladesh in early 2017, more than half the Rohingya women living in a refugee camp stated that they had been raped during the Burmese counter-insurrection.
This violence does not only occur during periods of combat; it has longer-term consequences for the victim, their family, their village, their religious or ethnic community, according to Justine Brabant, journalist and co-author of the Zero Impunity transmedia project. It is a slow-healing and rarely treated wound, spreading HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, resulting in unwanted pregnancies. The suffering of victims is sometimes compounded by cultural rejection: upon returning to their community after rape and sexual torture, they may be deemed impure. The Yazidi women raped by the Islamic State would have been banned if religious leaders of this ardent religious community had not decided otherwise.
Crimes against humanity too recently recognized
Rape as a weapon of war is a considered a crime against humanity by the international community. The United Nations Security Council has been concerned with sexual violence only since 1992 when massive and systematic rape was recognized as an international crime. Moreover, it has only been taken into account twice by ad hoc international criminal tribunals: the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia ruled that rape was a crime against humanity in 2001, and its counterpart for Rwanda handed down the first decision stating that rape was a crime of genocide.
Still, only in 2008 with Security Council Resolution 1820 was the condemnation of violent sexual acts as a war tactic brought into widespread use. Furthermore, only in 2009, 17 years after the recognition of rape as an international crime, did the naming of the Secretary General’s first representative for issues of sexual violence committed in periods of conflict take place.
The limits of international justice
Despite this progress, the international legal treatment of this violence remains an obstacle course. Rape as an act of war is punishable by sentencing in the International Criminal Court (ICC), but only for incidents occurring after 2002, the year it was established. Only ten cases have been recorded, all grievances combined. A major problem is that only national police forces can apprehend persons accused by the ICC. Litigation is thus possible thanks to the diligence of national authorities who apply the Rome Statute, the international treaty which created the ICC, an institution that and does not have enforcement powers and is not supported by all UN member countries. Only national legal authorities can issue arrest warrants and bring the accused to international court.
Nonetheless, this has been the case for several political or military leaders who were finally arrested and tried at The Hague. In 2016, the Congolese Jean-Pierre Bemba was the first military leader convicted by the ICC for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity. The 1,500 militiamen of the Congo Liberation Movement which he headed sexually assaulted 5,229 persons in the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003. Of the three trials where the charge was use of rape as a war crime, it is the only one not to end in acquittal.
The fight against this unacceptable violence must advance even further. For Dr. Denis Mukwege, dubbed “the man who repairs women” and winner of the 2014 Sakharov Prize, draws a parallel with the fight against chemical weapons and the eradication of anti-personnel landmines: the first step in ending the use of these weapons has been to bring attention to the problem. Testimony and awareness are therefore essential to changing behaviors and developing an international response proportionate to the gravity of the acts of sexual violence during conflicts.
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