Combating the spread of wartime rape

A young victim of rape and her mother in Monrovia, Liberia (2009) UN Photos

The Swiss non-governmental organisation Trial International, supported by Swiss diplomatic efforts, is campaigning to put an end to rape as a weapon of war, and the impunity which protects the perpetrators.

This content was published on July 12, 2018 minutes
Frédéric Burnand, Geneva

“Today there is not a single conflict in the world where rape is not used. As a weapon of war it is extremely effective, with multiple repercussions which affect the victims, their families and their communities. And it is used all the more because impunity is the rule for the perpetrators of these atrocities.“ This is the summing-up of the situation from Céline Bardet, founder of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) “We are not weapons of war”. 

Along with about fifty other activists, Bardet was attending a meeting organised by TRIAL International on June 18 and 19 in Geneva to mark the 15th anniversary of the Swiss NGO. Susannah Sirkin, of the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, takes a similar view: “The first thing needed is prevention. One of the things to do is to put an end to the impunity of those who commit these crimes and those who organise these campaigns of sexual violence. If impunity is total, as in Syria and Burma, it encourages the perpetrators, even in other countries at war.”

While those attending the Geneva meeting were in agreement that sexual violence is becoming routine in warfare, there is no international study providing an exact measure of this scourge. It is thought that more than 20,000 women were raped during the wars in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995). Over a million women have suffered the same fate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the mid-1990s, during the repeated outbreaks of hostilities in numerous regions of that vast country. In 2017 alone, the ONU recorded 5,783 cases there; the actual figures are likely much higher.

Rapes committed against men

Libya currently presents the worst situation. “What is exceptional in Libya is that rape has been used systematically at different times: during the Gaddafi regime, during the revolution, and now, when rape is used systematically in prisons. It has become a means of retaliation used by all parties and which is mainly directed against men”, notes Bardet.  

What is known of the motivations of those who perpetrate these crimes? “The numerous reports we know of emphasise the threats made by the perpetrators, whether leaders of militias or armed forces. What emerges is the urge to destroy a group by changing the identity of the next generation”, points out Sirkin. In Northern Iraq, victims belonging to the Yazidi minority have reported that during their period of slavery, the Daech (Islamic State) fighters told them that they were going to give them a Daech baby to put an end to their community,which illustrates the genocidal intention of these rapes.

In Bosnia too, Serbian torturers told Bosnian women that they were going to give them a Serbian baby. This approach of transforming a human group by forced pregnancies is also well documented in the Sudan, in the Darfour region. “Yet in the majority of cases that we know of rape is just used to terrorise a whole population and put them to flight. It is part of an operation of ethnic cleansing”, notes Sirkin. 

Awareness of these particular atrocities is only beginning. “Until 1945, rapes in time of war were regarded as collateral damage rather than crimes”, says Lucie Canal, legal adviser on sexual violence with TRIAL International. 

Too few trials

The first explicit mention of rape is found in the 4th Geneva Convention (1949), without it being considered as a serious war crime. The international courts dealing with the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda brought about a more precise definition of these crimes under international law. With the Statute of Rome (1998) defining the role of the International Criminal Court, a definition emerged of the elements constituting the crime of rape and sexual violence in time of war or repression. It includes forced prostitution, forced pregnancy and sexual enslavement.

Whereas the international tribunals set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda convicted war criminals for systematic rapes, the International Criminal Court has not yet convicted anyone for such crimes. The first case under this jurisdiction with charges of rape against former Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba was overturned on appeal earlier this month.

There is still the possibility of recourse to national courts that invoke universal jurisdiction. But cases actually taken remain few and far between. This is one reason why TRIAL International wants to develop ideas and hold further meetings based on what has been initiated in Geneva, so to be better able to protect and help victims of sexual violence to find treatment and to get justice. 

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