Institute for War Reporting Finds That Rape Victims Are Still without Justice
Thursday, February 8, 2007 12:22 PM

International law has made significant progress in recognizing horrors associated with crimes against women in times of conflict.  Even though rape and sexual violence have long been used as tools during wartime, it was not until 1998 that anyone was convicted of rape in international court, and it was 2001 before rape was recognized as a crime against humanity.  These ruling emerged as thousands of women reported rape used as a tool for ethnic cleansing and genocide during conflicts during the 1990s in Rwanda and the Balkans.

Leaders have recognized military use of rape for intimidation and degradation on communities in conflict dating back to the 14th century.  Still, governments have done little to prohibit rape and use of women as objects of sexual aggression by soldiers in times of war, and attitudes toward combatants have been dismissive, at best.  The acts did not go unnoticed, since international law makers enacted Geneva conventions following WWI and WWII to protect women against rape during arm conflict.  The conventions explicitly or implicitly emphasize the importance of treating women with respect due to gender and honor, but there was little enforcement of these provisions. 

Rape was finally recognized as a systematic tool used by soldiers and military to impart intimidation on entire communities during the conflicts in the Balkans and Rwanda.  In Rwanda, it is estimated that upwards of 250,000 women, mostly Tutsis, were raped by Hutu soldiers in the name of tribal genocide.  In Bosnia, Muslim women were systematically raped and impregnated as a form of ethnic cleansing in the region.  International tribunals recognized the horrors of these crimes, and finally began punishing sexual violence used as a tool to terminate or destroy another group.  Though these steps are significant in recognizing the reality of sexual violence women face during armed conflict, there have been few convictions in relation to the thousands of crimes.

There have been attempts to protect victims, but as war crimes shift from international to national legal bodies, advocates fear that inadequate resources (such as victim protection) and local attitudes about sexual violence will make convictions even less likely.  Women victims are afraid of the consequences due to such attitudes, including comments and investigations from judges and police.

In places like Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, rapes occur in an a way that is not systematic, and therefore not recognized as a crime against humanity.  Most of these crimes go unpunished, and are not recognized as war crimes, since these acts are against soldiers' own people.  At the same time, local attitudes often do not recognize rape as a crime at all. 

This has made investigation into such acts difficult, and provides a hostile environment for victims.  Advocates and service providers must take extra caution to ensure the safety of victims, especially those who are documenting accounts against neighbors, or living in areas of insecurity, like refugee camps. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) established a Gender and Children Unit to address such crimes.  In the Congo, having the ICC on the ground allows for victims of war crimes to be involved at the investigation stage.  In addition, the court now recognizes rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, sterilization, and forced prostitution as war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Those working in the field are concerned about the lack of attention paid to gender based crimes.  Despite the fact that the ICC is yet to hear a case, there is concern that investigations do not adequatley include gender based crimes.  It is feared that prosecuters are interested in investigating and bringing charges on cases that are less complicated.

NGO workers and human rights advocates have all eyes on Darfur. The UN Security Council referred the ICC to investigate crimes against humanity in the region.  Prosecuters report they have collected enough information to move forward with charging individuals with specific crimes.  Rape was not included as one of the types of crimes at the onset, but Chief Prescutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo now claims that it is a priority. 

Victims often voice concern about having to relive the horrible events when they testify against their perpetrators.  After testifying, though, many women report that confronting the men who assualted them brings them a sense of justice.  What happens in Darfur will send a message to victims and activists to ensure that victims of rape receive the justice that has so long been denied.

Compiled from: "International Justice Failing Rape Victims," by Institute for War Reporting (IWPR) staff, Women's Human Rightsnet. 5 January 2007.