Bosnia, Congo, Crime, HIV, Muammar Gaddafi, Rape, Rwanda, United Nations, War, World

The Rape of a Nation: Inadequacies in Redress for Sexual Violence in War Zones

The Congo: A woman flees marauding soldiers

The Congo: A woman flees marauding soldiers

Sexual violence and rape are commonplace in war zones. Indictments of these crimes are inadequate and convictions are few and far between. These horrific offences will continue until they are punished similar to other forms of torture. Olivia Jackson reports.    

In the past month, two separate events occurred which were a stake in the ground for the often-unmentioned victims of war zones worldwide: Firstly, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s Chief Prosecutor, accused Colonel Gaddafi of providing his soldiers with Viagra and ordering them to rape rebel women and girls. Secondly, after a 10-year trial, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) handed Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Rwandese minister for Family Affairs and Women’s Development, a life sentence for mass rape and genocide. Without wishing to condemn Gaddafi before he is tried, both cases are breakthroughs for the hundreds of thousands of women raped as part of organised campaigns by government militias, very few of whose commanding officers or government officials have ever been convicted of rape before.

The UN recorded 11,000 rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year, although organisations working there say the true figure is far higher. The scenes in wards throughout the DRC witness to the continuation of these atrocities. Rows of beds bear women who stare mutely at the ceiling, their raped bodies ripped and shot. These are the survivors: UN officials will tell you of villages full of these women and girls, grandmothers lying dead with their skirts still over their heads, babies gang raped to death.

Rape has long been illegal in times of war: it is mentioned in the Hague Conventions, the Lieber Code and the Geneva Conventions. So why, with such widespread, organised attacks on civilians, have there been so few indictments, let alone convictions? Records of sexual violence during war go back thousands of years. Yet its official recognition as part of a strategic, planned attack on a group of civilians is relatively recent and there were no convictions until the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In 1991, journalists and humanitarian workers in the region came across thousands of Bosnian women who had systematically been raped, assaulted and prostituted by Serbian soldiers as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. In an age of mass media, the stories horrified the world, and, for the first time, sexual violence in conflict became the subject of proper discussion in the international legal forum.

When used strategically like this, rape and sexual assault cannot be blamed on a lone soldier out of control or on ‘men being men’ – especially when, as in Nyiramasuhuko’s case, the person ordering it is a woman. It highlights the efficient devastation caused by it: destroying communities by destroying their mothers, wives and daughters. As one Congolese woman asks in the documentary ‘The Greatest Silence’, “What is a woman? The woman is the mother of a nation. He who rapes a woman rapes an entire nation.”
Former Director General of human rights for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Catherine Niarchos describes it as ‘war fought on and through women’s bodies’.

Systematic rape of a civilian population accounts for the violation of literally millions of women (and numbers of men) by opposition forces. It includes not only rape but serious sexual assault, forced prostitution and sexual slavery, forced impregnation, forced abortion and forced marriage. Victims are anyone from babies to the elderly, the crime perpetrated in order to inflict maximum damage on the body and psyche of the victim.

It goes without saying that the impact this has on a community, a people group, a nation, is profound and catastrophic. Many do not survive their attack. Of those who do, the injuries are severe: victims are left HIV positive, suffering obstetric fistula or pregnant with babies their own bodies are far too immature to carry and care for. This is to say nothing of the psychological trauma.

Almost every culture on earth attaches unearned shame and stigma to the rape victim, and in cultures where women are dependent on men and a reputation of ‘virtue’, this proves a double blow: they are ostracised by husbands and fathers, anathema to their own communities. In some cultures, they face the risk of honour killings by family members, as was the case for some women who who left Abu Ghraib prison pregnant.

So where are the perpetrators of these crimes? Which jail are they in? What shred of comfort can the women take? What legal protection covers them? So far, the ICTR and the ICTY have proven radical in their indictment of sexual violence, but together they have seen only 35 convictions.

The problem lies in attitudes to and definitions of the crime. Sexual assault in war was never defined as a standalone crime. It came under the general headings of ‘inhumane treatment’ or, even less adequately, ‘outrages upon personal dignity’, leaving questions as to whether or not rape alone could constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity.

The Fourth Geneva convention, written in 1949, finally named sexual assault specifically: “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.”

Yet even this is problematic. Rape and other forms of indecent assault are not prohibited outright: women must merely be protected. There is very little said about the consequences for the perpetrator. The onus is left on the state to defend women, rather as they might defend land the enemy might try to conquer during conflict.

The next problem is how these crimes are defined: attacks on a woman’s ‘honour’. Women do not see rape as an attack on their honour. They experience it as violence, as torture, as utter evisceration. If it is an attack on their honour, this somehow implies that a woman is no longer ‘honourable’, and must carry the shame of this, as though she herself were complicit in the acts of the perpetrator. This is seen most clearly by the rejection or even killing of women who have been sexually assaulted, but it is not helped by this wording.

More recently written Protocols to the Conventions go so far as to prohibit sexual assault, but again, it is defined as an ‘outrage against personal dignity’.  It is still not equated with traditional concepts of torture. Civilians are woefully under-represented in the Geneva Conventions; subordinate to the combatant, despite the high casualty rate and vulnerability in modern warfare.

The changing attitudes to rape and the international reaction to the mass, systematic rapes in the former Yugoslavia were reflected in the ICTY Statute, which lists rape specifically as a Crime Against Humanity, alongside and equal to other horrors such as torture, murder and enslavement.

In defining sexual violence in its own right like this, the Statute gets away from the view of women as inevitable victims and places the focus on the perpetrator (also acknowledging the men who are sexually assaulted in war: Yugoslavia’s ‘rape camps’ and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison are only two examples of this).

It highlights the fact that rape is not about natural desire, men’s ‘needs’ or women’s ‘honour’, but violence, subordination and power, making it no less serious than other forms of violence in war. This was a huge leap forward, even if prosecuting it proved tricky.
Debate ensued over what rape actually is. The issue of individual consent was raised time and again, which seems utterly irrelevant in a war zone: when all assaults are by one side against another, and when it happens on a mass scale in the context of group force, to enquire as to the individual consent of each victim seems ludicrous, implying that the attack could potentially have been wanted. Catharine MacKinnon, Special Gender Adviser to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, notes that in Rwanda, to raise the issue of consent made it “almost as if the Interahamwe were going out on a date with the Tutsi women they hunted down and slaughtered with machetes.”

The issue of consent also negates command responsibility, ignoring the culpability of those like Milošević and Nyiramasuhuko who gave direct orders for the attacks.

Nonetheless, in several breakthrough trials, the ICTY did manage to prosecute sexual violence as a war crime, a Crime Against Humanity and Grave Breach of the Geneva Conventions (rape was defined both as torture and as a crime in its own right).

The ICTR also specifically included rape in its Statute. In one case, Jean-Paul Akayesu, the Mayor of Taba, Rwanda, was convicted of rape as Genocide, in recognition that rape had been used to ethnically cleanse the Tutsi people by forcing them to flee the area, deliberately infecting them with HIV or impregnating them with babies who were half Hutu.

Prosecutions continue to move forward slowly. The quagmire of legal definitions are not helped by the lack of personnel focused on the problem. Potential witnesses are so traumatised that coming forward is incredibly difficult, if they even know there is redress. Some are threatened by defendants’ supporters. The lack of female investigators and judges increases the reluctance of women to talk about issues which are shrouded in shame. The long-drawn out process and numerous acquittals undermine the gravity of the crime and has led to disillusionment for victims, some of whom have died of AIDS while waiting for justice. And the number of those indicted doesn’t begin to reflect the numbers of perpetrators.

Impunity for high-ranking officials remains a problem, although Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice-President of the DRC, is on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes which include allowing his troops to rape hundreds of men and women in the Central African Republic.

The International Criminal Court’s Statute is a large step in the right direction, at least on paper. It specifies sexual violence, distinct from crimes against ‘honour’ or ‘dignity’, and makes them war crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in their own right. It prohibits it outright, rather than saying women should be protected or given ‘special respect’.

Last year the UN appointed Margot Wallström as the first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Speaking outside Bemba’s trial last November, she called wartime sexual violence “one of history’s greatest silences and the world’s least condemned war crime,” insisting that those at the top must be brought to justice, and that women’s rights in war zones are an “obligation not an aspiration.”

In communities in Rwanda and the DRC, charities such as HEAL Africa work holistically to bring health, training and support to individuals, professionals and communities. Slowly, women are healing, and learning about their rights and means of redress. They are starting to speak out, to rebuild their lives and help those around them, even as the violence continues.

But the problem will not go away quickly, or because the UN recognises it. Those who have been attacked will live with the effects for the rest of their lives and as they care for the children they bore. Countless others will suffer as long as soldiers and commanding officers know how effective sexual violence is, and as long as its strategic use in war is treated as less serious than other crimes. As long as women are viewed as subordinate, and those in command as untouchable, the rape of entire nations will continue.

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About Olivia Jackson

Olivia Jackson has spent 12 years working in the international NGO sector as an advocate, filmmaker and writer. She is both a Conservative and a ‘wet’, a Christian and a feminist. She believes in personal responsibility and that a large state means weaker communities. Currently undertaking a Masters of Law, her primary focus is on human rights and international development.

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