Rape as a weapon of war: then and now

| June 28, 2012 | 0 Comments
A woman from Kassab camp for Internal Displaced Persons (IDP), in Kutum (North Darfur), shows her sorrow for the increase of rapes in the area.

A woman from Kassab camp for Internal Displaced Persons (IDP), in Kutum (North Darfur), shows her sorrow for the increase of rapes in the area.

“It has become more dangerous to be a woman fetching water or collecting firewood than a fighter on the frontline.”
— UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, 2012


The victims of modern armed conflict are far more likely to be civilians than soldiers. According to UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, the vast majority of casualties in today’s wars are among civilians, mostly women and children. Women in particular can face devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives.
Rape committed during war is often intended to terrorize the population, break up families, destroy communities, and, in some instances, change the ethnic make-up of the next generation. Sometimes it is also used to deliberately infect women with HIV or render women from the targeted community incapable of bearing children.
In Rwanda, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of genocide in 1994.


A mother and child in Kigali’s Village of Hope. The Rwandan Women Network in Kigali shelters genocide widows and their families and offers medical and educational services and business training.

A mother and child in Kigali’s Village of Hope. The Rwandan Women Network in Kigali shelters genocide widows and their families and offers medical and educational services and business training.

UN agencies estimate that more than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), more than 40,000 in Liberia (1989-2003), up to 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995), and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the past 12 years of war.
Even after conflict has ended, the impacts of sexual violence persist, including unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and stigmatization. Widespread sexual violence itself may continue or even increase in the aftermath of conflict, as a consequence of insecurity and impunity. And meeting the needs of survivors — including medical care, HIV treatment, psychological support, economic assistance and legal redress — requires resources that most post-conflict countries do not have.


Sudanese women venture out of an IDP camp to collect firewood. They fear being raped when they leave home so they’re escorted by South African peacekeepers.

Sudanese women venture out of an IDP camp to collect firewood. They fear being raped when they leave home so they’re escorted by South African peacekeepers.

For centuries, sexual violence in conflict was tacitly accepted as unavoidable. A 1998 UN report on sexual violence and armed conflict notes that historically, armies considered rape one of the legitimate spoils of war. During World War II, all sides of the conflict were accused of mass rapes, yet neither of the two courts set up by the victorious allied countries to prosecute suspected war crimes — in Tokyo and Nuremberg — recognized the crime of sexual violence.
It was not until 1992, in the face of widespread rapes of women in the former Yugoslavia, that the issue came to the attention of the UN Security Council. On Dec. 18, 1992, the council declared the “massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, in Bosnia and Herzegovina” an international crime that must be addressed.
Subsequently, the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY,1993) included rape as a crime against humanity, alongside other crimes such as torture and extermination, when committed in armed conflict and directed against a civilian population. In 2001, the ICTY became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime against humanity.
Furthermore, the court expanded the definition of slavery as a crime against humanity to include sexual slavery. Previously, forced labour was the only type of slavery to be viewed as a crime against humanity.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR, 1994) also declared rape to be a war crime and a crime against humanity. In 1998, the ICTR became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime of genocide (used to perpetrate genocide). The judgment against a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, held that rape and sexual assault constituted acts of genocide insofar as they were committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Tutsi ethnic group.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in force since July 2002, includes rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or “any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” as a crime against humanity when it is committed in a widespread or systematic way. Arrest warrants issued by the ICC include several counts of rape as both a war crime and a crime against humanity.
Although changing international and national laws are major steps towards punishing and ending sexual violence, they cannot be successful without a fundamental change in people’s attitudes towards the sexual abuse of women.
“Right now, the woman who gets raped is the one who is stigmatized and excluded for it,” says Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, director of Panzi hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Beyond laws, we have to get social sanction on the side of the woman. We need to get to a point where the victim receives the support of the community, and the man who rapes is the one who is stigmatized and excluded and penalized by the whole community.”
The United Nations Security Council has done much in recent years to help raise awareness and trigger action against sexual violence in conflict:
• Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) called on member states to increase the participation of women in the “prevention and resolution of conflicts” and in the “maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” It called upon parties involved in armed conflict to abide by international laws that protect the rights of civilian women and girls and to incorporate policies and procedures that protect women from gender-based crimes such as rape and sexual assault.
• Security Council resolution 1820 (2008) called for an end to the use of brutal acts of sexual violence against women and girls as a tactic of war and an end to impunity of the perpetrators. It requested the secretary-general and the United Nations to provide protection to women and girls in UN-led security endeavours, including refugee camps, and to invite the participation of women in all aspects of the peace process.
• Security Council resolution 1888 (2009) detailed measures to further protect women and children from sexual violence in conflict situations, such as asking the secretary-general to appoint a special representative to lead and coordinate the UN’s work on the issue, to send a team of experts to situations of particular concern, and to mandate peacekeepers to protect women and children.
• Security Council resolution 1889 (2009) reaffirmed resolution 1325, condemned continuing sexual violence against women in conflict situations, and urged UN member states and civil society to consider the need for protection and empowerment of women and girls, including those associated with armed groups, in post-conflict programming.
• Security Council resolution 1960 (2010) asked the secretary-general to list those parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence in situations on the council’s agenda. It also called for the establishment of monitoring, analysis, and reporting arrangements specific to conflict-related sexual violence.



Selected edited excerpts from the UN Security Council debate (February, 2010) on sexual violence as a weapon of war:
Anne Anderson, Ireland:
The [Wallstrom] report addresses a range of specific situations spanning four continents, all of them deserving our attention. In some of these situations, conflict still rages; others are post-conflict but still dealing with a poisonous legacy. Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and South Sudan are among the more recent ugly chapters. The sexual violence being unleashed in Syria, with male detainees as particular targets, deserves our unequivocal condemnation. I will comment on three points.
The first point is a case study on ending impunity. We all recognize the simple equation: impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence guarantees that the virus will spread; conversely, ending impunity and making the perpetrators pay will act as a deterrent.
The first step in ending impunity is the systematic gathering of credible evidence. The secretary-general’s report gives a sense of the progress being made in that regard. For the first time in a report of this nature, the secretary-general has named individuals on the basis of credible reports of culpability.
My second point is that women are not a footnote; and Somalia is a case study in that regard. The secretary-general’s report sets out the scale of sexual violence in Somalia: the crimes of Al-Shabaab; the groups of men in Mogadishu; the rapes and gang-rapes in camps in Kenya; and the chronic and largely unaddressed sexual violence in Puntland.
My third point pertains to the responsibilities of United Nations peacekeepers, and Chad is the case study. The secretary-general’s report sets out steps being taken to improve the training of peacekeepers with regard to conflict-related sexual violence. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations and UN-Women collaboration in that regard is peacekeepers must be the highest. The blue helmet is designed to inspire confidence and trust; it is unthinkable that in any circumstance it should instil fear of rape or sexual violence.


Ron Prosor, Israel:
Today’s discussion is about our collective responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. An increasing number of conflicts around the world are made even more horrific by the use of sexual violence. These are often the most disturbing and the most hidden elements of conflict. Yet, the number of victims is staggering, and it continues to grow every day. Each one of these people has a name and has a family.
The victims are women like Honorata, a young mother from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was held for nearly a year by armed militias and raped daily in captivity. After Honorata escaped, the stigma of her rape caused her family to reject her, leaving her alone and impoverished.
The victims are women like Layla, a teenager from Iran who was detained for two months during the country’s protests in 2009. In a report last year on the PBS television channel, Layla described her treatment by the Iranian authorities. She said, “When they were raping and torturing me, and putting out cigarettes on my body, nobody knew… Death was a desire for me. I wanted to die.”
Testimonies like Layla’s remind us that the systematic use of sexual violence is often the calling card of the most brutal regimes and militias in the world. State-sponsored rape has served as a primary tool of dictators from Al Qadhafi in Libya, Al-Assad in Syria to the ayatollahs of Iran. Armed groups in Africa — from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Somalia — are using sexual violence to spread terror, instil fear and shatter lives. These tyrants, those warlords and criminals know that they leave scars not just on individual victims, but on families and communities.
Major General Patrick Cammaert, (former commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, said:
“Rape is an extremely cheap weapon, but has vast and far-reaching effects. With the single weapon of rape, soldiers and militants can disrupt and destroy the fabric of society. Rape sows fear; it spreads sexually transmitted disease. It excludes women from participation in civic life.”
In the last year, the instances of sexual violence have only increased. We must act with common purpose in the face of these atrocities. We must have zero tolerance for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Israel was proud to sponsor resolution 1960 (2010) and the previous resolutions on women and peace and security. It is time for the international community to breathe life into the words contained in these resolutions with concrete actions on the ground.


Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan:
With the end of the Second World War in 1945, humanity was saved from another world war, but was not spared the effects of war and atrocities. More than 20 million people were killed in the 265 wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1990 and in the 186 wars and conflicts that erupted from 1990 to the present.
In the 1990s, after the Cold War, we increasingly faced a new form of war, with a decrease in the number of inter-state conflicts and an increase in the prevalence of intra-state tension and violent non-state actors. That brought new waves of atrocious horrors, including in my country, Afghanistan. The atrocities emerging from the conflicts of the 1990s, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, raised a tenacious challenge for the international community and, subsequently, fuelled the prompt application of international laws and norms in response.
While sexual violence is embedded within the definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the international community should take a holistic approach to those atrocities, as they cannot be separated from one another. Furthermore, every atrocity is spawned from the all-encompassing destruction of society caused by war. We cannot truly stop atrocities such as sexual violence without ending the violence, war and conflict that breed them.
[Another] aspect is the breakdown of cultural values. War is pervasive. It destroys the common understanding of decency and respect for human rights. It kills morals. It breaks down social contracts. It erodes solidarity and trust. As I saw in my own country, war and conflict resulted in the corrupting prevalence of a militant culture, countering society’s values, based on tolerance and respect. What emerged was, in fact, a militant anti-culture, caused by war. Crimes against Afghan people were committed and human rights violations were extensive, especially violence against women. We saw what had never before been seen in the history of Afghan women — a sequence of killing, maiming and violence.
However, in the past 10 years, after the fall of the Taliban, the government of Afghanistan, with the support of the international community, has worked to put an end to violence in the country. That is essential to security and to protecting the rights of women, men and children.
Afghanistan adopted a law on the elimination of violence against women, which has provided the government with stronger judicial means through which we can combat sexual violence more effectively. That is real progress toward breaking the silence with regard to violence and sexual violence. We are confident that, in the years to come, our efforts will yield more results and that women will be safer and more respected and will receive the justice they deserve.
The president of Afghanistan also established a commission on the elimination of sexual abuse of children and of women and encourages relevant reporting to it.
Afghanistan acknowledges that the accomplishments that we have outlined are only the first steps towards achieving gender equality and the improvement of the position of women. The Afghan government will therefore continue its effort to eliminate sexual violence and to advance women’s rights and empowerment. However, we need not only the support of the international community, but its awareness not to forget the violence that affected the lives of women, men and children. We must work together to ensure that such atrocities will never happen again.

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