(Trigger warning: we’re dealing with a difficult issue today – rape in conflict, which the G8 recently declared was a focus of their collective public policy. Thank you to our dear intern who is tackling this issue in an academic forum and is working toward a better world.)
The use of rape in conflict has been common and widespread for much of human history, but it is only in the past couple of decades that it has come to be recognized as a specific war crime and tool of genocide. Rape in conflict, most commonly perpetrated by combatants against civilians from the enemy group, has serious effects on civilian populations and its recognition as a war crime is important for justice in post-conflict situations.
Rape in wartime is frequently motivated by a desire to humiliate an enemy population and as a way of declaring complete ‘victory’ over a conquered group. In genocidal conflict, there are additional motivations stemming from ethnic hatred, as enemy combatants seek to eliminate the target group entirely, including through the forced impregnation of the target group’s women.
Because rape in war has historically been so widespread, it has frequently been reduced to an inevitable consequence of war and therefore not classified as a prosecutable war crime. As with other forms of violence perpetrated against women, rape in war has been characterized as a personal and ‘private’ crime, rather than as an additional form of attack on a population. During World War II, rape against civilians was seen from the Pacific Theatre (namely in the form of ‘comfort women’ taken by Japanese forces) to the concentration camps in Europe. Despite witness testimonials, no one was charged for war rape in the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi leaders.
However, rape was mentioned in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, namely as Article 27, which states that women “shall be protected against any attack on their honor”. Although the addition of rape to an international convention on war was a positive step, its interpretation as an act against a woman’s ‘honor’ rather than as an act of physical violence was problematic. Moreover, Article 27 went virtually unenforced until the 1990s, despite several instances of widespread war rape during the time in between.
Two prominent and bloody conflicts in the 1990s shifted international law towards legislating on wartime rape. These were the Rwandan Genocide and the Yugoslavian War, which was also a genocidal conflict. In both conflicts, women of the targeted group (Tutsi and Bosniak Muslim women, respectively) were singled out for rape by enemy combatants. In Yugoslavia, Serbian soldiers were given specific orders to rape Muslim as well as Croatian Catholic women, leading to torture and rape camps were set up in various areas of the territory. In all, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the Bosnian conflict. In Rwanda, there is no evidence of specific orders being given, but systematic rape occurred nonetheless. The estimate for Rwanda is 500,000 women raped during the 100-day conflict. In Bosnia, it appears that forced impregnation was an aspect to the rapes. In pre-Balkan War Yugoslavia, abortion was legal up to 12 weeks gestation, leading to pregnant women being held in the rape camps until they passed the period for a legal abortion.
The International Court Tribunals for both of these genocides helped set a precedent for the prosecution of rape as a war crime. The International Court Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) included rape as a human rights violation, while the International Court Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) recognized rape as a weapon of genocide and ethnic cleansing against target populations. This was a marked shift from the previous invisibility of rape.
Nonetheless, the ICTY and ICTR cases left a lot to be desired in the number of men convicted of war rape and in the sentences received, which were largely minimal and in many cases only partially served. It also left out instances of opportunistic rape during the wars, focusing instead on the political intent behind certain rapes rather than prosecuting rape itself as an unacceptable act of violence in general. These 1990s developments have been recently reinforced by a declaration from the leaders of the G8 nations that rape is officially considered a war crime, through a “Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict.” The Declaration is hoped to prove useful in combating sexual violence in the current conflict in Syria, where widespread rape against civilian women is suspected.
The effects of rape for both the individual victim as well as her community are far-reaching and last beyond the conflict itself. For individual women, the trauma can manifest in psychiatric disturbances, with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders, and depression being common. Rapists seldom, if ever, take precautions regarding safe sex practices, resulting in higher incidences of infections and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Obstetric complications, including fistula, are not uncommon. Additionally, in communities where virginity upon marriage is prized, shaming of rape survivors and ostracization from the community can worsen psychological issues or leave the survivor unable to re-integrate into her community after the conflict is over.
Far from being an inevitability in conflict or a crime solely against a woman’s dignity, sexual violence has distinct and violent motives that threaten not just individual women but are indicative of broader patterns of misogyny that combine with racial or ethnic hatred under conditions of genocide. The effects of such violence last much longer than a conflict itself, with consequences for a victim’s entire community. Women’s exclusion from judicial procedures has led to a lack of concern with gender-based violence across many conflicts, and that the inclusion of women and their voices in such processes is crucial for the identification of gender-based violence as such and for successful prosecution of perpetrators.
For much more information on this topic, we recommend visiting the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict website.