As Sunni Muslim extremists first seized strategic cities in Iraq last week, and a United Nations spokesman for the human-rights high commissioner, Navi Pillay, said that rapes had been part of the mayhem, leaving four female victims dead from suicide, the first global conference to end such heinous crimes took place in London.
There, foreign ministers — including John Kerry, the United States secretary of state — international nongovernmental groups and UN officials discussed how to make sexual violence against women in war an aberration rather than the norm. Yet not even celebrities like Angelina Jolie or foreign ministers like William Hague of Britain, who jointly convened the conference, could stop the scourge taking place just a few time zones away.
One visible result of the conference was the publication of the first international set of rules to address sexual violence in war. The 146-page protocol, financed by the British government and written in consultation with the International Criminal Court and 200 other specialists, outlines standards to document sexual crimes under international law. It aims to be comprehensive, covering the practicality of the protocol, the nature of sexual violence and how it is a crime under international law and steps to take in documenting cases themselves.
The conference spurred the release of two more guidelines. The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, published a policy paper on sexual and gender-based crimes; and UN Women, the agency dedicated to improving women’s lives, introduced a policy paper on reparations for victims of sexual violence.
The international court’s 43-page paper puts prosecution for such crimes at the forefront of its actions, however difficult it has been for Bensouda’s office to carry out this mission so far, given the huge costs and challenges of gathering evidence, securing and protecting witnesses, let alone coping with victims. The court has not won a single conviction for rape, although charges for gender-based crimes are included in a majority of its current cases. In the conviction of Thomas Lubanga, who was found guilty for use of child soldiers, the prosecutor explained the gender dimension of enlisting and conscripting children under age 15.
The paper said the prosecutor will pay particular attention to gender-based crimes “from the earliest stages” and establish “contacts and networks within the community” as much as possible to support evidence-gathering.
The International Criminal Court can prosecute leaders of conflicts for such crimes in countries that are only party to the Rome Statute, the court’s founding treaty. The court can also be invited by a nonmember country to investigate sexually based crimes or a case can be referred by the United Nations Security Council for investigation. A country can accept the court’s jurisdiction within a set time frame as well, which Ukraine recently agreed to do.
Rapes committed as a tactic of of war in Syria, for example, remain out of the legal reach of the court as the country has not signed up to the Rome treaty nor has the Security Council referred the situation to the court, although Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, has been documenting rape and other atrocities over the war’s duration.
The Rome Statue is the first international convention to codify forms of sexual abuse, including rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or other sexual violence that breaches the 1949 Geneva Conventions as crimes against humanity and war crimes. The first international treaty to clearly outlaw sexual violence was the Hague Convention of 1907, but it did not make much of a dent. The Nuremberg trials of post-World War II prosecuted such criminality, but the proceedings were done on a small scale and failed to tackle the prevalence of using “comfort women” by Japanese forces. This remains a major issue in Asia, in countries that had been occupied by Japan.
It was the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslav that took prosecution of wartime sexual violence crimes to a higher level in post-conflict justice.
In the Rwanda tribunal, the first conviction of an individual for genocide and international crimes of sexual violence occurred in the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a politician, in 1998. (Among the judges on the trial was Navi Pillay.) In the Yugoslav tribunal, almost half of the people who were convicted were guilty of elements of crimes featuring sexual violence.
UN Women’s new guidelines on reparations, published with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, titled “UN Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on Reparations for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence,” act as a blueprint for taking gender-minded approaches to compensate victims.
Efforts to win reparations for victims of sexual-violence crimes in war zones are not new. Women affected by the Balkan wars in the 1990s (and in Macedonia in 2001) have been demanding compensation since the conflicts ended, as reparations and other forms of redress remain mostly unavailable. That is because reparations often tend to be mired in politics and underfinanced.
Nevertheless, reparations can offer direct help through monetary awards, health care services, education programs, land restitution and formal apologies, UN Women said.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.