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The EditorsOctober 13, 2003

Ethnic and regional wars, especially over the past two decades in Africa and the Balkans, have brought with them death and destruction on a massive scale. But these same destructive forces have also taken the form of widespread sexual violence as a deliberate strategy. In Sierra Leone, rape has been referred to as that country’s silent war crime. There and in other regions marked by armed conflict, few perpetrators have been brought to justice because of an atmosphere of impunity. The situation has recently begun to change, however, because of newly established international criminal courts that recognize sexual violence as a crime against humanity.


The first such court to be established—through the United Nations Security Council—was the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It came into being in 1993 in The Hague in the Netherlands. A second was established a year later in Arusha, Tanzania, to consider war crimes committed in Rwanda. Both courts elevated the seriousness of rape to a crime against humanity as grave as murder. Their establishment, as well as the creation of a special court in Sierra Leone, has helped to solidify the legal basis for prosecuting rape and sexual violence as war crimes.

In Rwanda, the sheer scale of the sexual violence during a three-month period in 1994 led the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda to label it as genocide, in part because of its potential for spreading the virus that causes AIDS. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch, Hutu militia personnel and soldiers of the former government subjected thousands of Tutsi women to acts of sexual violence. One former Hutu official, Jean-Paul Akayesu, a mayor in the Taba commune, was tried by the court and found guilty of nine counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes—including responsibility for rape. Women who had witnessed the rapes testified that he had stood by, allegedly saying to the rapists at one point: “Don’t complain to me now that you don’t know what a Tutsi woman tastes like.” On his orders, the women who had been raped were killed the next day. Mr. Akayesu is currently serving a life sentence in Mali.

In The Hague, too, crimes of sexual violence have resulted in indictments and convictions. The violence included so-called enforced pregnancy, carried out by Serbian soldiers, with the intention that their victims bear Serbian babies. During NATO’s three-month bombing campaign in 1999, Serb paramilitary troops and Yugoslav forces carried out acts of sexual violence against Albanian Muslim women. The repeated attacks in detention camps, homes and barns were intended not only to terrorize, but also to extort money from families forced to flee their homes as part of the campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In what advocates view as a landmark decision, in February 2001 three Bosnian Serb soldiers tried in The Hague’s war crimes tribunal were found guilty of mass rape and sexual enslavement. The three received a combined sentence of 60 years. Amnesty International—which, like Human Rights Watch, has denounced sexual violence as a war crime—called the verdict an important step for women’s rights, because it demonstrates that sexual enslavement during armed conflicts can now be acknowledged as a crime against humanity and that perpetrators can be held accountable.

Difficult barriers to accountability remain, however. Because of social and cultural taboos, victims frequently shrink from speaking out, knowing that they may face rejection and even retaliation in their own communities. Nor, in the aftermath of mass violence of this kind, is much help available for victims. On a small scale, groups like Doctors Without Borders run programs that include measures to reduce the risk of H.I.V. infection. But the psychological consequences alone can be so devastating that some women have resorted to suicide. Government corruption and a lack of political will, moreover, present still other barriers to vigorous prosecution. Barriers notwithstanding, the recognition by the courts in The Hague and Arusha—as well as one in Sierra Leone—that mass rape as a war strategy can be punishable as a crime against humanity represents an important step toward vigorous prosecution of rape as a war crime.

But in other parts of the world the problem of impunity remains. Just this past March, Refugees International released a report titled No Safe Place: Burma’s Army and the Rape of Ethnic Women. The report states that the Burmese military is using sexual violence—committed both by officers and soldiers—as a means of stifling dissent and destroying ethnic communities. With Burma’s military government denying mass rape charges that even the U.S. State Department accepts as credible, the prospect of accountability remains a distant one there and in other parts of the world where armed conflicts continue.

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