Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Justice for victims of conflict-related sexual violence?

Meeting for rape victims in the DRC (c) L Werchick/USAID
It feels a little discomforting to be writing this on International Women's Day. It should be a day to celebrate. The fact that we have a specific day to 'celebrate' women acknowledges an international failing; women are not treated equally.

Women and girls are predominantly the victims of sexual abuse – although men and boys are also victims.

A couple of weeks ago, the UN produced its annual report on conflict-related sexual violence. According to the report:
Conflict-related sexual violence refers to incidents or patterns (for the purposes of listing in accordance with Security Council resolution 1960 (2010)) of sexual violence, that is rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity against women, men or children.

The report covers the period from December 2010 to November 2011, and details the abuses suffered at the hands of government and militia groups in conflict zones including Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Libya to name a few. It documents the (mass) rapes suffered by women, girls and boys, and refers to practices used by these armies including forced pregnancies.

Because of the social stigma attached to rape in many societies around the world, women and girls have little choice but to stay with their abusers. To return to their communities, which often does not support the armies that abused these victims, is not a viable alternative, as they are shunned by family, friends and neighbours. More so, when they are expecting a rapist's child.

In most cases, the UN is seeking judicial redress for the victims. It has had some success at the local levels, notably in courts such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that paved the way for defining rape as an act of genocide, following the case of Akeyesu.

Nevertheless, on a personal level, studies have highlighted the powerlessness that local victims have felt in shaping and sharing their testimonies. On a social level, many do not want testify for fear of having to identify themselves as rape victims, which their family, friends and neighbours may have hitherto been unaware of.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) also offers victims the chance for justice beyond the local level. Although castigated at first for not pursuing sexual violence charges in the case of Thomas Lubanga, supporters of the ICC claim that it has made strides following charges of rape as a war crime, and as a crime against humanity, that it brought against Jean-Pierre Bemba.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting write that prosecutors struggle to obtain the evidence that they need for a court of law to secure a conviction. 
In a recent cross-examination by the defence in the Bemba case, a rape victim was asked why she had no medical certificate confirming that she had been raped.
In our country if you want to see a Doctor at hospital you always need money. When I was raped I had no money. I couldn't go see a Doctor”, she replied.

This is a significant problem. In countries where females have less financial power, they are further dis-empowered by a judicial system that wants them to prove their abuse.

The International Criminal Court, The Hague (c) Vincent van Zeijst
Equally significant is the fact the ICC have not acted to bring any criminal charges against UN peacekeepers who have been accused of sexual violence. The ICC is supposed to operate independently of the UN. Therefore, it should have the means to investigate and prosecute those UN soldiers guilty of these war crimes, but there is little to suggest why it has not done/can not do so.

The UN's strategy for dealing with these soldiers is based around prevention, enforcement and remedial action. The statistics might well indicate that the message is getting through to UN peacekeepers, but this is difficult to verify causally.

It could just as easily be explained by women choosing not to step forward to report cases of sexual violence since they know that peacekeepers will not be brought to justice locally or internationally.

This impunity damages the credibility of the ICC, and that of their other locally established forms of criminal justice.

The UN also state:
...“The general breakdown in law and order, the absence of justice, continuing conflict, entrenched discriminatory attitudes and practices and the prevailing culture of impunity in these situations allowed for these crimes to be committed not only with appalling consequences for the victims, but with a force that destroys the fabric of society as a whole”.
In all these situations, cases of conflict-related sexual violence remain largely unreported owing to several factors, such as social stigma, fear of reprisals, insecurity, a lack of available response services and the perceived futility of reporting as a result of weak administration of justice, apathy and political pressure”...

Both this quotation, and my discussion above, indicate that the problems are cultural and institutional. Both within the geo-spatial boundaries where the acts take place, and within the spaces that are supposed to protect the victims.

The UN propose the following initiatives to address conflict-related sexual violence:
  • Training on conflict-related sexual violence
  • Development of early warning indicators
  • Addressing conflict-related sexual violence in ceasefire and peace agreements
  • Comprehensive strategies to combat sexual violence
  • Programmatic and funding challenges and opportunities

All well and fine, but there is little substance to these proposals. Nothing that might serve to suggest that the UN are seeking to uproot the “entrenched discriminatory attitudes”, which is key to altering normative views of rape. Especially if the legal process is only going to be accessed by the few who can, and want, to use it.

Education (not the top-down approach) is going to be vital to altering social norms of sexual violence. To educate, we need to hear more from the victims and more from the rapists; because it is they that transgress the laws whilst operating within their gendered norms.

Nor am I confining this to the international conflict-related zones discussed here. Because in the West, we have constructed sexual violence in a certain way with regards to domestic conflict-related spaces, and realised justice through criminal mechanisms that operate with a similar impunity. 

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