Sexual violence used as a weapon of war has always been present in conflict, as silent as its victims seem invisible.
Often referred to as “war rape”, sexual violence in conflict is a military or political strategy in its own right. It is defined and decided in the same way that the bombardment of a village, the extermination of a people, the gassing of a community is decreed. If rape in war has always existed; rape as a tool of war has become endemic and almost systematic in contemporary conflicts. Rape then becomes a tool used to humiliate, destroy and take power, used against women (DRC, Kenya, Bosnia, Rwanda) as well as men (Libya, Uganda) and children (Syria, DRC).
The victims are rarely heard, with little treatment; the perpetrators are only very exceptionally brought to trial. Yet a legal framework exists. As early as 2000, UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 declared that the use of rape and other sexual violence in times of conflict can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity or be a constituent element of genocide.
For centuries, sexual violence in times of conflict has been tacitly accepted and considered inevitable. In 1998, the UN noted that over the centuries, armies have seen rape as a legitimate part of the spoils of war. During the Second World War, all parties to the conflict were accused of mass rape, yet none of the two tribunals established by the winning Allied countries to prosecute war crimes – in Tokyo and Nuremberg – recognized the criminal nature of sexual violence.
It was not until 1992, with the mass rape of women in former Yugoslavia, that the issue came to the fore at the United Nations Security Council. On 18 December 1992, the Council declared that the mass, organized, and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, persecuted in Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted “an international crime that was not to be ignored”. Subsequently, the statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) included rape as a crime against humanity, alongside other crimes such as torture and extermination committed in armed conflict, and directed against a civilian population. In addition, the Tribunal expanded the definition of slavery as a crime against humanity to include sexual slavery. Before that, forced labour was the only type of slavery to be considered a crime against humanity.
The ICTY quickly took rape into account in the conflict in Bosnia. As early as 2000, the trial of the “rape camps” in Foca, Bosnia, described these rapes as crimes against humanity and sentenced the perpetrators of these crimes to respectively 40 years, 45 years and 39 years in prison. More than one third of those convicted by the ICTY have been convicted of crimes involving sexual violence.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has also incorporated rape into its statutes. In 2001, it became the first, and to date the only international tribunal to consider the acts of an accused person, guilty of rape, as a crime of genocide (i.e. used to commit genocide). The judgment against a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, considered rape and sexual assault to be acts of genocide insofar as they were committed with intent to wipe out the Tutsi ethnic group, in whole or in part.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in force since July 2002, includes rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity amongst crimes against humanity when committed in a widespread and systematic manner. The arrest warrants issued by the ICC include several charges of rape as both a war crime and a crime against humanity.
Finally, on 21 June 2016, the Congolese national Jean-Pierre Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity concerning the rapes he ordered in the Central African Republic. This is the first time that not only has the ICC taken up the issue of war rape, but it has also condemned Jean-Pierre Bemba in his capacity as commander and not as a direct perpetrator. This proves how war rape is not just a question of those who commit rape, but above all the question of those who order the use of this weapon as one would order the shooting of civilians. This historic decision opens the way to a better understanding of rape as a weapon of war that has nothing to do with a sexual drive.