For 16 days a year – from Nov. 25th, the international day for the elimination of violence against women, to Dec. 10th, International Human Rights Day – individuals, organizations, and even governments shine a light on the issue of sexual and gender based violence. Today marks the mid-point of the 2011 16 Days campaign. Campaigns like this and all the other hard work that has been done over the past decade and a half has led to much greater awareness of these issues. It is now recognized that in many violent conflicts around the world, rape is not an unfortunate side effect of war – it is in fact a strategic weapon of war. The good news is that with increased awareness, more perpetrators of violence against women in war are held accountable for their actions. The bad news is that way too many women are still vulnerable to rape as a weapon of war, and far too many victims are still denied justice.
In recent years, the International Criminal Court has brought numerous rape charges against the orchestrators of mass rape in conflict zones such as Darfur. And just this week, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was turned over to the International Criminal Court after being indicted on charges of crimes against humanity (including rape and murder) committed in the aftermath of contested elections in Cote d’Ivoire late last year.
In Libya, allegations of sexual violence by pro-government forces drew international attention last spring when a woman was arrested after speaking to international journalists about her rape. The International Criminal Court is now working to conduct investigations into the involvement of Gaddafi regime officials, who may have been involved in organizing the hundreds of other rapes reported over the last 9 months during the revolution there.
In other post-conflict regions, justice and accountability have been slow in coming. The recent trial of former Bosnian soldier Sasa Baricanin made headlines in November when he was convicted for war crimes – including murder, enslavement and rape – that he committed during the conflict in Bosnia. The conflict and ethnic cleansing campaign in Bosnia in the 1990’s became notorious for the soldiers’ strategic use of sexual violence. The UN estimates that there were as many as 50,000 rapes during the course of the war, but the trial of Sasa Baricanin marks only the 30th conviction on charges of rape since the conflict ended nearly two decades ago.
Yesterday, the UNSC placed a militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo under international sanctions for his role in organizing mass rapes in Eastern Congo. However, rape is an epidemic problem in Congo, where on average 1,100 rapes are reported each month, and over 200,000 women have been raped during the conflicts there.
While we welcome every trial and conviction of perpetrators of rape, in too many conflicts around the world the organizers and perpetrators of sexual violence are still allowed to operate with impunity. A report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council released earlier this week, found evidence of the use of sexual violence by Syrian Security forces against women and children, including young boys. Meanwhile, in Burma, where the government has a reputation for using rape as a weapon — particularly in villages known to oppose the current government regime — more than 80 rapes have been reported to human rights groups in the past year.
The advances that we have seen in recent years are only the tip of the iceberg. We need to continue to push for justice for the victims of sexual violence in conflict. The human rights community must continue to raise awareness about these issues and the international community must demand that proper investigations are conducted when there are reports of the use of mass strategic rape. We can put an end to impunity enjoyed by those who use rape as a weapon of war.