SEXUAL VIOLENCE: in/after conflict

A short interview with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, in which she is explaining the purpose of the 566 page report on the human rights violations in DRC from 1993 till 2003.

The report was in the making for the past two years and it seems like the main recommendation is that the Government and the people of DRC should find solutions for transitional justice. Although, the peace accords were signed, there are not being respected. The 200 raped civilians in August are not an isolated case of violence. Eastern DRC is not a region of peace, therefore, it’s hard to imagine a working lunch between the government and the rebel groups.

The voice of the High Commissioner is calm all the way through the interview. In her words, the 600 analyzed cases reflect the consequences of long term instability and conflict in Eastern DRC. Does her tone then reflect UN’s apathy towards endless grave breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law in Kivu?


Couple of years ago I wrote my diploma thesis about the narration of trauma after mass rapes. The events from Bosnia and Herzegovina were discussed frequently in the academic world, so I thought this could make an excellent example. Finding literature was not a problem, but figures and data that would weigh as evidence were scarce.

How many women were raped during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Government in Sarajevo has claimed 50,000-60,000 rape victims, EU 20,000 and AI was stating that the real figure lies between 20,000 and 50,000. However, no one was referring to a specific period. It seemed that all the data was gathered in 1992 alone and that in the later years data on sexual violence was never assessed.

In 2005/06 a Bosnian movie Grbavica (awarded with a Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival) opened the discussion about the life after the rape, the trauma and the ‘rape children’. The story of protagonist Esma, a single mother not revealing the identity of her daughter’s father, is a narration of trauma of many women in Bosnia. However, do we know how many?

I came across an article quoting a UNICEF’s survey on the war born children, but I never found the survey. Apparently, it was removed from the eyes of the public on the request of the Bosnian Government. One of the arguments was that the figures would raise too many questions and obstruct reconciliation. Moreover, it would also unleash questions about the destiny of born-out-of-rape children in Bosnia. In particularly, UNICEF’s survey would open the Pandora’s Box and unleash stories of infanticide, waifs, abused and trafficked children.

Post-conflict societies are notorious for the thirst for revenge that manifests itself in post-conflict ‘cleansings’. As Johan Galtung explains, practices normalized in the conflict transfer into the social tissue after the conflict: “the relief that violence is over may make people blind to the invisible, long-lasting consequences of violence (such as traumas and desire for more glory and revenge), and blind to how cultures, structures and actors may have become more violent”.

Apart from NGOs and some scholars, the movie Grbavica remains a lonely advocate for war children’s rights. Thanks to the ability of the moving pictures to narrate trauma, Grbavica gave a voice to mothers that had to hide their children’s identity in order to protect them from a society gone violent.

A part of the legacy of an armed conflict is rape. As society awakes from its violent past it wants to forget the horrors of war, particularly rape. However, not dealing with the trauma of sexual violence creates a risk for a culture of impunity to emerge. Therefore, victims and perpetrators of rape and other forms of sexual violence must be address at the beginning of the peacebuilding process.

Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) is the first step of peacebuilding. In its ideal form, the process should disarm former combatants and enable them a return to a civil life. On the other hand, it should also prepare the communities to accept them. Since sexual violence has become a weapon of war, it has to be included in DDR:

Medical screenings have to be designed to detect STI among female and male former combatants and treatment available at the demobilization cantonment sites. Cases of severe gynecological injuries should be redirected to medical centers without excluding the victims from further DDR activities. Reintegration programs for female combatants have to include childcare, otherwise the majority of women cannot participate. Programs have to be tailored to deal with rape trauma, stigmatization, children born out of rape, reproductive health. Parallel to this, awareness has to be raised among former combatants on sexual violence as a war crime and a crime against humanity as a first step to transitional justice, with an emphasis that every single rape constitutes a war crime.

Only after all of this has been done we can start to hope that spillover of rape from conflict to peacetime will be minimized.

Tim Hetherington‘s Liberian War Graffiti

During the armed conflict in Liberia (1989-2003), rape and other forms of sexual violence were used as a weapon of war. An estimated 40 percent of the Liberian population was affected by sexual violence during the 14 years of civil conflict. Although weapons were laid aside in 2003, the wartime practice of sexual assault continues. In present-day Liberia, rape and other forms of sexual violence are still one of the most reported serious crimes.

According to one of the most thorough surveys on sexual violence in Liberia, Sexual Gender-Based Violence and Health Facility Needs Assessment (WHO, 2005), 72 percent of women and girls have experienced rape (oral, vaginal and/or anal) during the conflict. Moreover, 70 percent of all raped women and girls had been gang raped, and 24 percent had been raped with an object or had been penetrated with an object after the rape.

“After being raped by five men, they stretched me apart and inserted a motor pestle in my vagina. Until now, I still have pain inside me.” (testimony in WHO’s 2005 survey)

In some cases, rape took place in front of the family members. In that way, the whole family was humiliated and suffered the trauma.

I was forcibly taken into the bush with my three children and husband by the LPC fighters under the accusation of [trying to kill] “General War Boss” and “General Kill the Bitch”. We have always been accused and tortured by these rebels because many of us are Bassa by tribe. My husband was tied to a thorny tree; black driver ants were put all over his body while I was raped as a pregnant women in front of my three children by four LPC fighters.”(testimony in Kenneth Cain, Rape of Dinah, 1999)

Pregnant women were particularly targeted as the carried the offspring of the ‘enemy’. As the civil war spilled over to Sierra Leone, operation ‘No Baby Living’ was performed under Charles Taylor’s command. Pregnant women and their unborn babies became targets of Taylor’s rebels:

“[t]here are numerous reports of fighters moving among the displaced of various areas looking for pregnant women. When they find one they gamble on the sex of the unborn baby. They cut the mother’s womb open and pull out the baby to see who won the bet. The mother and the baby are then thrown to the side of the road, as the fighters go looking for their next victim.” (testimony of UNOMIL’s Chief of Security in Kenneth Cain, Rape of Dinah, 1999)

Seven years after the peace accords, rape proves to be a troubling legacy of Liberian war. One of the few journalists constantly reminding of the post-conflict impunities is Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times. According to his article (NY Times, Nicholas Kristof) 12 percent of girls under the age of 17 have experienced sexual assault in Liberia. The Government, NGOs and the international community are coming up with campaigns to stop rape and improving the legislative protection and police procedures. However, the crucial opportunity to mitigate the spillovers of the war culture into post-war life in Liberia has not been seized. On that tomorrow …

Every armed conflict has its death toll and its rape toll. Last year, according to the HIIK, 31 high-intensity violent conflicts were raging in the world. Therefore, women, men and children were victims of sexual violence in at least 31 countries/regions. Why does an earthquake get all the attention? Do we only have compassion (and media space) for disasters of nature? What about the wonton cruelty of humankind – can we digest figures of rape?

After the Cold War, the nature of war has changed considerably. No longer did solders stand against soldiers, but rather armed factions against civilians. What used to be part of an after-battle looting became the main strategy of war making. In former Yugoslavia women were held in so called rape camps; in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone around 50,000 were raped in 1992, but it was 1994 Rwanda that topped everything we knew about the cruelty and extent to which rape can be committed. In less than a year more than 250,000 women and girls were raped; forms “varied and included individual rape; gang-rape; rape with sticks, guns, or other objects; sexual enslavement; forced marriage; forced labor; and sexual mutilation” (Human Rights Watch).

This week I will focus on the abyss of human behavior. Why does the international community lack the political will to stop systematic sexual violence? With the crucial verdict in Kunarac Case at the ICTY*, a groundbreaking international jurisprudence was achieved: even a single rape in war counts as a war crime! A decade of civil wars later, the prosecution of sexual violence under international humanitarian law is still ineffective, the norm responsibility to protect deteriorated to an empty wording, and media editors find stories of raped nations too cruel to print. (Ah, as long as we know with whom Paris had dinner last night!)

* International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia