ICC’s Historical Recognition of Rape as a War Crime and Crime Against Humanity

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer 

(Photo Credit)

Women’s lives and their bodies have been the unacknowledged casualties of war for centuries judging from the first official reference to wartime sexual violence which was offered by Cicero and dates back as far as 43 BC. 

Contemporary history is also rife with examples – from the Japanese rapes during the 1937 occupation of Nanking, the systematic rape of women during the Bosnian War and the estimated 200,000 women raped during the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, to the more recently documented cases of rape used as a weapon of war in conflicts in Colombia, Iraq, Sudan, Chechnya, Nepal and Afghanistan.

Laura Smith-Spark argues that this abundance of examples only goes to show that rape and sexual abuse have turned into something more than just an unfortunate by-product of war and conflict. Rather, these crimes are now regularly being used as a deliberate military strategy: ‘The opportunistic rape and pillage of previous centuries has been replaced in modern conflict by rape used as an orchestrated combat tool.’

This is why last week’s landmark ruling of the International Criminal Court, in which the former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was convicted of rape, murder, and pillage in Congo and the Central African Republic, should be celebrated as both a victory for sexual assault victims and a powerful message to all senior commanders who turn a blind eye on their troops committing rape and other human rights abuses.

The international justice advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, commented that the importance of this ruling comes from the fact this was the ICC’s first case in which rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war was the most prominent charge.This is also the first time the Court has convicted a suspect based on his role as a military commander and finally officially recognised rape as a war crime and crime against humanity. 

However, while the unanimous guilty verdict is indeed a great triumph, we should not forget that the battle is far from over. Many senior officials and commanders in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda are yet to be brought to justice for having committed gross human rights violations, including wartime sexual assault and rape.

International Women’s Initiative commends the decision of the ICC and its clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not remain unpunished, but it also calls for stepping up the efforts to address a number of similar cases by closing the currently existing gaps in delivering on the Court’s mandate in other African countries.