Susana SáCouto (right) is Director of the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) at the Washington College of Law. Chanté Lasco (left) is the WCRO’s Jurisprudence Collections Coordinator. Photo Credit: WCRO.
This blog post coincides with USAID’s blog series on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence (GBV). GBV is a human rights and public health issue that limits individual and societal development with high human and economic costs. For more information about how USAID is combatting GBV, please visit our website.
This year has seen the continued prevalence of widespread and devastating gender-based attacks on women and girls around the world, from new outbreaks of sexual violence at the hands of a new militia entering the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the shooting of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, targeted for seeking educational opportunities for herself and other girls.
Such tragedies are examples of how far we have to go as a global community to ensure the safety and well-being of those vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Yet, the past 20 years have also seen remarkable progress in holding perpetrators of SGBV accountable on the international level.
Such violence is now recognized as conduct that can constitute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Indeed, the statutes governing international and internationalized criminal courts, including the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have all recognized that sexual and gender-based crimes are among the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.
The ICC, in particular, has included the broadest number of sexual and gender based crimes within its jurisdiction, including not only rape but also sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and enforced sterilization, while also including a residual “sexual violence” clause intended to apply to serious sexual assaults that are of comparable gravity to those explicitly included.
These tools represent significant milestones in addressing SGBV but they are just that—tools. Without prosecutors and judges applying these tools to hold perpetrators accountable, and without pressure from activists to push the ICC and other institutions to continue making progress, too many sexual and gender-based attacks will continue to be under-investigated and inadequately prosecuted.
For instance, the sexual and gender-based crimes that SCSL prosecutors could have charged members of the Civilian Defence Force, a security force in Sierra Leone that fought against rebel groups during the conflict in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 1999, resulting in widespread atrocities committed against civilians, were not included in the indictment against the accused. The result was the exclusion of evidence of widespread rapes and sexual slavery from the trial and the silencing of victims present and willing to testify to the full range of harms they suffered.
Similarly at the ICC, the Prosecutor failed to add similar charges against Thomas Dyilo Lubanga, former Commander-in-Chief of a rebel group’s military wing who was convicted by the ICC of conscripting children under 15 years in armed conflict that occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from 2002 to 2003. Despite evidence that members of Mr. Lubanga’s militia were responsible for acts of sexual violence against abducted girls, female child soldiers and other civilians, such acts were not included in the Prosecution’s charging document against the accused. In its final judgment, the Trial Chamber held that the Prosecution’s failure to include SGBV charges meant the Chamber could not make any findings of fact on the issue of sexual violence.
These are but two examples, out of many, in which the hard-won advances have become missed opportunities. Until the international community demonstrates that we care about these crimes and we expect accountability, SGBV victims will not have access to the level of justice they deserve.
For more information about the War Crimes Research Office, please visit our website.
Susana SáCouto is Director of the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) at the Washington College of Law (WCL), which promotes the development and enforcement of international criminal and humanitarian law.
Chanté Lasco is the WCRO’s Jurisprudence Collections Coordinator, managing the Gender Jurisprudence Collections, a unique research database tracking the treatment of SGBV in international criminal jurisprudence.