Why Do Some Nations Still Refuse to Recognize Rape as a War Crime?

By Lora Johns

NobelThe 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was bestowed upon two people who have highlighted the viciousness of sexual violence in armed conflict and the importance of ending it. Nadia Murad is a 25-year-old Iraqi victim of gang rape who acts as a U.N. goodwill ambassador on the issue of human trafficking. Denis Mukwege is a 63-year-old Congolese gynecologist who treats rape victims brutalized by militias from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The Nobel Committee stated that sexual violence is a weapon of war and that “[a] more peaceful world can only be achieved if women and their fundamental rights and security are recognised and protected in war.” Rape destroys communities, spreads terror, humiliates victims, and perpetuates genocide. So why do some nations still ignore that rape is a war crime?

Certainly, the idea is not new; tribunals from the Nuremberg Trials to those in Rwanda and beyond already had explicitly condemned rape and sexual violence. In 2008, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1820 recognized rape during conflicts as a war crime. In 2010, it began a campaign to change the mindset that the strategic use of rape during wartime is inevitable. But while some international courts recognize strategic rape as an act of genocide and ethnic cleansing, not all national courts even deign to recognize that such abhorrent acts are occuring within their countries’ borders. And so the problem remains unsolved.

We cannot ignore the risk of oversimplifying the picture. Women are not the only victims of sexual violence, nor are men the only perpetrators of war crimes. A ‘“male-perpetrator and female-victim paradigm” is ultimately reductive and harmful to people of all genders. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 reaffirmed that women must have equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, including decisionmaking in conflict prevention, but that international human rights law must also fully protect the rights of girls and women during and after conflicts. We cannot oversimplify the problem, but the outsize impact of sexual violence on women cannot be ignored, either.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners illustrate that the problem of violence against women in war is far from solved. There are still no systematic efforts to prosecute sexual violence in war zones. But at least the formal recognition of rape as a war crime permits the International Criminal Court to prosecute and convict perpetrators. And through the Nobel Committee, Murad and Mukwege have increased the visibility of the importance of the role that gender plays in international issues of human rights, peace, and security.

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