SRSG Bangura “Sexual Violence: A Crime of War”

Below is the full text of the lecture delivered by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Bangura, in honor of Katherine B. Fite delivered at the 2014 IHL Dialogs at the Chautauqua Institution (25 August 2014):

Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening and thank you very much for welcoming me here tonight. I am deeply gratified to be here with so many professionals who have dedicated their careers to helping survivors of atrocities, such as sexual violence, on their long road toward justice.

I am proud to address you this evening in the name of Katherine Fite. I am inspired by the depth of her courage and commitment to justice at the Nuremberg Tribunal. At a time when the world was reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, Fite gathered evidence and prepared arguments to help bring Nazi leaders to trial. The Nuremberg Trials, while controversial at the time, marked an important step in international law, and it is due in large part to Fite’s contribution – and in furtherance of her vision – that we are gathered here tonight.

The Nuremberg Trials symbolized a paradigm shift in how the world viewed, and punished, war crimes and crimes against humanity. They laid the foundations for a permanent International Criminal Court and set a powerful precedent for dealing with genocide and other crimes that shock the collective conscience.

The Nuremberg Tribunal attempted to address the horrors of the Holocaust, including crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Despite its historic achievements, we must acknowledge that the issue of sexual violence was sidelined. Given what we now know about the scale of rape and sexual slavery during the Second War World, it is a conspicuous and tragic absence.

After the Nuremberg Trials ended, many people wanted to believe that justice had been delivered. They wanted to believe that at last, the victims of the Holocaust were named and counted. They wanted to focus on reconstruction efforts and reestablish a sense of normalcy. In addition, the perception that rape was a “private” matter and a second-class crime committed primarily against second-class citizens, namely women and girls, meant that it was easily overshadowed by other horrors of the war. As a result, survivors of sexual violence who tried to tell their stories were met largely with war weariness and indifference.

Then in 2000, researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began documenting all of the ghettos, slave labor camps, concentration camps and killing centers operated by the Nazis. In 2013, they released findings that shocked Holocaust scholars, as well as the global community.

Based on post-war estimates, the researchers expected to find about 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, but the numbers kept climbing until the researchers identified some 42,500 sites, including at least 500 brothels where women were held as sex slaves. They also uncovered thousands of sites where pregnant women were routinely forced to undergo abortions, or their children were killed after birth.

What obscured these shocking crimes?

It may have been that when investigators and prosecutors at Nuremberg examined the gruesome forensic evidence, sexual violence was invisible and therefore omitted from indictments. It may have been that relative to the litany of other atrocities committed during the Holocaust rape was deemed a lesser crime. There is also the deeper question of historical and structural gender-based discrimination. Male authorities and political leaders of the time largely dismissed sexual violence as an inevitable byproduct of war, the random acts of a few renegades, or mere collateral damage. As a result, thousands of women and girls died before the true horror of their experience was acknowledged.

In the decades that followed, great strides have been made in the legal fight against rape in war, largely due to the advocacy and activism of women’s groups. It is now clearly established that sexual violence can constitute a war crime, crime against humanity and/or constituent act of genocide, within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia held accountable high-level commanders who had ordered, or otherwise enabled, the mass rape of civilians. But despite the progress made, too often conflict-related sexual violence is slow to come to light, and placed at the bottom of a hierarchy of human rights violations. For example, the Holocaust is widely-regarded as the most well-studied genocide in history, but despite decades of scholarship researchers have only recently analyzed sexual violence as an intrinsic part of the machinery of genocide. It was not an inevitable consequence of war; nor was it the opportunistic excesses of a few undisciplined soldiers – it was a weapon and a deliberate feature of the Nazi program of extermination.

Indeed, this is what we see in many modern wars: not just rape out of control, but rape under orders, as a means of pursuing military, political or economic ends.

The struggle for justice is compounded by the “wall of silence” that surrounds these attacks. It is a wall built from bricks of shame, stigma, fear and futility. It conceals from public view the victims who are too traumatized to speak, and separates them from a society that is not prepared to listen. Other war crimes leave tangible evidence that cannot be so easily denied. Crematoriums in Auschwitz, mass graves in Srebrenica, landmine injuries in Cambodia, and amputees in Sierra Leone, provided physical corroboration of alleged brutality in breach of the laws and customs of war. They provided symbols of the acute need for justice and redress.

Sexual violence, by contrast, leaves scars on survivors, their families and communities that are much harder to see. Depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, flashbacks, difficulties in re-establishing intimate relationships, and fear are among the common long-term psychological impacts of this crime. Survivors of rape often face unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, as well as other crippling physical repercussions. In some communities, the victims bear the shame and stigma of this crime and are abandoned by their families and socially ostracized.  Survivors are often unable to think about their future because they are haunted by a past that has never officially been acknowledged or addressed.

A rape survivor from Bosnia captured the enduring consequences when she said: “They have taken my life without killing me.”

Sexual violence tears the fabric of families and communities, directly inhibiting peace and stability even after peace agreements have been signed and the guns have fallen silent. If unaddressed, it leaves a legacy of poverty, marginalization and continued violence that makes peace less possible.

When perpetrators are allowed to walk free, it undermines the Rule of Law as well as public trust in government. Though the scars may not be evident, I have seen the long-term effects of sexual violence on the political and economic stability and unity of post-conflict communities. We must therefore treat sexual violence with the gravity it deserves if we hope to restore lasting peace to countries emerging from conflict. Two recent trials illustrate that all too often these crimes are not handled with the same sense of urgency, or the same level of political resolve and resources, as other international crimes.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (or ECCC) made history earlier this month when it found two key leaders of the Khmer Rouge guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison. It has taken more than a decade to bring these senior Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. However, they must still stand trial for charges of forced marriage and rape. The first sentence handed down delivered a partial victory, but we continue to wait for justice for the full spectrum of crimes, including forced marriage and sexual violence, committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite dramatic recent progress in terms of political will and action, evident in the Presidential appointment of a Special Representative on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment, the establishment and engagement of a Special Commission on Sexual Violence in the Senate, and training and Codes of Conduct on sexual violence for the national army, there are still major capacity constraints and obstacles to justice. For instance, a trial of 39 soldiers suspected of committing 127 rapes in Minova in 2012 resulted in just two convictions for rape. Thirteen other accused soldiers were cleared of all charges. More than 100 survivors bravely came forward to testify. However, the sentences handed down did not vindicate the experience of those victims, owing to challenges in positively identifying the assailants.

In addition to the challenge of successfully bringing the perpetrators to justice, there are also challenges in delivering justice to the victims, specifically in terms of reparations and redress. Prosecuting sexual violence in a conflict-affected setting like the DRC, presents numerous difficulties in terms of evidence-gathering and handling. Such issues are addressed in the new UK International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which sets out basic standards of best practice in this regard. But the most survivor-centered form of justice is reparations, and this must be seen as a vital link in the justice chain. The UN has recently launched a Guidance Note on Reparations for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence to give greater prominence to this issue. It may never be possible to make amends for this crime, but the symbolic power of reparations is to recognize that the victim is a holder of rights that will be enforced.

To provide just one poignant example of incomplete justice: in 2006, a women’s collective in Songo Mboyo, DRC, successfully secured judgment for mass rape. Damages were awarded. For a time, whenever these women heard a helicopter overhead, the rotor blades loudly chopping the air, they looked up with hope that compensation was coming. But that was eight years ago. Today, some of the women who were awarded compensation have died, waiting. The others no longer look up at the sky with any expectation of justice. For them, the judgment they fought so hard to obtain did not deliver justice, only law.

In Syria and Libya, we still don’t know the full extent of sexual violence perpetrated by the parties to conflict, despite hundreds of survivor testimonies. In Iraq, disturbing information on sexual violence including forced marriages imposed by the Islamic State militants is emerging. And in Nigeria, a terrorist group like Boko Haram can abduct hundreds of girls from their schools with impunity. United Nations teams and NGOs find themselves without the necessary resources, access or physical security to gather data on sexual violence in real time. Too often this information is lost in the so-called “fog of war”, and future prosecutions and strategies to help survivors suffer as a result. In order to fully prosecute these crimes, deliver justice to victims and complete the historical record, we need to gather information on sexual violence whenever and wherever it occurs, not decades after the fact when the trail has gone cold, the perpetrators have long since fled the scene of the crime, and the survivors have all but abandoned the hope of seeing justice in their lifetime.

We are still a long way from transforming the culture of impunity for sexual violence into a culture of deterrence, but we are living in a time of unprecedented momentum in this fight.

Throughout history, survivors have suffered the shame, stigma and taint of rape. But the spotlight of the International Criminal Court, the United Nations Security Council and its Sanctions Committees, as well as other national and international bodies, is finally trained squarely on the perpetrators. It is time they were held accountable so that survivors, their families and communities can begin their road to recovery.

In order to end impunity once and for all, we need to provide special training for police, judges and prosecutors so they can build effective cases and move them expeditiously through the justice system. We must provide the necessary resources for gathering and preserving information on sexual violence in real-time. All nations need political will, a sound legislative basis, conducive rules of procedure and evidence, and a commitment to gender balance on the bar and bench – as well as on the frontlines of law enforcement – to comprehensively address this scourge. This approach will help national and international courts and tribunals to secure convictions, including of high-level leaders who command, condone or fail to condemn sexual violence by their subordinates.

The narrative surrounding sexual violence has changed substantially in recent years, and most judicial representatives understand that examining these cases is important. Now they are asking: how should we charge these offences? How can we protect victims and witnesses? How can we safely and ethically collect and preserve evidence? This presents an opportunity for the global legal community to provide specialized training and share best practices in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. Providing specialized training for the judicial system and the resources for data collection in live conflicts will improve the quality of prosecutions on both the international and national level, and establish a more effective deterrent against sexual violence for the future.

My Office is mandated by the United Nations Security Council to help the UN system improve its monitoring, analysis and reporting on conflict-related sexual violence, which in turn will support the development of timely, targeted and effective efforts to provide services for survivors and hold perpetrators to account.

International criminal tribunals are important complementary mechanisms, but we must focus primarily on increasing national capacity to address this issue. We must strengthen domestic legal systems so that they are more responsive to sexual violence survivors and can treat these crimes swiftly and seriously. Prosecution is also about prevention. Therefore, it is imperative that justice is not only done, but also seen to be done by the local community as a whole.

Ending impunity for rape in war will help promote other tangible results for reconstruction efforts in conflict-affected countries. Improved access to justice will provide the basis for more durable peace and reconciliation efforts in post-conflict societies. It will help restore dignity to survivors and their families. It will strengthen the Rule of Law in conflict-affected states, as well as improving the public’s faith in government to hold perpetrators accountable. Improving the quality and quantity of prosecutions will raise the cost of rape and thereby establish a more effective deterrent.

My home country of Sierra Leone is a testament to what judicial systems can achieve when they commit to prosecuting sexual violence and delivering reparations – both individual and collective; material and symbolic, including guarantees of non-repetition, to survivors.

During my country’s civil war, the Revolutionary United Front (or RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) became infamous for gender-based crimes including widespread rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage. An estimated 65,000 women were raped during the 11-year conflict. During the darkest moments of this conflict, we thought we would never know peace again. When the war finally ended, the Special Court for Sierra Leone as well as the Truth and reconciliation Commission were established and began seriously examining crimes, including sexual violence.

The Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone charged three RUF members with one count of rape as a crime against humanity; one count of sexual slavery as a crime against humanity; one count of the crime against humanity of other inhumane acts under which forced marriage was considered; and one count of outrages upon personal dignity. The RUF trial judgment delivered the world’s first convictions in an international tribunal for the crimes against humanity of sexual slavery and forced marriage. I was honored to participate in the proceedings as an expert witness on forced marriage, and gathered hundreds of testimonies from victims of horrendous assaults. I experienced first-hand the shockwaves these convictions sent through the judicial system and the whole of Sierra Leone. They did more than merely set a legal precedent. They changed our national discourse on rape, including the need to empower survivors and shine a spotlight on the perpetrators.

No one embodies this transformation better than the women I worked with in the district of Kailahun. These women were survivors of wartime sexual violence who once faced a grim, uncertain future. But thanks to small grants from NGOs, they were able to open small businesses and begin their road to recovery. I’ve kept in touch with those women, and the change I have seen in them and their community is nothing short of extraordinary. Today they are not beggars, but business owners. They are not outcasts, but activists. Many of the women have been so successful that they have hired staff, including former combatants, to work for them. As we see so often, in many corners of the world, women’s economic empowerment also translated into social and political power. In the 2012 elections, Kailahun fielded the highest number of female candidates for political office of any district in Sierra Leone.

In just 12 years, my country has gone from violent upheaval to a place where women are successful business owners, community leaders and role models. This is how real change happens – in every village, every town, and every city, children see, day in and day out, that women are valuable members of society whose rights and aspirations are respected.

Just a few months ago, the UN closed its peacebuilding mission in Sierra Leone after 15 years. I was honored to accompany the Secretary-General to the closing ceremony. Sierra Leone had – prior to the current Ebola crisis – one of the fastest-growing economies in West Africa, and was becoming a center for foreign investment and trade. The political system has stabilized and we’ve had several successful elections since the conflict ended in 2002. From hosting a peacekeeping mission, we are now a nation that contributes troops to peacekeeping efforts in other parts of the world. The empowerment of survivors through successful judicial processes and socially transformative reparations schemes has been key to my country’s development. I know how daunting reconstruction can be, but I’ve also seen the immeasurable benefits to society that come from confronting the realities of wartime atrocities, including sexual violence, head-on.

When we fail to deliver justice to survivors, we send a message that their suffering is insignificant, and when the history books are written about what happened during war their stories are left out and lost to future generations. When we deliver justice for conflict-related sexual violence we help to write a more accurate narrative of wartime atrocities that doesn’t diminish the experiences of some survivors or give less credence to their trauma. Justice can be a transformative force that helps survivors move from marginalized victims to active participants in reconstruction and reconciliation.

Most importantly, justice sends a powerful message to both survivors and perpetrators around the world: to survivors, it says that what happened was not your fault and that you will not have to bear this suffering alone. To perpetrators, it says: no matter how far you run, or how long it takes, you will be called to account.

If our final goal and destination is justice for all survivors, prosecution for all perpetrators, and deterrence for the future, then the road before us is long. It will demand the courage and conviction of all members of society from journalists to judges, from religious leaders to community activists, from Presidents to police officers and prosecutors.

I am deeply moved by the courage of the people sitting in this room to pursue justice, often against overwhelming odds. I am inspired to see so many talented and humane professionals applying their efforts to end the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic and weapon of war. In the spirit of Katherine Fite, we must work together to deliver justice for what has been called history’s oldest, most silenced and least-condemned crime of war.

I thank you for your commitment and partnership in the fight to end rape in war and consign it – once and for all – to the pages of history.

One thought on “SRSG Bangura “Sexual Violence: A Crime of War”

  1. Pingback: Zainab Bangura, 2014 Katherine B. Fite Lecture « IntLawGrrls

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