Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

In April, Oxford University Press will publish a book called “Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence at the ICTY”, edited by ICTY Prosecutor Serge Brammertz and ICTY Principal Legal Counsel (Deputy to the Prosecutor) Michelle Jarvis. The book is an extensive, rich and compelling 11-chapter publication aimed at galvanizing efforts to improve accountability for sexual violence crimes. It has unique historical value as it records the experience of the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) in prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence over the past two decades. It also has practical value as it has been written from a practitioner’s perspective to promote better accountability outcomes in the future at both international and national levels. It provides strategies to address common challenges in prosecuting sexual violence cases−offering concrete recommendations to overcome them.

This book is the product of several years of research of the Prosecuting Sexual Violence (PSV) Working Group of the ICTY’s OTP. Created in 2009, the PSV Working Group aimed to document and share the OTP’s legacy in this field before the Tribunal’s closure. For this purpose, it focused on examining the ICTY’s experience in prosecuting sexual violence crimes and reflected on lessons learned over the past two decades. The PSV Working Group conducted interviews with past and present OTP staff members with relevant experience and reviewed extensive internal and public documentation relating to its sexual violence cases, as well as transcripts and case files. Through its work, it identified prevalent and mutually reinforcing themes and fundamental insights for successful prosecutions.

Three key insights to successful sexual violence prosecutions emerge from this legacy work. These insights are discussed throughout the book.

First, the book highlights the crucial importance of conceptualizing sexual violence crimes as violent crimes. Accurately characterizing sexual violence can help overcome pervasive misconceptions that these crimes are incidental, personally motivated or opportunistic acts simply because of their sexual component. These misconceptions negatively impact criminal investigations, as they may lead prosecutors and investigators to discount the seriousness of sexual violence and not prioritize these crimes in their work. These misconceptions may also lead prosecutors to miss the connections between sexual violence and the prevailing context of mass atrocity, making it in turn more difficult to hold senior level officials accountable for these crimes. The book provides concrete recommendations for applying the appropriate analytical lens and legal framework to clearly reflect the connections between the crimes and the context in which they are committed, identify the characteristics of sexual violence, and understand the nature of the harms inflicted on the victims and their communities.

Second, the book focuses on the importance of adopting a witness-centered approach in sexual violence prosecutions, tailored to the needs of each individual. By creating an enabling environment that allows victims and witnesses to provide the best possible evidence, prosecutors can enhance their willingness to testify and their ability to do so effectively. The book contains guidelines to inform the work of prosecutors in preparing witnesses and questioning them in court, and in overcoming the barriers that prevent them from coming forward.

Lastly, the book emphasizes the importance of implementing and prioritizing strategies for keeping sexual violence prosecutions on the agenda over time in a prosecution office. This involves treating sexual violence prosecutions as core work and putting in place comprehensive policy guidelines on prosecuting these crimes that are duly enforced. A visible and effective commitment from the senior management in a prosecution office is also crucial to addressing these crimes, as the office leadership is responsible for setting the appropriate tone for gender issues. The book proposes strategies to mainstream the prosecution of sexual violence crimes and to incorporate a gender perspective within a prosecution office.

Alongside the publication of this book, a Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Network has been launched within the International Association of Prosecutors and with the support of the ICTY’s OTP. The network is a forum for sharing expertise and knowledge among practitioners from different regions of the world, and for facilitating their training and access to relevant legal materials. It seeks to promote the development of progressive approaches to sexual violence prosecutions and contribute towards increased accountability for these crimes. Both the book and the network mark important steps in moving the accountability dialogue forward.

2 thoughts on “Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

  1. Pingback: ICC trial against Dominic Ongwen commences – some thoughts on narratives « IntLawGrrls

  2. Pingback: ICC trial against Dominic Ongwen commences – some thoughts on narratives • Dieneke De Vos

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