Over the last two decades, there has been exponential growth in the capacity at the international level to prosecute atrocity crimes, particularly through international and hybrid tribunals, including, prosecutions of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. In light of these strides which advance the rule of law, particularly, international criminal law, and bring at least a measure of accountability for some of the worst atrocities of the last two decades, is it permissible for a public figure who aspires to leadership to brag about (and allegedly commit) sexual assault? Are atrocity crimes and sexual assault delinked concepts, or part and parcel of the same phenomenon?
Unlike the prosecutions after World War II before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, where sexual violence crimes were virtually ignored, today, international and hybrid criminal tribunals prosecute these crimes. Through groundbreaking jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the judges recognized that rape can be a form of genocide. And, through groundbreaking cases at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the judges recognized that rape can also be a war crime and a crime against humanity. That tribunal also brought important focus on the use of rape, for example, through prosecutions of perpetrators at a particularly notorious “rape camp,” in Foca. Other (often horrific) forms of sexual violence that do not constitute “rape” per se, were prosecuted as “other inhumane acts,” which is a crime against humanity. This work of the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals is today being carried forward by the International Criminal Court, where, for instance, the recent conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba, included command responsibility convictions for rape, as both a war crime and crime against humanity, committed in the Central African Republic.
Why has there been such pervasive use of gender-based violence, and why does it continue unabated today (in places, for instances, such as Syria, against the Yazidis)? (It was also part of the genocide in Darfur, and the 1988 genocide by Iraqi forces against the Kurds.) A few observations can be offered.
First, through a long period of history, rape was seen as similar to plunder, something to which the victors were entitled, as spoils of war. While the laws of war now clearly forbid such behavior, it is not clear whether that linkage has been entirely severed.
Second, atrocity crimes, including crimes of sexual violence, are made easier to commit through dehumanization of “the other.” Thus, in both Rwanda and Bosnia, the “other” ethnic group was portrayed as both the enemy (collectively) and as something less than human. Thus, for example, in Rwanda, the Hutu, in the planning of and during the genocide, termed the Tutsi as Inyenzi, or “cockroaches.” Had the enemy been seen as individual, it would have been harder to commit the crimes. Through dehumanization and the stoking of fear, nationalistic leaders in the former Yugoslavia, and leaders in Rwanda (aided by an incendiary media), convinced people to commit horrific crimes, including gender-based violence crimes.
Third, there also appears a linkage between gender-based violence crimes and the unequal position of women in society pre-atrocity. If women had been seen as equally valued members of society, would situations have deteriorated so precipitously into the use of gender-based violence? Is there something about the mindset of men who treat women as unequal to begin with, and, historically, centuries of unequal treatment, that in times of armed conflict, can morph into the commission of mass gender-based atrocity crimes?
Fourth, when mass atrocity crimes occur, particularly gender-based violence crimes, another precept that has eroded is the humanity of the perpetrator to see the victim as an individual. If human rights are respected in a society, and the rule of law works (complaints can be filed and courts are able to operate fairly), then one hopes never to reach these horrific depths of depravity.
Why is all this relevant today? Because there is a linkage between the mind-set of one Presidential candidate’s bragging about sexual assault (and the accusers who say he committed it) and the mind-set that can devolve, particularly in war-time, into larger-scale sexual and gender-based violence.
We are fortunate in the U.S. not to have suffered atrocity crimes on our soil, at least for a long time, and, generally, U.S. courts (both civilian and military) work well, and the rule of law is, by and large, respected. So, we do not witness in our country sexual violence crimes that rise to the level of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Yet, at heart, bragging about sexual assault objectifies and depersonalizes the victims, and more broadly denies that women deserve a respected and equal place in society, where their rights are fully respected. Is it so different from the devaluation and dehumanization of women that occurs when sexually-based atrocity crimes occur? Yes—don’t get me wrong—there is a vast magnitude of difference between what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda, and sexual assault in the U.S. during peacetime, but the conduct belongs on the same spectrum.
It is important to acknowledge this linkage, and condemn sexual assault, wherever and whenever it occurs, whether against men, women, or children, in peace-time or in war. It is equally unacceptable to brag about what constitutes a crime, and the problem is only compounded when the speaker fails to comprehend the magnitude of the issue. This isn’t just “locker-room banter,” and suggesting it is also devalues all the men who don’t use such “banter” in a “locker-room.”
The U.S., in the new Administration, needs to continue to exercise moral leadership in the field of atrocity crimes prosecutions, as it did in spearheading the Nuremberg prosecutions and supporting the creation of the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals. It needs to have a leader at its helm who can credibly do so.