The Akayesu Judgment at 20: looking back, pushing forward

Twenty years ago, on September 2nd, 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) handed down a landmark trial judgment in the Akayesu case: the first to define rape as a crime against humanity, and the first to recognize that rape and other acts of sexual violence are constitutive acts of genocide. The defendant, the mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for acts he engaged in and oversaw against Taba’s Tutsi residents, including murder, torture, rape, and other inhumane acts.

Throughout its findings, the ICTR Trial Chamber surfaced gender in its legal analysis, illuminating the gendered experience of mass atrocities, and underscoring how the perpetrators’ and victims’ understanding of gender influenced the planning, commission, and impact of a wide range of genocidal acts.

Akayesu‘s ground-breaking findings owed less to the Prosecution’s case theory – which originally failed to include charges of sexual violence, despite the rape of between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls between April and June 1994 – than to the Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations. Formed by feminist activists in 1996, the Coalition mobilized around the ICTR’s failure to investigate and prosecute sexual violence. As prosecution witnesses, who were primarily female survivors of the genocide, gave first-hand accounts of sexual violence, the Coalition submitted an amicus curiae brief calling upon the Trial Chamber to use its authority to invite the Prosecution to amend their Indictment to include charges of rape and other acts of sexual violence.

One of the suggestions in the amicus was that the Prosecution charge rape and sexual violence as acts of genocide, arguing that they were essential components of the genocide, and were designed to “destroy a woman from a physical, mental or social perspective and [destroy] her capacity to participate in the reproduction and production of the community.” An oft-cited passage in the Akayesu Judgment, echoes aspects of this argument:

Sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction, specifically targeting Tutsi women and specifically contributing to their destruction and to the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole. […] Sexual violence was a step in the process of the destruction of the Tutsi group—destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.

On the 20th anniversary of Akayesu, two things are evident.

First, despite the judgment’s pioneering nature, a gendered understanding of genocide (and international crimes, more generally) still needs to be consciously asserted in investigations, analysis, and prosecutions. The legal avenues opened by Akayesu were, for a long time, not seized upon by prosecutors; the ICTR and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Prosecution’s practice of charging rape occurring during the genocide as crimes against humanity and/or war crimes, rather than genocide, continued. Decades later, the analysis and reporting of genocide continues to revolve around an understanding of genocide as a crime committed through organized mass killings. Killing remains the privileged genocidal act, and consequently the examination of the risk and commission of genocide has largely, and unhelpfully, revolved around the numbers killed. Akayesu notwithstanding, the majority of genocide convictions in both the ICTR and ICTY have been based on instances of mass executions, founded upon strategies geared towards achieving the immediate physical destruction of (predominantly male members of) the protected group.

Second, the work of asserting a gendered analysis of international crimes continues largely to be done by feminist jurists and practitioners, most of whom are female. While it is not the role of female lawyers and activists to bring to light the experience of women and girls in jurisprudence, the task has too often fallen on their shoulders. Akayesu would not have been the landmark case it is without the work of the female-led Coalition; the Judges, notably Judge Navanethem Pillay; and the Chamber’s Legal Officers, notably Cecile Aptel. At the ICTY, three female lawyers and investigators led the development of the evidence of crimes committed in Foča with an express focus on building a case that reflected the organized way rape was used as part of ethnic cleansing. As a result, the Kunarac Judgment found sexual enslavement and rape as crimes against humanity. At the International Criminal Court (ICC), it was under the auspices of the first female Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, that a gender strategy for investigations and prosecutions was developed.

The red thread of genocide continues to course its way through human history. In June 2016, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria determined that ISIS was committing the crime of genocide against the Yazidis of the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. In August 2018, the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar held that there was sufficient information to support an inference of genocidal intent regarding the actions of Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya. Having failed in its obligation to prevent genocide, punishment remains a priority for the international community. The UN’s recent report on Myanmar has reinforced calls for the Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC. For the Yazidi genocide, the path to justice is likely to be forged through national courts, including, hopefully, in Iraq. The Iraqi Investigation Team, created by the Security Council, has just begun its work.

As the push for accountability for the Yazidi and Rohingya genocides continues, it is essential that prosecutors and activists alike ensure that acts of genocide, beyond the act of killing, are fully investigated, properly indicted, and raised at trial. As women and girls are more likely to survive genocide, any ensuing trials rely heavily on what they have seen, heard, and suffered. A conception of genocide that relies on them bearing witness to killings (usually but not solely of male members of the group), and which turns away from all non-lethal acts of genocide (usually but not solely visited on female members of the group) is a harm to the survivors, the group, the historical record, and to our understanding of the crime of genocide.

When genocide is recognized only its most murderous articulations and gendered genocidal crimes such as rape, torture, forced pregnancy, and enslavement are ignored, States and international organizations lose much of their power to uphold the legal obligations to prevent and punish genocide. When the gendered crimes of genocide are excluded from prosecutions, the living survivors of genocide are denied justice and history yet again erases the experiences of women and girls.

In 1998, Akayesu’s gendered analysis was ground-breaking. In 2018, it’s never been more necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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