This blogpost is the continuation of “Conflict-related sexual violence: consequences and needs of female victims (part 1)“, posted yesterday morning.
III. … and questions the importance of justice within the healing process
As potential victims of crimes against humanity, war crimes and eventually genocide, survivors of CRSV deserve justice. Congolese gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege, 2018 Peace Nobel Prize Laureate, explained at a University of Montreal in June 2019 that justice is an integral part of the victims’ healing process. To him, justice is key both to the victims’ psychological well-being and to the restoration of their dignity. As Dr. Yael Danieli points out in her 2014 article, reparative justice can take place at every step throughout the justice process: from the first encounter of a court with a potential victim or witness to the aftermath of the completion of the case, every step represents an opportunity for redress and healing.
Despite the increased attention of the international community towards impunity for sexual violence crimes, according to the last Secretary-General Annual Report on conflict-related sexual violence, accountability remains elusive. The ability of victims to access a justice system is frequently hindered by reporting barriers both at the individual and structural levels. Across most countries, victims are often reluctant to report their experiences owing to stigma, fear of reprisal or rejection by their families or communities, and lack of confidence in judicial and non-judicial responses. As an example, in Guinea, the 2009 repression has traumatized a large number of civilians. Even if some courageous female victims did testify before Guinean courts, the absence of specialized investigation and prosecution units within justice system to provide support to vulnerable victims, combined to the lack of relevant training for magistrates, registrars and lawyers – professions in which males are largely overrepresented –, did not encourage victims to testify in a climate of trust.
The justice process can also cause secondary victimization or second injury. Sexual violence victims often have to tell their story many times to different persons, with a high level of details, and fight to be trusted. Moreover, depending on the various national and international judicial systems’ requirements, victims may have to bring evidence of their rape, while such an evidence is expensive to obtain. They can notably have to bring a medical certificate to the court. As an example, Guinean victims of the event of 28 September 2009 did face difficulties to prove the evidentiary value of a medical certificate confirming that sexual violence took place.
It is also important to mention that, for some victims, justice does not necessarily mean seeking a reparation order or a conviction from a court. According to Salah Aroussi’s article titled Perceptions of Justice and Hierarchies of Rape: Rethinking Approaches to Sexual Violence in Eastern Congo from the Ground Up (2018), “survivors of rape by armed groups or civilians in the DRC primarily conceive justice as economic assistance and have limited interest in the prosecution of perpetrators […]. [R]epairing the harm and restoring the victim is at the heart of communities’ understanding of what justice is.” The author warns that “at the same time, survivors’ reluctance to pursue formal justice must be understood in the light of the inaccessibility of the Congolese criminal justice system and its failure to play a positive role in society.”
Victims of conflict-related sexual violence suffer from long term, if not lifelong consequences. During the Commemoration of the 10-Year Anniversary of the Mandate on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Tatiana Mukanire, survivor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and leader of the survivors SEMA Network, explained that raping a person amounts to killing her or him while letting him or her breathe. At the same time, impunity, corruption, lack of services and difficult access to healing resources tend to silence CRSV victims. Lack of confidence towards nationals and international justice systems are also an issue, whereas the International Criminal Court has already failed to deliver justice in the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba, despite the struggle of victims to hold him accountable.
As a conclusion, to answer CRSV victims’ needs, it is imperative to understand the consequences of the victimization on the survivors’ lives. Otherwise, there is a chance to see the survivors’ care not to be optimal. Nobody can speak in place of victims. They have their own voice and have to be heard. Our role is to listen to them.
This blogpost and the author’s attendance to the 18th Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court are supported by the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.