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New Weapon Against War Rapes

February 25, 2001

The Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s produced Europe's worst human rights violations since World War II, including the rape and sexual enslavement of thousands of girls and women. All parties to the conflict--Serbs, Croats, Muslims--were found by international observers to have engaged in sexual abuses, but according to European Union investigators the Serbs outdid all others. In the war's first year alone, the EU reported, 20,000 Muslim girls and women were raped by Serb soldiers. Many were forced to endure months of sexual enslavement and torture.

Rape has accompanied marauding armies since the dawn of warfare. In modern times, Japanese troops' systematic misuse of women from occupied countries in World War II comes to mind. Now, for the first time such abuse has been officially designated a crime against humanity. The U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague has convicted three Serbs on multiple counts of rape, torture, enslavement and offenses against personal dignity. All faced possible life imprisonment, but their actual sentences ranged from 12 to 28 years--lenient considering the heinousness of the crimes they committed.

Convictions might not have been possible without the harrowing testimony of 16 of the victims of the Serbs' "systematic rape policy," as it was described by a U.N. commission in 1993. Some as young as 12 were gang-raped, enslaved for as long as eight months and rented or sold for sexual purposes. Prosecution of rape cases in Bosnia has long been impeded by the reluctance of victims to come forward, for fear of suffering personal disgrace. It took great courage for the 16 women to identify themselves to investigators, go to The Hague and confront their tormentors.

The tribunal's verdict is unlikely to end sexual predation in warfare. But in defining wartime rape and enslavement as a crime against humanity it sets a welcome precedent for prosecution and punishment and provides a modicum of justice to that crime's many victims.

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