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Rape: It's a war crime

Despite changes in international law and declarations by tribunals and the U.N., rampant sexual violence goes unpunished around the globe.

August 13, 2009

Rape is one of the oldest weapons of war, but until recently it was treated much like looting, as regrettable collateral damage rather than as a war crime. That may be because most victims are women, often second-class citizens in their societies. It may be that rape is overshadowed by massacres, although sexual assault often leads to death. Or perhaps it is because victors and vanquished alike commit rape. Hitler's army engaged in sexual violence, and as many as 2 million German women were abused by conquering Soviet troops after World War II. The Nuremberg tribunal did not prosecute sexual crimes.

Almost half a century later, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, an estimated 20,000 rapes were committed in the war in Bosnia, yet they resulted in only 27 convictions; 64,000 rapes in Sierra Leone yielded six convictions; and 500,000 rapes in Rwanda, eight convictions. But there has been a profound change in the way sexual violence is regarded in international law, from something bad soldiers do to a criminal act of war. In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda declared rape an act of genocide, committed in that case with the purpose of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group. And a decade later, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution recognizing rape as a "tactic of warfare" that is a crime against humanity.

This week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used her formidable voice to protest sexual violence during a visit to eastern Congo, where an estimated 200,000 people have been abused in war in the last decade. In 2008 alone, the U.N. Population Fund recorded 16,000 cases, two-thirds of them adolescent girls and other children. The crimes include sexual enslavement, forced incest, gang rape in front of families and community members, sometimes followed by stabbing and shooting in the genitals. So common is the rape of women and children that combatants increasingly have turned to raping men as added humiliation. Although rebels commit their share of the violence, human rights activists blame government soldiers in a majority of recent cases and say the violence has increased dramatically since the start of a military offensive in January. And yet, this year and last, military courts have convicted just a handful of soldiers for sexual crimes. After meeting Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Clinton said, "We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many and that there must be arrests, prosecutions and punishments."

Clinton pledged $17 million in new U.S. funding for victims of sexual violence, welcome aid for a horrific problem. She also offered the resources of the U.S. military's Africa command to advise on stopping further sexual assaults, but far more is needed on this front. The Congolese military must hold officers accountable for overseeing or turning a blind eye to rape. And Clinton must continue to highlight the issue until reality begins to catch up with international law.

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