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Senate Subcommittee Addresses Wartime Sexual Violence

On April 1, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law held a hearing on “Rape as a Weapon of War: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict.”

Chair Richard Durbin (D-IL) said, “Tragically, mass rape has been a feature common to recent conflicts in Bosnia, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. However, this problem is neither new nor unique to these conflicts…It is appalling that today women and girls are being raped in conflict situations around the world. This reflects our collective failure to stop the use of women’s bodies as a battleground. The scale of this problem is daunting. A recent report documented conflict-related sexual violence in 51 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in the last two decades. But wartime rape is not inevitable. The widespread prevalence of sexual violence in recent conflicts results in part from the lack of accountability for those who use rape to pursue military or political goals. Government and rebel forces violate human rights with impunity, perpetuating the stigma that surrounds these crimes.”

Sen. Durbin continued, “Throughout the twentieth century, rape and other forms of sexual violence were included in increasingly specific terms in international agreements on the conduct of war. Prejudice and misconceptions meant these crimes were initially framed as private acts violating family dignity and honor, rather than the violent public crimes they are…While a growing number of perpetrators of wartime sexual violence have been prosecuted, a much larger number have escaped accountability. The average wartime rapist runs very little risk of being prosecuted. The United States and other countries must play a greater role…In addition to punishing individual perpetrators, governments that tolerate, and fail to take steps to stop, wartime sexual violence must be held accountable for their actions. At the very least, we must ensure that U.S. tax dollars do not fund state armies that fail to prevent their forces from engaging in mass rape. We must work to end the use of rape as a weapon of war, but as long as the practice persists, we should support programs that provide protection, medical care, psychological services, and legal remedies to survivors of wartime sexual violence.”

Lisa Jackson, documentary maker and director of “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” said, “Congo’s war is a war against women, a war in which women’s bodies have become the battleground, where no woman is safe. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been intentionally and systematically targeted, gang raped, mutilated, forcibly abducted for many months to vast inaccessible forest areas, and used as sexual slaves. They are attacked by armed militias from Uganda and Burundi, by Hutu genocidaires who fled from justice in Rwanda, by warlords and their thugs, and by members of the very army and police forces that are supposed to protect them. United Nations peacekeepers have also committed rape and sexual exploitation. It is a femicide, pure and simple.”

Ms. Jackson continued, “When I interviewed soldiers, members of the national Congolese army, [they] talked brazenly to me about the rapes they had committed. They were practically swaggering, describing their reasons and methods of rape without shame, guilt, or even a hint of remorse, because they knew that in Congo’s culture of impunity they would face no reprisals for their crimes…In my 30 years of filmmaking, interviewing these soldiers was the single, most devastating moment I had ever experienced. I had just recorded men confessing to unspeakable crimes and when the interviews were over, they just melted back into the forest. There was no one around to arrest them, they were not talking to me from a jail cell…These soldiers represent a tiny fraction of the gruesome overall picture. A common concern that was expressed over and over again in the course of my interviews was that of impunity. The widespread rape and sexual violence is fueled by a pervasive culture of impunity that the government of Congo seems unwilling, or unable, to combat…Yes, the government passed a sweeping new law last year regarding sexual violence, a law that, for instance, finally made rape with guns and sticks a crime, but I heard over and over again stories about the futility of enforcement, about rapists who would pay a bribe of three or four dollars and walk free, about jails with no locks on the cell doors, about sex crime units with literally a staff of one, and about women who face brutal reprisals if they speak out about the crimes perpetrated against them or dare to denounce their attackers. They are left to bear the pain alone, without the solace of peace, or the possibility of justice.”

Kelly Dawn Askin, senior legal officer at the Open Society Institute, said, “Criminal prosecution of sex crimes is absolutely critical in order to punish the crime and highlight its gravity…In the past decade, there has been a growing movement to make crimes against humanity the central charge in most of the war crime tribunals, as this crime does not carry the onerous intent proof requirement that genocide requires, but it captures the widespread or systematic nature of the crimes, which war crimes fail to portray. The Yugoslavia Tribunal, Rwanda Tribunal, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone in particular have shown that using crimes against humanity to prosecute rape and other forms of sexual violence can be powerful and successful it is not necessary to prove, for example, that rape itself was widespread or systematic in order for there to be a conviction, although rape is itself often both widespread and systematic…And as more leaders are being charged with both individual and superior responsibility for their role in ignoring, facilitating, or ordering crimes, including sex crimes, crimes against humanity allows for a larger victim pool to be covered by a conviction…For greater justice, peace, and security, it is especially crucial to go after the leaders, the policy makers, the authorities who order, encourage, allow, or ignore the use of rape as a weapon of war, terror, and destruction.”

Ms. Askin continued, “The United States must ensure that it has the capacity to prosecute crimes against humanity whenever and wherever it occurs, particularly when perpetrators have found safe haven in the United States…The United States should close the gaps in its criminal codes [that] might allow perpetrators to escape justice or to find safe haven in this country. Given the long record of U.S. leadership in this area, it is unfortunate that there are loopholes in U.S. law that may have the unintended effect of making the United States a safe haven for criminals who have committed these heinous offenses. The United States should be able to prosecute any person found in this country who is responsible as an individual or superior for genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, including the crimes of rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and other crimes of sexual violence of comparable gravity.”

Dr. Denis Mukwege, director of Panzi General Referral Hospital (Democratic Republic of Congo), said, “This desire to destroy not only has an impact on the woman and the family, but also on the community because when the woman is destroyed, there is no possibility of a renewal of the community, [as] the mechanism of renewal is broken. In normal warfare, the men die at the front, but often the women reproduce children with some sick old men still alive. But the contrary is not true. When the uterus is destroyed, there is no possibility of reproducing. In the case of our species, when one destroys the genital apparatus, the men become useless, because they cannot reproduce children with sick women or women whose genital apparatus are destroyed. Ten healthy men can produce 1,000 children if there are 1,000 women. But 10 healthy women with 1,000 healthy men can only produce 10 children under the same conditions. This analysis shows that man has been able to invent a horrible strategy of war, which produces the same effect as a normal war (that is assassination, loss of property, occupation of land, internal displacements, and refugees with all the miseries that go with that) but worse yet, has an effect on the health of those concerned, with indelible marks that they will carry everywhere during their life span. This situation is so much more serious because it does not concern 10,000 women, but rather several hundred thousand women.”

Dr. Mukwege continued, “I would like to take this opportunity to send out a cry of alarm in favor of these women on our planet who are not treated as well as men are, and who for most of their lives, are always in danger because of bad treatment or lack of treatment after being raped. Their social and economic reintegration in society and their compensation should not be neglected. I am asking the national Congolese community to invest thoroughly in putting an end to this crisis, similar to no other, that is going on in Eastern DR Congo by using political, judicial, and whatever other means to isolate the authors of these crimes and stop them from committing any more crimes. I am asking the international community to make rational use of MONUC [U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo] to protect the civilian population and especially women, which is part of their mandate, and yet this situation continues to this day. I am asking the American government to use its influence on the governments of the countries of the Great Lake Region to stop this practice of rape being used as a weapon of war and to help stop the leaders of these horrible crimes, who are known to everyone; where they are staying is no secret, and their acts are known to everyone.”

Karin Wachter, acting gender-based violence senior technical advisor at the International Rescue Committee, also testified.

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