Speech by Jean Lambert for the IHRAAM seminar, Geneva 3 August 2005

Last Sunday a national broadsheet newspaper in the UK reported that in the 1970s the chances of getting a conviction after reporting a rape were about 33%. By the mid 1980s this had fallen to around 25% and the figure for 2003 had fallen again to 5% (Observer, 31/7/05).

 Yet more women are willing to report such cases to the police (11,867 for 2003). Many UK police forces have made great efforts to improve their approach to possible rape victims to try to get more rapists convicted. Yet less than 1 in 10 cases goes to trial (1,649), as the Crown Prosecution Service will only pursue the case if they believe there is more than a 51% chance of conviction. Of those cases tried, about 4 in 10 result in conviction (629 or 5.3% of those reported.)

That is in a country with a stable legal system, a generally supportive police force and where the government has tried to adapt the process to support the plaintiff. Yet about a third of cases collapse before they get to court as the victim cannot bear the stress of retelling the story, reliving events, seeing her attacker and having her life taken apart by the defence. I am using “she” as the vast majority of victims are women.

The campaign being run by this newspaper in conjunction with a women’s magazine (Glamour) wants to adopt best practice from elsewhere, including one-stop centres which offer the victims greater security and dedicated, trained special prosecutors.

The same paper also carried an extensive report on Darfur and spoke of the ethnic cleansing through razed villages, slaughter and rape. It described the action of African Union peacekeepers escorting women on their 20km round trips to collect wood in order to protect them from rape.

One of those who had been involved in the conflict was quoted as saying; “We would love law, accept law. If there are going to be trials, for war crimes – I will stand and be counted. I will go on trial. As long as it is real law, from outside, not from this government.”

To go back home, the people made clear, they need to know they will not be macheted, or raped or have to dig up and rebury their brother, as some have already been forced to do.

The question here is who will provide the law and the security. For the law to work, people must trust the process to be seen as fair and just. How can this be achieved when there has been so much death and injury? Can everyone’s case be heard?

While there was some good news in the paper, the third article that I wanted to mention reported on recent events in Iraq, concerning a terrorist ring that had been uncovered in the Kurdish town of Irbil. There, Sheihk Zana had made himself a close associate of political leaders and developed high-level contacts to mask his brutal activities. Local television has been showing CDs he made, picked up at his arrest, and showing torture, rape and beheadings. The administration’s purpose is to bring home the reality of what is happening.

One particular case the paper cited was of a fifteen year old boy, an alcohol seller, who was abducted, sodomised, beheaded and dismembered. Some of the recruits had been brought in through sex, then blackmailed and pushed to participate in ever-more horrific activities. This is using rape to debase and dehumanise your victim and to bind the group in vile and illegal activities: in this case, to apparently further a perversion of religious belief in conditions of conflict.

There is a growing awareness and willingness to confront the existence of rape as a weapon of war and not a by-product. Rape and abduction have been there throughout history, and not just in times of conflict. During conflicts it was seen as a way of reducing the potential power of your enemy to reproduce and to increase the size of your own “tribe”, especially when you consider the number of women who probably died giving birth. It could increase your economic power through the skills women brought, or your political power if you abducted women of rank. Of course, issues of honour and humiliation were also present. The men were killed as they were a threat; women were taken because they had value.

Modern law on rape during conflict probably has its roots in the Lieber Code formulated in 1863 and introduced by President Lincoln during the American Civil War: rape was named as a specific and capital offence.

In the Hague Convention 1907, we see the introduction of the concept of “family honour and rights. The Geneva Convention also retained the concept of honour…

We have seen the ongoing struggle of the Korean so-called “comfort women” taken into sexual slavery by the Japanese to gain justice and restitution. We also know that rape has been used apparently as a strategy in various modern conflicts, in Colombia, parts of Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Darfur … the list goes on.

Personally, I consider that Bosnia has been a turning point in Western consciousness. While it had happened in many other conflicts, this confronted western women with the atrocity on their own doorstep. It became clear that rape was being used as a way of trying to destroy those seen as ethnically and religiously different – to keep women and rape them repeatedly in an effort to ensure their pregnancy and more “Serbian” babies. Certainly this had a profound effect on the women in the European Parliament.

With the genocide in Rwanda as well, rape as a weapon of war became politically visible and women in many countries were angry and wanting action, both at the time these atrocities were happening and afterwards, in terms of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The world was not only looking at an attack on honour but on women’s very identity and existence.

This gave a powerful political push to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, of which I shall say more in a minute.

The war crimes tribunals following Bosnia and Rwanda were important, not least because they indicted for rape. Certainly, the EP welcomed the conviction of Rwandan, Jean- Paul Akeyusu in September 1998, convicted on 9 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes resulting in:

We have also seen rape used to subdue populations, as in Aceh and Colombia; demoralise the enemy – as it was put to me by a Somalian refugee I met while working on a refugee report, It’s done to show the men that they cannot even defend their women – they are worthless; it’s used to fragment societies, especially when women who have been raped are ostracised by their own society. (This is an issue that the EP particularly wants countries to take on board in the issue of refugee resettlement). It is used to make people leave their land. It is weapon of terror.

The cost to many of the women is enormous. In a report from 2000, Physicians for Human Rights investigating the medical impacts of the civil war in Sierra Leone found that young girls were most often targeted in terms of rape combined with sexual slavery as it was believed by perpetrators that such girls were too young to carry the HIV/AIDS virus (a belief found in self-styled civilised countries too). Medical workers estimated that between 70 - 90% of rape survivors carried STDs, some resistant to antibiotics. A UN team that was sent to investigate rape reports in the former Yugoslavia, in June 1993, identified 119 pregnancies resulting from rape in a small sample of 6 hospitals in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

So what are some of the issues in trying to seek justice?

Firstly, in the aftermath of conflict, we can find the authorities reluctant to accept the situation and responsibility for action. To acknowledge the widespread uses of rape as a weapon of war can change the image of the conflict for the leaders: how do you portray rape or sexual slavery as part of a heroic struggle?

We have heard of those in authority in Darfur saying that they have only heard of a couple of isolated cases of rape: we then come across the report from a CNN writer in which she is told by two young girls how they tried to report their rape to police in Darfur…they didn’t even take our names. Well, we know that if you do not record complaints or investigate them there can be no convictions. If you do not supply the necessary resources and support in terms of gathering evidence and bringing the plaintiffs through the system, you will not get convictions. And there is, of course, often a desire to close off the past to make the future possible.

There are practical difficulties too, post conflict, in even putting an effective legal system in place. Add to that the sheer scale of offences that may be brought to the courts and the difficulties of establishing effective evidence gathering systems and we can see that not everyone will find justice. This is partly why some countries now follow the South African example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which does not need to follow a full court procedure.

For the victims, the survivors, there are also problems – just as we can see there are still in my own country, for example. There can be a deep stigma being seen as a raped woman, and this is particularly strong in some cultures. Can they trust the system to deliver justice and who will support them through this? There can be the difficulty of finding witnesses and evidence in a dispersed society and, for some, justice will not be the priority if they have family to care for or a living to earn.

So as part of post-war reconstruction, we have to work to create trusted legal systems, both nationally and internationally. This means an infrastructure that will record and investigate complaints and gather evidence efficiently. We have to find ways to support victims, through working with local NGO's and additional support for other organisations such as the UNHCR, so that expert and effective help can be given. Help that is emotional, medical, legal and financial. In some places there will also be a need to work with religious and cultural leaders to change the climate leading to rape victims being treated as outcasts or objects of dishonour. This requires external pressure and support and the genuine involvement of women at all stages.

So what can be done now that rape has been duly recognised as a weapon of war?

The ICC arising from the Rome Statute of July 1998 became operational on July 1 st 2002. The Court can investigate and prosecute individual’s accused of genocide, crime against humanity and war crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. To avoid the ICC stepping in, States party to the Statute must have the necessary laws in place.

Amnesty International (AI) has identified this as a significant opportunity for all such states to update and upgrade their own national legislation. For example, the definition of rape should be removed from the concept of honour and should not be gender specific. Their goal (AI) is that rape should be defined as genocide, a crime against humanity, a war crime, torture and a serious crime of sexual violence.

States party to the Statute should also aim for universal jurisdiction, so that a country may prosecute anyone found on their territory who has committed a crime of gender-based violence. This is already the situation in cases of torture and slavery under international conventions.

Why are such measures important? Because they help change the climate – to help people understand that the crime of rape is serious, that conviction is possible and there is no hiding place. Changing the climate helps to support the victims as well.

The fact that the ICC has a commitment to the “fair representation” of both male and female in their staffing gives an important lead (in 2002, 7 out of 18 ICC judges were women and the 2005 overall staffing showed 47% women in the prosecutors office.)

We also need to see “fair representation” in the support services, such as the police. It is all part of helping victims to have more confidence in the systems they depend on for justice.

External bodies such as the Commonwealth, countries, such as the USA, UK, and France who train soldiers, police and other forces should also ensure that they have a gender component in the training they give. The UN produces a manual on “Gender and Peace-keeping Operations – In-mission Training” which could provide a useful peacetime basis. There is also the UN Secretary General Bulletin “Special Measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse”. While this is obviously primarily for a UN scenario the Secretary general also calls on member states to incorporate the core principles enshrined in the bulletin into the standards and codes of conduct for their national armed forces and police forces.

We could also do more to raise public awareness concerning HIV/AIDS and STDs, their means of infection and ways to prevent them. There are great examples through local theatre in Kenya and youth song performances in Uganda – using local cultural means of communication that are accepted and work.

But the wider context to all the specific work is the issue of attitudes towards women and that is what has to undergo real, fundamental change in virtually every country. To see women as having their own rights, not derived rights. The Millennium Goals include gender equality, which should also challenge land rights and political power, in my opinion. Everything we do to enhance the rights of women and improve international respect for human rights in general can contribute to the prevention of rape as a weapon of war.


Jean Lambert