Amidst persistent tension and growing conflict in the Middle East and in Ukraine, videos of the atrocities faced by women are being widely circulated on social media. These events have renewed attention on the two-pronged violence suffered by women in conflict and have sparked public outrage at the tragedy of violence and humiliation women victims experience during warfare. In spite of this growing awareness, women typically continue to be forgotten victims of war, with reports of atrocities against them dismissed or deprioritised in terms of government policies and protection.
A Grave Violation of Human Rights
History attests that violence towards women has often been weaponised in armed conflict; in particular, sexual violence against both women and children has been used consistently, including in recent conflicts. This issue reflects the double-edged violence faced by women during times of armed conflict – first, the violence inflicted on them that is also inflicted on men; and second, violence that is inflicted specifically because they are women. The latter represents one of the most brutal forms of patriarchal control, serving a two-fold purpose of humiliation and the assertion of male dominance. Such gendered violence aims to daunt the enemy by striking at what they consider to be their most vulnerable point.
In terms of the existing legal framework regarding the issue of women’s victimisation in conflict zones, Articles 7 and 8 of the 1998 Rome Statute (which established the International Criminal Court (ICC)) designate sexual violence committed during armed conflict within the lists of both ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’. The Statute came into force in 2002; however, acts of sexual violence were already prohibited by international humanitarian law, under Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Protocol II Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. These provisions censure rape and other sexual violence committed as part of a widespread attack against a civilian population. They were further criminalised under the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Why the silence?
These instruments remained under-discussed, with the criminalisation of rape as a war crime often seen to have occurred only in the mid-2000s via the Rome Statute. This may be partly attributed to the fact that international law practitioners and scholars of the twentieth century were overwhelmingly male. Moreover, women’s experiences in armed conflict have typically been superseded by those of men, as both combatants and victims. As such, women are often subsumed within the category of male civilians, despite the fact that warfare impacts them in distinct ways, with their position being reduced to that of second class citizens in conflict situations. The Nuremberg Trials and Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo demonstrate this persistent blindness to sexual violence and gendered warfare. Even today, prominent judicatures such as the ICC remain a “boys club” and suffer severe gender imbalance in terms of judicial representation. A lack of female judges only further feeds the silence, as it is often women prosecutors and judges who advocate against the violence women experience in conflict situations.
Consequently, despite the plethora of laws prohibiting such violence, women continue to be harmed with widespread impunity. Thus, the prosecution of such offences often only takes place within the context of prosecuting other related crimes. Presently, there is no ICC judgment convicting a perpetrator for committing rape as a war crime. The first ever conviction in 2016 of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was widely applauded, but was then overturned just two years later.
Moving Forward with Reassessed Priorities
The responsibility to secure the safety of people who have been taken hostage in war is liable to be overtaken by retaliatory measures and the diversion of resources towards warfare. As conflicts continue and more atrocities are publicised, bringing home hostages subject to gendered violence must remain a political priority. With the destabilisation of the Middle East and rapidly increasing casualties, it is critical to remain aware of the risks of violence that afflict women and children in particular. Re-prioritisation of the protection of civilians, especially the most vulnerable among them, must remain a focus for human rights advocates and the international civic community.
Want to learn more?:
- Addressing Gender Violence: The Urgent Need for Introspection by the ICC
- Violence Against Women: Before and After the Taliban
- Decoding Manipur: Unveiling Human Rights Violations Against Women Amidst Ethnic Conflict
- Sexual Violence and Genocide: The International Court of Justice’s ruling on Rohingya