The International Criminal Court (ICC) has recently tried Congo militia leader Germain Katanga. The case marks ICC’s one step forward on addressing sexual violence offenses. The court found Katanga guilty of war crimes charges when his case was presented in early March this year. Katanga was convicted as an accomplice to war crimes in an attack on a Congolese village in 2003 where more than 200 people were shot and hacked to death. Many women were raped and abducted to serve as sex slaves. As the first in history, Katanga was charged with both war crimes and sexual violence, but judges acquitted him of the initial sexual offenses. Katanga’s was the first ICC trial in history to include charges of rape and gender violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is thus considered a landmark for the court, and a step forward for holding responsible perpetrators of sexual violence in war crimes. The sexual charges against Katanga were based on statements from women who survived the massacre and who had been raped or kept as sex slaves. Yet the judges did not find enough evidence to convict Katanga of carrying out these crimes.
The problem with accusations of sexual violence is often the lack of victims coming forth. In general, victims of sexual violence face a hard time to report the crimes. Among those who speak out, many might suffer further from discrimination such as victim blaming and stigmatization, not to mention the institutional obstacles for the sexual violence victims to bring their case to a just trial in many countries. The difficulties faced by the victims in times of war makes it even harder; a disturbing trend shows that throughout history sexual violence has been excluded from the component of mass crimes. For centuries sexual violence in conflicts was tacitly accepted as unavoidable. A 1998 UN report on sexual violence and armed conflict notes that historically armies considered rape one of the legitimate spoils of war. It was not until 1992 in the face of widespread rapes of women in the former Yugoslavia, that the issue came to the attention of the UN Security Council. On 18 December 1992, the Council declared the "massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women” an international crime that must be addressed.
And especially the ICC is suited for addressing sexual offenses. The founding statute of the ICC, the Rome Statute, has been praised by women's rights activists for its emphasis on sexual and gender-based violence. But the facts tell a different story; Brigid Inder, Executive Director of Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice (WIGJ), a Hague-based group that monitors the ICC, pointed out in an interview with The Atlantic, that according to their research 33 percent of sexual violence charges in cases that have reached the confirmation stage (when judges decide whether to commit suspects to trial) have been dismissed. WIGJ attributes this to inadequate filings or insufficient evidence from the prosecution and, on occasion, questionable rulings from judges. "There is no other category of charges, which consistently faces these challenges before the ICC," Inder said, adding that they “are extremely disappointed that the judges appeared to expect a different level of proof” for sexual crimes than for pillaging, murder or destruction of property. In the very first ICC case against Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga, the charges filed by Ocampo were limited to Lubanga's recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, despite claims that his forces were involved in widespread rape. Among many witnesses who testified to sexual violence against young girls recruited into Lubanga's Union of Congolese Patriots, a soldier told the court that the girls "were used for everything".
ICC has taken a very cautious step forward by including charges of sexual violence in the court for the first time in history. More difficulty and obstruction, both culturally and politically, are still to come. The battle against sexual violence has never been easy. Yet it has to be done. More institutional support to make fair trials more accessible, as well as less questionable judges’ rulings are critical for ICC’s promise to deliver justice.
Sofie Chen is a student in liberal arts. Her interests cover human rights and new media in social transformation. After time in China and USA she now lives in Germany
Photo credit: Andre Thiel
Written by Sofie Chen and published on 10-May-2014