On October 2, 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced former mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu to three life sentences for genocide and crimes against humanity and to 80 years for other violations including rape and encouraging widespread sexual violence.
The sentencing of Akayesu to life imprisonment is one small step towards redressing the longstanding injustice perpetrated by the international community against women victims of war. It is the first time an international court has punished sexual violence in a civil war and the first time rape has been found to be used as an act of genocide, as well as an act of torture.
During the trial, Rwandan women testified that they had been subjected to repeated collective rape by militia and that Akayesu made no effort to stop this horror, even though he had the power to do so. They spoke of witnessing other women being gang-raped and murdered while Akayesu stood by, saying to the rapists at one point "don't complain to me now that you don't know what a Tutsi woman tastes like."
Unfortunately, the testimonies of the Rwandan women are not an exception. Worldwide, women in conflict situations are routinely targeted for rape. What is significant is that this time the international community has treated this crime with the same seriousness as other egregious violations of international law.
The problem in the past has not been the absence of a written law, but rather sexist attitudes that view crimes against women as incidental or less serious violations. Rape is a violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1948 Genocide Convention, the 1984 Torture Convention, and a crime against humanity under customary international law. However, rape has long been mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders as a private crime or the ignoble act of the occasional soldier. Worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace.
The victory that the Akayesu judgment and sentencing represent was hard won. When Akayesu was first charged in 1996, the 12 counts in his indictement did not include sexual violence, despite documentation of the widespread rape during the genocide in general and in his commune in particular. The charges of rape were only added to the Akayesu indictment mid-trial, following concerted pressure by non-governmental organizations and an amicus curiae brief filed by this Coalition in May 1997.
The Akayesu conviction will hopefully set a precedent for more rape indictments by the Tribunal. The Akayesu case has shown that, given safe circumstances, Rwandan women want to tell their stories. Yet sexual violence crimes during armed conflict are still being under investigated and under prosecuted. Of the 34 other cases currently pending in front of the tribunal, only one contains charges of sexual violence.
The Rwandan Tribunal as well as the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia must continue to make further efforts to make the prosecution of sexual violence crimes a priority. This requires, among other measures, that the International Tribunals provide adequate witness protection, proper training for investigators and the addition of more women on investigator teams. Only through such measures will international law become relevant to the thousands of women victims of sexual violence.
The Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situation represents Rwandan and international women's groups and is coordinated by Ms. Ariane Brunet and Ms. Isabelle Solon-Helal, at ICHRDD.
Certainly, advances have been made in recognizing women’s rights. The legal framework is increasingly responsive to the experiences of women and girls in conflict, especially in cases of sexual violence, as we have seen in the important work being carried out by the international criminal tribunals. But there remains much to be done, particularly to improve prevention and to combat impunity.
-- Kofi Annan
October 28, 2002