Ending the Culture of Impunity for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court arriving at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, 12 June 2014 © Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, launched a new Policy on Sexual & Gender-Based Crimes, with the aim of strengthening the investigation and prosecution of these horrific crimes. “[T]he Court has charged 17 individuals implicated in our cases with gender related crimes,” cited the Prosecutor, “whilst specific charges of sexual violence were proffered in 70 per cent of our cases.” While sexual violence has long been prohibited as a weapon of war, these figures point to the prevalence of sexual violence in contemporary conflicts. The UN documented conflict-related sexual violence in at least 20 countries in 2013, and such crimes continue to occur in conflicts in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The ICC’s renewed efforts mark a crucial step forward in holding perpetrators accountable, yet this initiative constitutes just one component of international efforts needed to end the culture of impunity for sexual and gender-based violence.

A previously published ATHA blog post examined recent sexual violence committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in Iraq and Syria, and outlined the development of international law to recognize such acts as serious violations amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Restrictions on the ICC’s jurisdiction, however, impede the ICC’s ability to prosecute these crimes in Iraq and Syria. Neither country is party to the Rome Statute, meaning that the ICC many only exercise jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed in either country if: a) the country becomes a State Party by acceding to the Rome Statute, b) the country voluntarily accepts ICC jurisdiction, or c) the United Nations Security Council refers the situation to the Court.

None of these options is likely to occur in the near future; Russia and China vetoed a Security Council referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC in May of this year. The prevalence of foreign fighters in ISIS’s ranks may open some new avenues for accountability, however, since the ICC may exercise jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed by nationals of States Parties, and ISIS recruits from ICC Member State countries in Europe and elsewhere.

As of this year, 137 countries (70% of UN Member States) have endorsed the “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict,” launched in 2013 by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura. In doing so, states pledge to raise awareness of these crimes, improve prevention and response, hold perpetrators accountable, and better support victims. This effort is laudable, and must be followed up with real action. Such efforts often require security sector reform to entrench zero tolerance and accountability in the ranks of military, police, and other armed forces. Judicial reform is also often necessary to strengthen the rule of law where domestic justice systems have broken down or otherwise lack the capacity or political will to prosecute alleged perpetrators. The international community can help states through hybrid tribunals or mixed chambers in domestic courts, as has been proposed in the DRC. Furthermore, states should provide adequate support and remedies to victims and survivors, who are often left behind.

Ending the culture of impunity for sexual and gender-based violence in conflict remains a significant challenge for states and the international community. While the measures described above are essential steps toward progress, the route forward will require diverse and concerted efforts taken across the international community geared toward stamping out this horrific type of crime.

For a more detailed exploration of gender-based violence and other gender-sensitive aspects of humanitarian protection and response, tune in to this Thursday’s ATHA Podcast.

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