The Key to Prosecuting Rape as a War Crime

By , a New York-based advocacy and education organization.

RAPE continues to be used as a means of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, where the atrocities of war remain headline news. Rape, as well as forced prostitution, constitute grave violations of international humanitarian law.

The indictments issued from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia charge five of the 21 defendants accused of atrocities with the crime of rape. Sexual assault and rape are included in the indictment as a grave breach of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and a crime against humanity.

Although United Nations Security Council Resolution 808 of Feb. 22, 1990, established an international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes in the Yugoslav conflict, the international community has in the past placed serious financial constraints on the tribunal's ability to effectively prosecute rape and other heinous crimes against women and young girls. To date, the contribution of the United States to the tribunal has been adequate, but the United Nations and other national governments must now contribute their fair share.

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In October 1994, we attended a three-day meeting in Geneva with Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor of the international tribunal. In our discussions with him, it became apparent to us that the tribunal's financial resources were severely limited in the area of witness protection. The tribunal is mandated to establish a witness protection unit responsible, in part, for the safety of women witnesses and victims of war crimes who agree to testify.

Protecting witnesses

The head of the witness protection unit has only just been appointed and taken her position.

In the absence of adequate funds and a plan for providing women witnesses with both physical security and psychological support, it is highly doubtful that women will be willing to come forward and testify. The international community must be prepared to guarantee their safety and well-being through an adequate Witness Protection Unit.

These trials will be driven by testimony rather than a paper trail such as existed at Nuremberg. A guarantee of safety for these women is therefore crucial, particularly since many of the accused perpetrators are still at large.

International support for the tribunal has been tentative at best. In January, instead of granting the tribunal's full year budget request, the UN authorized only $7 million for the first three months, a quarter of the $28 million requested for 1995. Chief prosecutor Goldstone advised he was only operating with two-thirds of the staff requested.

We urge that out of the United Nations monies for the tribunal the witness protection unit be given an adequate portion.

We also urge private donors and governments to give additional contributions and earmark those funds for the witness protection unit.

Failure to provide sufficient funds will have two consequences. First, the international community will forfeit the opportunity to provide justice and retribution for thousands of women and girl victims of rape, many of whom died as a result of sexual violence. Second, it will lose the opportunity to create a significant body of international law that establishes violence against women as a war crime.

With the establishment of an international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes in Rwanda and the possibility of an international criminal court, the Yugoslav tribunal can serve as a model for prosecuting sexual violence against women.

Documented atrocities

The war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has to go forward, and it must be a success. The atrocities are well documented and astounding. The UN Human Rights Commission just issued a 14-page resolution blaming Serbs for a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts, including rape.

The international community must not fail these women. Only with proper financial backing will the tribunal be able to provide the training and expertise to prosecute rape as a war crime and secure the safety of the women who come forward to testify.

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