Ending rape as a weapon of war
Three Serbs are on trial in The Hague for running sexual-enslavement camps during the Bosnian War.
Identified only by numbers or their initials, and protected by a screen, witnesses at a United Nations tribunal in The Hague painfully recount the transformation of their communities into sexual enslavement camps during the Bosnian war.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Last week, a young woman identified only as A.S. told the court how Serb soldiers incessantly raped her in 1992 in the tiny village of Foca. Eventually, her attackers sold her to some men from Montenegro for $250 and a truckload of soap.
Other tales of inhumanity emerged shortly after the trial began on March 20. Women watched helplessly as their children and grandchildren were violated and degraded. A survivor told of being sexually enslaved when she was only 15 years old at a sports hall with some 50 other Muslim women.
War crimes investigators estimate that Serb troops raped 20,000 women during the 1992-95 war. Now three men - Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac, and Zoran Vukovic - stand accused of running one of the most notorious of these detention camps as part of their ethnic-cleansing campaign. They hold the ignominious distinction of being the first people indicted for sexual enslavement in the history of international tribunals. The trial is expected to continue for some time.
"This is the most important trial on sexual violence to ever appear before an international tribunal," says Paul Risley, the spokesman for the war-crimes prosecutor. "The crime of rape has been successfully tried against other individuals ... but always in combination with other crimes, such as murder."
Back in 1998, a three-judge panel in Tanzania convicted a Rwandan mayor for genocide; the judiciary also determined that sexual violence can be genocidal in nature. But the trial under way in The Hague signals that these crimes in themselves deserve the attention of the tribunal.
Human rights workers have documented similar abuses by troops against minorities in Burma (Myanmar). And some of the survivors of an estimated 200,000 "comfort women" still seek justice from the Japanese government for being subjected to sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.
Human rights advocates hope that a conviction for sexual enslavement now might help reverse a worrisome trend in which rape is used as a tool of war.
"Because of the devastating effect sex crimes has on communities, we are noticing that wartime rape crimes are increasingly either encouraged or included as official military strategies," says Kelly Askin, the author of War Crimes Against Women. "And this is particularly so because historically the gender-based crimes have been ignored during prosecutions or calls for accountability."
The sexual-enslavement trial against Serbs in The Hague makes "a statement that henceforth the international community takes these crimes seriously and intends to end the cycle of impunity traditionally surrounding sexual violence," adds Ms. Askin.
"It will hopefully help to get attention to, and redress for, the surviving comfort women," she adds.