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The war crime of rape in Darfur

'The least condemned war crime'

By Joanne Mariner
FindLawexternal link Columnist
Special to CNN.com


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Aisha, as I'll call her, is seventeen years old but looks much younger. Small and slim, she has delicate features and a quiet voice.

When I met her last month in a displaced persons camp in North Darfur, Aisha was sitting on the ground in a makeshift shelter with four other teenage girls. Her voice rose with emotion as she described how, just two evenings before, the group was attacked by Arab men in military uniforms.

"The little girls got away but we two were caught," she related, referring to herself and a sixteen-year-old friend. "They called us 'abid' [slaves], and said they were going to make us their wives."

Both Aisha and her friend were violently raped by their attackers. Held for hours, they finally escaped without their clothing, fleeing naked back to the camp and arriving after midnight. That same night, four other women from the camp - ranging from teenagers to married women in their thirties -- were also raped.

Rape in Darfur is a weapon of war, one that is illegal, illegitimate and yet dismayingly widespread. Over the past year and a half, since the Sudanese government and allied Arab militia began their scorched earth campaign against the region's African communities, the women of Darfur have faced the unrelenting threat of sexual violence.

Rather than prosecute the soldiers and militiamen implicated in the attacks, the Sudanese government denies that the problem exists. Indeed, in a recent inquiry, the government acknowledged only two cases of rape from the entire Darfur conflict. And Sudan's chief negotiator at ongoing peace talks has dismissed reports of widespread sexual violence, calling them "a lot of fabrication."

Rape as a War Crime

Rape in war, if committed by combatants, is both a grave human rights violation and a war crime. Yet it has long been mischaracterized as a private crime, the ignoble act of wayward soldiers. Worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so common.

According to the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, rape has been "the least condemned war crime." This is true despite the fact that, throughout history, "the rape of hundreds of thousands of women and children in all regions of the world has been a bitter reality."

The problem is not one of gaps in the law. Both at the national and international levels, the law has long recognized crimes of sexual violence. Rape can, depending on the circumstances, violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1948 Genocide Convention, and the 1984 Torture Convention; it can also be a crime against humanity under the Nuremberg Charter and the 1998 treaty creating the International Criminal Court.

But while the necessary legal norms exist, the will to enforce them often does not. Because of deeply-rooted discriminatory attitudes toward women, crimes of sexual violence are frequently considered incidental violations, less serious than those that primarily affect men.

In recent years, some degree of progress has been made. The international criminal courts for both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have, for example, prosecuted crimes of sexual violence. In 1998, in a particularly historic ruling, the Rwanda tribunal found former mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of nine counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes -- the first time that rape was found to be an act of genocide.

Still, progress toward accountability for crimes of sexual violence is far from complete. Notably, although tens of thousand of women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, only a handful of rape cases have been prosecuted in Rwanda's domestic courts.

Terrorize entire communities

In Darfur, the rapes continue. According to Pamela Shifman, a U.N. expert on violence and sexual exploitation who recently visited the region, rape is being used "to terrorize individual women and girls ... to terrorize their families and to terrorize entire communities. No woman or girl is safe."

Shifman told the media that every woman and girl she had spoken to had either been sexually assaulted herself, or knew of someone who had been assaulted.

But accountability for these rapes -- let alone future protection -- seems unlikely. The women whom I spoke to at the refugee camp in North Darfur tried to report their rape to the local police outpost, but the police response was telling.

"They didn't write anything down," said one of the women. "They didn't ask us any questions. They didn't even ask our names."

"They did nothing."

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Joanne Mariner is a New York-based FindLawexternal link columnist and human rights attorney. She just returned from her second visit to Darfur, where she documented rape and other abuses for Human Rights Watch.


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