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the Toronto Star

Justice Slow for Female War Victims

Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger

First there were the Nuremburg Trials. Then the Geneva Conventions. And finally, the Rome Statute.

These documents and events, spanning some 60 years, all mark watershed moments in the development of international humanitarian law. Building on one another, each is designed to protect civilians from the scourge of war.

None has been more complete than the Rome Statute. Enacted in 2002, it established the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes. In the clearest terms yet, the statute identifies specific gender-based crimes, from rape and sexual slavery to forced pregnancy and human trafficking, as being just as heinous as other crimes against humanity.

Hailed as a triumph for women's rights, the Rome Statute was to put an end to the impunity that's often met these crimes. But six years on, as the world gets set once again to mark International Women's Day on Saturday, progress in the court has been painfully slow.

"We have yet to see the investigative approach needed to ensure the prosecution of gender-based crimes," says Brigid Inder, executive director of Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice, a Hague-based group that promotes and monitors women's rights in the international court.

The numbers paint a disappointing picture. The court has issued warrants against 10 people - in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Sudan. Five of those remain at large and not one has been convicted yet. Of the 10 warrants, only a few include gender-based crimes - even though women continue to be common targets in conflicts around the world.

In Iraq, victims of rape are often blamed for their plight and forced to marry their attackers. In Colombia, rebels use women as sexual slaves. In Burma (also known as Myanmar), women are regularly attacked by the ruling junta's soldiers.

At the crux of this slow progress is the court's inability to identify enough victims, especially female ones. The stigma of sexual violence can be a huge burden for women, forcing them into silence. According to the 2007 ICC Gender Report Card, published by Inder's agency, barely a third of 500 victims who have applied to participate in war crime tribunal proceedings are women. The court officially has identified just 17 as victims so far.

Inder acknowledges the tribunal is still young, adding many more victims need inclusion to ensure violence against women does not continue to go unpunished.

"They've been very cautious in their interpretation of the statute. The ICC has teeth. Its mandate is enormous. It needs to show it knows how to use its teeth."

To the UN, violence against women is "one of the most serious and urgent challenges of our time" because every time women are targets of violence, the health and vibrancy of children, families and communities are in jeopardy.

Inder says the court can help deter such violence by better reaching out to female victims in conflict zones, helping them come forward. This would lead to more charges being laid against perpetrators while setting international precedents, proving that violence against women will no longer be tolerated. "It's very powerful for the court to do that. This is a court created to be bold. The world needs it to be."

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.

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