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Genocidal rape is a peril of conflict we must not ignore

Most rapes are not the result of the by-products of a conflict, but a pre-planned strategy to commit genocide.

Rape as an instrument of war has been prevalent for ages. According to the Roman “Ius Gentium (Law of Nations)”, the inhabitants of a conquered land were spared personal violence or harm if the war or the siege ended through diplomacy. But if the invading forces entered any place by forceful means, then it was permissible to sexually abuse women and adolescent boys of the subjugated territories. Moreover, there was even provision that some amongst the defeated population or all of them could be enslaved for labour, non-consensual sex and even forced into prostitution.

It is suggested that one reason for the prevalence of rapes during any conflict in medieval times was the general militaristic viewpoint about all persons, whether children or women, who belonged to the conquered land, to be regarded as enemies. Therefore, hostile behaviour in the form of sexual abuse and other brutality was considered normal and non-deplorable.

“The Lieber Code (1863)” was the first attempt at codifying international customary laws of conducting land wars. This was an important attempt at maintaining the human rights of the civil population during any conflict. This code emphasised all kinds of rapes being prohibited. It was further mentioned that any violation of this code could attract a death sentence. “Article 46 of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907” regarding Land Warfare explicitly required that “family honour and rights and the lives of persons…must be respected” by the occupying powers.

“Article 27 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention” explicitly prohibits wartime rape and enforced prostitution in international conflicts. “The prohibitions outlined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions were reinforced by the 1977 Additional Protocols I and II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.”

However, “the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict”, which went into effect in 1974, does not mention rape.

With the changed scenario of conflicts arising due to ethnoreligious and political reasons, the futility and failure of the above conventions and codices in upholding wartime ethical conduct have been widely exposed. It has to be understood that most rapes are not the result of the by-products of a conflict, but a pre-planned strategy to commit genocide. Mass rapes during the Partition can be seen as being a part of genocidal rapes as the motive was to humiliate on religious lines. The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1972 saw mass rapes committed by the Pakistani military with the support of the Razakar and Bihari militias. The number of rape victims during this conflict is estimated to be anywhere between 2,00,000 to 4 00,000 with most of them having been raped an innumerable number of times.

The Rwandan genocide during the early nineties is a living example of genocidal rape where Tutsi women were systematically raped and mutilated by the Hutus. Age was no factor in committing the crimes. Girls as young as five or six years were not spared by the mass rapists. Another important aspect was that there was a deliberate attempt to infect the Tutsi rape victims with HIV. During the conflict, Hutu extremists released hundreds of patients suffering from AIDS from hospitals, and formed them into “rape squads”. The intent was to infect and cause a “slow, inexorable death” for the Tutsi rape victims. Tutsi women were also targeted with the intent of destroying their reproductive capabilities. Moreover, sexual mutilation of the victims’ reproductive organs was done. Even men were not spared and they had to suffer public genital mutilations. Some experts have estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the genocide.

The genocide aimed against the Yazidis of Iraq and Syria is another chilling account of how the brutality of conflicts remains unchanged even in these modern times. No codices or conventions could prevent the mass rapes and forceful enslaving of the Yazidi womenfolk and children. The captured women were treated as sex slaves or spoils of war, and most were forcefully converted to Islam and sold as brides to the members of ISIS. The ones who refused to convert were brutally tortured and eventually raped and murdered. Even pregnant women were not spared and children born to them in captivity were snatched away.

Various slave markets were set up specifically to deal with Yazidi women. They were publicly auctioned amongst the ISIS fighters and supporters, who used them for their depraved voyeuristic needs. Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in the year 2018, was a victim of sexual slavery herself. She is now a prominent face for the countless victims of sexual violence from the Yazidi community and has played a pivotal role in exposing the acts of inhumanities committed on them by members of the Islamic State.

The world community, showing urgent resolve to address these dangerous trends of unabated rape and other forms of sexual violence has come together on the platform of the United Nations time, and again by adopting several resolutions to recognize this menace as an act of war and a threat to human rights and international peace.

The United Nations passed a “Security Council resolution 1820 (2008)” describing rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security. In the resolution it has been noted that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” Further, on 19 June 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/69/293) proclaimed 19 June of each year the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The UN attempted to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world. It asked the people to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes.

The recent takeover of the reins in Afghanistan by the Taliban has raised alarm bells so far as to what their approach would be towards women’s rights. There have been unconfirmed reports doing the rounds of members of the Taliban conducting door to door searches for finding ‘suitable’ brides for their fighters. This is nothing but a gross violation of human rights and goes against the established norms of modern social behaviour. In the garb of marriage, this is a form of institutionalised rape of young women.

No amount of codifications of law will be able to prevent such criminalities if a genuine desire is not shown to prevent such acts by the leadership of the numerous warring parties in the conflict zones all across. There has to be a zero-tolerance policy for sexual crimes and a separate court system should be established on the lines of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Moreover, the abysmal conviction rates of the perpetrators of these heinous acts should be bettered to achieve the desired results of preventing this humanitarian menace. Otherwise, it would require a humongous effort to prevent a repeat of incidents of the kind of the “Rape of Nanking” or the infamous “Berlin Rapes” in future.


(c) 2021, East Mojo


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