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Women Under Seige: Can tracking rape in conflict prevent genocide?
Alex Zucker
7 August 2013
Just as rape and other forms of sexualized violence have historically been viewed as a “natural” part of war, they have often been recognized as occurring in genocide but not necessarily as an act of genocide in itself.
That changed in 1998, with the verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu—who was found to have facilitated and encouraged acts of sexualized violence, mutilation, and rape during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The ICTR determined that these acts, in and of themselves, constituted genocide under Article 2 of the Genocide Convention: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”
But the Convention’s definition of the term genocide, with its emphasis on perpetrator intent, makes it virtually impossible to be certain whether particular acts of violence amount to genocide until they’ve come to an end and been investigated, not to mention tried in a court of law. In other words, when it’s too late to prevent them.
Genocide typically involves a range of violations against members of a targeted group even before killing—or without any killing at all—and many of these can be identified in time to halt the process. One of the basic tenets for preventing genocide, after all, is the understanding that it is a process, not an event.
Today, genocide scholars, activists, and policymakers around the world recognize the need not only to end impunity and bring perpetrators to trial but, more important, to prevent these horrible acts from occurring in the first place. Still, this is more easily said than done.
In 2004, the UN established the office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, and tasked it with creating and refining a Framework of Analysis for UN member states and agencies to assess risk of genocide and take measures to prevent it. Policymakers aren’t the only ones who have been thinking about prevention, though. Scholars, too, are concerned with it, and a few of them have some useful ideas.
One scholar whose work may have enormous potential in identifying risk of genocide is Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, visiting assistant professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. (…)
(…) But, crucially, if observers can track these kinds of atrocities when they occur together with sexualized violence, it may help advocates and policymakers to spot genocide earlier than would be possible by tracking rape alone or other genocidal acts directed at individuals based on their nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion.
Australian political scientist Alex Bellamy, an expert in international peace and security, has argued that policymakers should view conflict situations through an “atrocity prevention lens” to distinguish the specific risk of genocide and other mass atrocities within and apart from armed conflict.
In a similar way, Von Joeden-Forgey’s work suggests a “family lens”—focusing early warning and risk assessment on life force atrocities—may be useful. She cites examples of genocides (Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Europe, and ethnic groups in Darfur), as well as of conflicts not formally recognized as genocide (KosovoSierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), to illustrate what she calls the “family theater of genocidal violence.”
Looking through this lens, we may recognize genocide, or the risk of it, in a number of conflicts around the world that most observers have yet to consider “genocidal.”
Burma: In the middle of a government-led campaign against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Arakan that Human Rights Watch has already described as involving crimes against humanity, reports have emerged of Muslim women having their breasts hacked off and their genitals mutilated with sharpened bamboo by Buddhists on a rampage. Other atrocities have also been documented there, including mass rape by state security forces.
Sri Lanka: Although armed conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009—a conflict that saw many instances of state security forces raping Tamil women in reprisal for rebel attacks—Human Rights Watch has reported that “politically motivated sexual violence by the military and police continues to the present.” Here, too, in addition to systematic rape of Tamil men and women in custody by members of the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups, life force atrocities have occurred.
Democratic Republic of Congo: Life force atrocities in DRC, which has been undergoing armed conflict since 1996, have become commonplace. A recent example involved groups of soldiers from the rebel group M23 in eastern DRC gang-raping women in front of their husbands and children—an “inversion ritual” under von Joeden-Forgey’s scheme.
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