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Yugoslavia: Crimes Against Women Become Focus of Tribunals

  • Kitty McKinsey



The Hague, 13 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- We know the 15-year-old Bosnian Muslim girl only as FWS-87. That is how she is identified in a 16-page indictment filed with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

In its dry, legalistic language, the indictment tells of eight months in the girl's life during which she was enslaved and almost constantly raped and tortured by Bosnian Serbs during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

FWS-87 was one of a number of Muslim women who were captured by Bosnian Serbs in the southeast Bosnian town of Foca between July 1992 and early 1993.

They were held in camps that, in the words of the tribunal, were "run like brothels" where Bosnian Serb soldiers could select girls and women to rape whenever they felt like it.

As a final indignity, the tribunal said, after her eight months of sexual enslavement, FWS-87 was sold by one of her captors to two Montenegro soldiers for 500 Deutschemarks (about $282).

Rape is nothing new in the history of warfare. Marauding armies have frequently taken advantage of women in the course of their military conquests.

What is new about cases involving the Muslim women of the Foca area -- including FWS-87, who to this day is suffering gynecological and psychological problems -- is that their tormentors are likely to be brought to trial specifically for their alleged acts of sexual brutality.

Nearly two years ago, the tribunal in The Hague indicted eight Bosnian Serbs for crimes against humanity and war crimes for the organized rapes around Foca during 1992 and 1993. One of the men, Dragoljub Kunarac, surrendered to the tribunal and is awaiting trial.

The tribunal says the Foca indictment is of "major legal significance" because it is the first time that sexual assault in wartime has been diligently investigated and prosecuted as torture -- which is a crime against humanity. Wartime rape was classified as a crime against humanity earlier this century but never prosecuted until military leaders at the Tokyo war crimes trials were tried for not preventing their soldiers from raping.

Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, president of the Yugoslav tribunal, says it is breaking ground in considering crimes against women as war crimes.

Depending on the outcome of the Foca cases, both Judge McDonald and Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour say that new legal precedents may be established.

Arbour says the prosecution will argue that sexual crimes against Bosnian Muslim women were a form of persecution that constitutes a crime against humanity. As she puts it: "It will be our contention . . . that it was part of a campaign to terrorize and persecute a population based on ethnicity."

Neil Kritz, a scholar at the Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. says this is an "extremely significant" development.

Kritz says the tribunal for former Yugoslavia is acting on the principle that rape -- when used as a systematic means of war -- constitutes a crime against humanity. He says "the tribunal has embedded that principle much more clearly than has ever been the case before."

William Pace, of the NGO's Coalition for an International Criminal Court, agrees that this is of "historic significance" because most conflicts today involve women and children, not just professional soldiers. "Now the main victims of war are the innocent civilian populations," he says.

When the organized mass rapes in Bosnia came to light in late 1992 and early 1993, many experts said they constituted something new in the history of warfare. Not a by-product of the fighting, not a spontaneous crime, but a well-planned strategy of national humiliation.

As the Bosnian Serbs drove 1.5 million non-Serbs from their homes and villages in their campaign of "ethnic cleansing," public, brutal rape was often the coup de grace to ensure that the remaining women would never want to return to their homes. A European Union commission estimated as many as 20,000 Bosnian women -- including girls as young as six and women as old as 80 -- were raped by Bosnian Serbs during the war.

Arbour is reluctant to accept that the mass rapes in Bosnia were truly a new phenomenon, because she said rape in wartime has never been analyzed properly before. "We know probably very little about how it was used in the past," she says.

Rape and other crimes against women and children have increasingly come to the forefront in discussions about an International Criminal Court, which is to be set up this summer by UN states as a permanent forum for prosecuting genocide and atrocities against civilians -- whether in peacetime or war.

Canada's position is that any International Criminal Court must have a special focus on the experiences of women and children in armed conflict. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said in a recent speech that an International Criminal Court must recognize rape and the recruiting of children soldiers in times of conflict as war crimes.

Amnesty International, the human rights monitoring group, also takes the position that an international court must ensure justice for women. Amnesty says that the statute setting up the court -- to be agreed by diplomats at a conference in Rome in June and July -- must include rape, enforced prostitution and other sexual abuse as crimes against humanity when committed on a systematic basis or large scale.

Christopher Hall, legal advisor to Amnesty, wants the staff of the prosecutor of the new court to be specially trained in dealing with crimes against women. Amnesty also calls for gender balance among the judges and the staff of the court's prosecutor.

That would provide some assurances that -- if the world community cannot prevent 15-year-old girls like FWS-87 from being enslaved and gang-raped by soldiers -- then at least such women will receive a sympathetic hearing from the prosecutors who will then bring their tormentors to account.
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