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Yugoslavia: Human Rights Advocates Say Rape Is War Crime

Washington, 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As public awareness of war atrocities in the Kosovo region increases, human rights advocates say they are re-doubling their campaign for the strict enforcement of international laws against rape and other sexual violence crimes.

Martina Vandenberg, a spokeswoman with Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that international courts have only recently begun to enforce war crime laws against sexual violence. Human Rights Watch is a independent, international organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.

Vandenberg says that while the current prosecutions are landmark cases, they represent only a "tiny" portion of the number of sexual violence crimes that have been committed.

"It's a new thing in terms of enforcement. It used to be that soldiers during wartime really raped with impunity because no one was enforcing any of the rules against rape. And one of the problems is that it's only recently that rape has been mentioned explicitly as a war crime. In past times it was referred to in terms such as a violation of honor."

Now, with precedents set at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Tanzania and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, acts such as rape, sexual assault, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced sterilization, forced abortion, and forced pregnancy may qualify as crimes of torture, crimes against humanity or even as crimes of genocide.

Vandenberg says these prosecutions are the result of many coordinated and international efforts.

"I think this is the result of years and years of work. Years of work by the international human rights community, years of work by international law scholars, years of work by feminists, and years of work, frankly, by survivors of rape in Bosnia, who demanded justice and had the courage to actually speak out and talk about what had happened to them."

In a landmark case, the ICTY characterized the rape of Bosnian Serb women at the Celebici prison camp by a Bosnian Muslim deputy camp commander as acts of torture and a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. The decision underscored that rape inflicts severe physical and psychological pain and suffering. Sexual violence, wrote the judges, "Strikes at the very core of human dignity and physical integrity."

In the final ruling, deputy camp commander Hazim Delic was found guilty of torture. Zdravko Mucic, the Bosnian Croat camp commander, was found to have command responsibility for the crimes committed at the camp.

One rape victim, Miljoka Antic testified against Delic. She described multiple occurrences of rape and sexual assault during her imprisonment at the Celebici camp during the summer of 1992. In one account, she testified that Delic raped her at gunpoint.

Antic said: "He pointed the rifle at me. I got scared. I was afraid he would kill me. So I had to do what he asked from me. I had to take my clothes off as he pointed the rifle on me, on the upper part of my body. Then he threatened me. He ordered me to go into the bed and to lie down. He ordered me to take my tracksuit off. I had a jumper, which I also had to take off. Then he took his belt off. On his belt he had a pistol. So he took some of his clothes off and climbed into the bed and then he started to rape me. He cursed me and he threatened me, saying that I would be killed. After that he got off -- got up and got off the bed. He put his trousers on, went out of the door and told me to get dressed. "

Another precedent was set at the ICTR, where Jean-Paul Akayesu was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity based on evidence that he had witnessed and encouraged rapes and sexual mutilation of Tutsi women when he was a communal leader. The tribunal found that the rapes were both systematic and carried out on a massive scale.

But human rights advocates assert the international courts are still not doing enough to prosecute sexual violence crimes.

Julia Hall, a lawyer with the Women's Rights Division of the Human Rights Watch, says that for the courts to be truly effective, they must prosecute the war criminals that were in positions of authority.

"It is very frustrating that those persons primarily responsible for the systematic rape of women in the Bosnian War have not been held responsible."

But to try the more prominent offenders, Hall says, law enforcers must first overcome their own prejudices about the significance of sexual crimes.

"I think the reticence is a combination of classic gender discrimination that manifests itself in the attitude that crimes of sexual violence against women are so-called lesser crimes."

Hall says the only way to stop sexual violence is to send out a strong message that rape is a war crime that will not be tolerated by the international community.

"It is very important to note that in the current context of what's going on in Kosovo. That rape as torture, rape as inflicting injury, or serious injury to someone -- those are war crimes."