Jurisprudence of sexual violence in conflict: important cases at international tribunals

Despite an expanding legal framework against sexual violence in conflict, there have been relatively few cases at the international courts and tribunals.

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The International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down its first conviction for sexual violence crimes in March 2016, when Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Congolese vice president, businessman and rebel leader, was found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity and war crime. The decision was hailed as a breakthrough: it was the first guilty verdict at the ICC for crimes of sexual violence and one of the few cases where a person was found guilty for acts of his troops, under the principle of command responsibility.

In June 2018, however, appeals judges overturned the verdict and acquitted Bemba on all charges. Therefore, no reparations were awarded to victims.

In April 2017, the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court in Senegal, confirmed the 2016 conviction of Chad’s ex-dictator Hissène Habré of crimes against humanity and war crimes, which were committed during his rule from 1982 to 1990. He was acquitted, however, on the charge of rape.

Cases of sexual violence in conflict at UN tribunals

In the 1990s, the UN criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and for Rwanda (ICTR) set benchmarks in the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence.

In a ground-breaking judgment, the Rwanda tribunal found that rape and other forms of sexual violence can amount to genocide. In 1998, ICTR judges convicted the Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu and, for the first time in international law, offered a definition of rape. The judges recognized that rape was more than non-consensual sexual intercourse – for example the insertion of objects – and can be used with a genocidal intent to destroy a group.

In the months and years that followed, the ICTR and the ICTY developed a more wide-ranging jurisprudence of sexual violence in conflict. For example, in the Čelebići judgment, the Yugoslavia tribunal ruled that rape can be a means of torture and recognized sexual violence crimes committed against men. The four defendants in that case were commanders and guards in the Čelebići prison camp in the former Yugoslavia, where detainees were tortured, raped and killed. All four men were found guilty.

Jurisprudence of sexual violence in conflict foundation for prosecution worldwide

In 2001, the ICTY convicted Dragoljub Kunarac for detaining victims and raping them over a period of days, weeks and months in the municipality of Foca. The “Foca Judgment” was the ICTY’s first conviction of rape as a crime against humanity and the first ever conviction for rape in conjunction with slavery – a benchmark for the prosecution of the crime of sexual slavery.

The ground-breaking work and jurisprudence of the tribunals laid the foundation for the prosecution of sexual violence crimes as acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes at international tribunals and domestic courts worldwide.

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