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  • Women, War, and Rape: Challenges Facing The International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
  • Catherine N. Niarchos and 11 (bio)


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I. Introduction

As I began this project, I assumed that I knew little about the subject of rape, let alone rape during war. After research and reflection, however, I realized that all women know a great deal about rape, whether or not we have been its direct victims. Rape haunts the lives of women on a daily basis: it is the stranger approaching on the street; the violent husband or partner at home. More than other crimes, fear of rape leads us, consciously or unconsciously, to restrict our movements and our life choices, or alternatively to prepare for battle armed with mace, tear gas, and our rage. We ask whether it is safe for women, thereby accepting a double standard for our personal liberty and security. We learn to adjust from an early age: from fairy tales to the classics, we are conditioned to the fact that we are vulnerable to attack at any time because of our gender. 2 We arrange our lives accordingly; rape is an effective means of social control.

Rape is also a crime of extreme violence. It is an expression of dominance, power, and contempt, a rejection of the woman’s right to self-determination, a denial of her being. Rape is not passion or lust gone wrong. It is first and foremost an act of aggression with a sexual manifestation. 3 Rape is widespread: in the United States, government statistics indicate that a woman is raped every five minutes. 4 In so-called times of peace, rape is just one of many forms of violence suffered by women, 5 a fact that belatedly has led the United Nations to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the subject. 6 There can be no doubt that rape is a human rights violation of the gravest dimension. [End Page 650]

The relationship between rape in peace and rape in war, Catharine MacKinnon observes, is what anti-Semitism is to the Holocaust. One is the inevitable result of the other, but the scale of horror is vastly different. 7 As in peacetime, rape has always occurred in war. Since the beginning, it has ranked along with plunder as one of war’s “unfortunate byproducts.” The inevitability of wartime rape appears to be accepted by political and military leaders 8 and until recently was largely ignored by historians, sociologists, and journalists. If rape has always occurred in war, it has also been defined as a war crime since the earliest codifications of the laws of war. Wartime rape is exploited for its propaganda value, but when the time comes for prosecutions it is often overlooked or folded into a larger category of crimes against civilians. It has yet to be recognized as a crime of gender.

The war in the former Yugoslavia involves savage rape on a horrifying scale. It is rape as torture, mutilation, femicide, and genocide. It is war fought on and through women’s bodies. It is rape as a military strategy. It is rape that, at last, has caught the world’s attention. As the result of outrage at the atrocities, the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991 (Tribunal) was established in 1993. 9 Unlike the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg (IMT) and in the Far East (IMTFE), the Tribunal includes in its [End Page 651] founding statute an explicit reference to rape, 10 and it has been encouraged to give priority to cases of abuse of women and children. 11 The Tribunal faces many hurdles. In the light of the enormity of its task, one wonders whether it is realistic to hope for justice for the thousands of rape victims. Already, some are skeptical. Others, however, are hopeful that the Tribunal will establish precedent relevant to all women, in times of peace and war. For this Tribunal, like the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, has responsibilities that go beyond everyday judicial process; while it must render justice and fair process to these victims and...

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