By Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA
This week I just finished reading Tears of the Desert, by Halima Bashir, a very moving and tough biography about a female Sudanese doctor during the height of the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
Being a Zaghawa, a black tribe from Southern Sudan, Halima soon discovers that her people, along with many other black tribes, have become the target of the central government and their de facto militias, the Janjaweeds, “Arab” nomad tribes. Being an educated woman who didn’t make distinctions between whom she was treating and curing, she stood out, and was therefore punished for it.
Nothing was spared to her: she endured torture, gang rape, threats, and loss.
Her pain was so intense, I cringed even reading about it, it was as if I could feel the atrocities being perpetrated on my body. This book got me to wonder about rape and its use during armed conflicts, but also on the state of a “humanity” that loses its rights to call itself that as soon as it starts violating bodies designed to give life.
Rape has been officially instated as a Crime Against Humanity in many law texts, including the Rome Statute that puts in place the International Criminal Court. Article 7 of the Statute entails that:
“For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
(i) Enforced disappearance of persons;
(j) The crime of apartheid;
(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”
Rape has also been established as a War Crime according to article 8)2)b)xxii) of the same Statute, and sexual violence in times of armed conflicts has been sanctioned in resolutions 1325, 1820 and 1888 of the UN Security Council.
Sadly, rape has many military uses for soldiers and militiamen in times of armed conflicts. Indeed, it is a means for them to, in their minds, “dishonour” the women they are raping, but it also serves as a way of torturing these women, especially if they do not kill them at the end of the rape. In the book, Halima is atrocely raped, and the soldiers that did it make a point of not killing her so she has to live with the memory of it until the day she dies.
Beside the psychological deadly effect of rape, sexual violence is also a true weapon of war, with consequences that can last long after the conflict has subsided. Thus, rape can be used in order to intentionally transmit HIV, the violence of the sexual act increasing the odds of the victim catching the virus. Rape is also a means to achieve ethnic cleansing: by raping women and getting some of the victims pregnant, war criminals consider they are cleaning the community they’re trying to wipe out by inserting their owns genes into it. This sickening logic ensures that the woman who gives birth to the “mixed” child will not only be an outcast because she has been raped, as it still happens a lot, but also because her child will share characteristics of the dreaded executioner.
It seems that for all these reasons, sexual violence is on the rise in armed conflicts, inflicting pain and sufferings beyond belief to women who have to endure it. For each Halima, who has managed to overcome this dreadful situation and dared to speak out, how many shattered lives and trauma?
In the case of Darfur, the International Criminal Court Prosecutor, Mr Luis Moreno Ocampo, has issued an international arrest warrant against the president of the Republic of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir, on the grounds of Genocide, Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes, in line with the powers that the ICC Statute gives to the Prosecutor in its articles 13)c) and 15).
Nevertheless, even though the prosecutor was entitled to issue the warrant, Omar Al Bashir can not be tried at the ICC as Sudan has not signed the ICC Statute and has not given jurisdiction to the Court.
The path to justice will be long, and there will still be many obstacles ahead, especially considering the political implications of the trial of a head of an oil-rich state backed by China, but International Law seems the only lawful means to defend the victims of the awful conflict.
Should the ICC fail in its prosecution, civil society should advocate for the implementation of an ad hoc tribunal instated on the basis of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
So that the tormentors of Halima and so many more men, women and children are finally punished.