Witness protection, political will vital for trying wartime rape -experts

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 May 2014 12:26 GMT

A handout photograph taken in May 2008 and released to Reuters in London on May 26, 2008 by Save the Children, shows "Elizabeth", who says she was raped by 10 peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast in June 2007, aged 12 years old. REUTERS/Brendan Bannon/Save the Children/Handout

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London summit to unveil global guidelines on collecting evidence of sexual violence in conflict zones

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From Congo to Kosovo, securing justice for victims of rape in war is fraught with difficulties and disappointment.

Two years ago, 33 girls aged six to 17 were among scores of victims of mass rape by Congolese soldiers in and around Minova town in volatile eastern Congo, according to U.N. officials who documented the abuses.

Earlier this month a Congolese military court acquitted 14 of the 39 soldiers accused of the rapes, a ruling the United Nations Human Rights Office says confirms the shortcomings of the justice system in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bringing more of the rapists to trial and improving help for victims of sexual violence in conflict are among the chief aims of a summit to be held next month, the largest ever global meeting on this issue.

Officials expect the London summit to unveil guidelines to help human rights activists and others to better collect evidence of such crimes for prosecution - crucial for ending the impunity enjoyed by many perpetrators.

"It's about saying these are not the isolated acts of criminal individuals but these are acts which are, at the very least, condoned by the commanding officers," said Juliet Cohen, one of several experts asked to review the International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict in its draft form.

As well as recognising and investigating sexual violence as an international crime on a par with war crimes and crimes against humanity, the protocol sets out to protect victims and witnesses of, and information on, sexual violence.


Giving a witness statement is one of the hardest things for rape victims to do. Not only do they risk being re-traumatised and shunned by their community, they also face the possibility of reprisals by their attackers.

It is up to investigators to make sure survivors understand the risks of speaking out, and to give them the protection as witnesses that is their right, Cohen said.

"Just talking about these experiences makes people vulnerable in all sorts of ways," said Cohen, who as head of doctors at UK charity Freedom from Torture has had years of experience documenting torture, including rape, inflicted on asylum seekers fleeing conflict.

"Psychologically, talking about what happened to another person makes it more real than when you don't tell anyone. People very often say talking about what happened makes them have much more frequent and severe symptoms of intrusive recall of the experience - nightmares, sleeping difficulties, anxiety and panic attacks," Cohen told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

 Many victims suffer psychological problems as a result of their experience, and physical problems such as infection, unwanted pregnancy and damage from injuries sustained are also common, Cohen said.

Survivors who speak out about their ordeal also have to face the reaction from their family and the wider community to a crime that sets out to destroy social bonds, Cohen said.

"How will they be treated? Will they be divorced or lose their children? Will they be ostracised by the community?" Cohen said, adding that doubts over the parentage of children born to victims of rape can leave mental scars.

"Will they no longer be able to marry? Will that affect the fortunes of their family, who will also suffer the shame and stigma because a member of their family is known to have been raped? Will the individual be safe from honour-based violence, domestic violence?"


Although many experts agree the planned guidelines are long overdue, there are still many hurdles to prosecuting war-related sexual violence that the protocol cannot be expected to cover.

"There are ... going to be fundamental challenges that the protocol can anticipate, but can't overcome in and of itself," said Karen Naimer from Physicians for Human Rights, one of many organisations that have worked on the protocol.

 The U.S.-based group has worked with medical, legal and law enforcement experts in African countries such as Kenya and Congo to share information with locals on how to collect evidence of sexual violence in a way it would be admissible in court.

Naimer said challenges for investigators of sexual violence in conflict include widespread insecurity in many of the areas where the crimes were taking place and a lack of resources - from transport to laboratory equipment.

"Many of our partners in Congo in the police and justice sector don't even have pencils and paper," Naimer told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

"It's also really challenging for these people who are documenting these crimes to do so if the governments in their national jurisdictions do not favour (it)," she added.

"A lot of best practices require a certain baseline - either government goodwill or at least, absence of ill-will," Naimer said.

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