How can we ensure justice in wartime sexual violence?

Monday, 9 June 2014 16:17 GMT

People displaced by fighting between Congolese army and M23 rebels in Bunagana, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, October 31, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena

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PHR is training not just doctors, but also police investigators, prosecutors and judges to properly investigate these crimes

For too long, sexual violence has been treated as an inevitable, if regrettable, part of war. The suffering of the victims has rarely been addressed through the justice system, and those who commit these crimes are seldom held accountable. Next week’s Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, organized by the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, aims to change this long-standing narrative.

But it will take more than words to end this scourge that destroys lives, rips communities apart, and haunts the victims long after the conflict has ended.

It takes political will – the readiness of leaders to say, “I am responsible for what happens on my watch.” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague is demonstrating that kind of leadership.

However, a key question remains: can he convince other leaders – political and military – to also take responsibility?

In cases of sexual violence in war, the heinous nature of these crimes is often leveraged to fuel the conflict, particularly in those situations involving communal violence. The use of rape as a weapon of war not only creates a climate of intense fear among civilians, but is also sometimes used as a propaganda tool to drive retaliation, ultimately leading to the escalation of conflict.

The terror generated by mass crimes of sexual violence often drives communities to press the security forces to respond – especially where the justice system itself is weak – increasing the potential for additional violence.

Given the power of sexual violence as a weapon, it is imperative that cases be investigated and those who commit the crime or encourage others to do so be brought to justice.

One tool that we are using at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to ensure justice for sexual violence victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is medical forensic documentation. While the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC is widely recognized, justice remains elusive for the vast majority of the victims.

Through our Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, PHR is training not just doctors, but also police investigators, prosecutors, and judges, to properly investigate these crimes, secure court-admissible evidence, and ultimately achieve convictions.

At the global summit this week, PHR hopes to continue fostering relationships across these sectors, so that all involved can sharpen the skills and deepen their understanding of what is required to prosecute these crimes.

It is an arduous process. For victims living in remote areas, even filing a complaint with the authorities can be difficult; complaints are often filed long after the crime has occurred due to numerous restrictions, including insecurity, geographical access, and social stigma.

Building skills across the medical, law enforcement, and legal sectors is crucial to improving victims’ ability to report crimes and receive reparations. Trained clinicians can collect, analyze, and preserve medical evidence; trained police investigators can use their expertise to identify and apprehend the suspects; trained prosecutors can bring charges that are based on compelling evidence; and trained judges can better understand the significant of such evidence.

Despite the challenges, the survivors that PHR works with are hungry for justice. For years now, communities have been living under the threat of attack by both militias and the security forces. For the first time, survivors have some hope that they will see justice for crimes of sexual violence.

These doctors, police investigators, prosecutors, and judges are demonstrating courageous leadership in a hostile climate. Those promoting justice have received threatening text messages in the middle of the night aimed at scaring them into passivity by those seeking to thwart justice.

But the survivors and this medical-legal network of supporters will not be intimidated or deterred from achieving justice. Government officials who attend the summit must demonstrate their leadership by moving beyond the rhetoric and supporting both survivors and those who are risking their lives to make justice a reality.

Widney Brown is Director of Programs at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a New York-based advocacy organization that uses medicine and science to stop human rights violations. To learn more, visit