How to Seek Justice for Rape During the Ukraine War


OMarch 13, a Russian soldier broke into a school in Malaya Rohan, a village near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which had been under relentless attack by Vladimir Putin’s forces for weeks. Residents had gathered in the school basement to shelter from the violence. What followed, according to a survivor’s account published by Human Rights Watchis horrible but deserves to be detailed.

The soldier ordered a 31-year-old woman to go to another floor of the building and repeatedly raped her. He made her perform oral sex, and while she was doing it, he held a gun to her head or pointed it directly at her face. Twice he shot at the ceiling. “He said it was to give me more ‘motivation’,” she told HRW.

When the seemingly endless attack was finally over, the soldier told the woman his name, age, and declared himself Russian. Perversely, he also cheekily said that she “reminded him of a girl he went to school with.”

The report is one of several that came out of Ukraine in the weeks following Russia’s invasion, incidents of sexual violence documented by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and various organizations in Ukraine. The reality is that these reports are probably only scratching the surface. In the decade that I have spent reporting on sexual violence in global conflicts, several experts have told me that for every woman known to have been raped, there are probably eight to ten others that have not been counted, and that even compiling any sense of the scale of sexual assault in such circumstances can take years.

This is what makes the story of Malaya Rohan and others like him in Ukraine unusual. We hear about these acts of violence almost in real time. We have remarkable details, sometimes even the author’s name, age and nationality. This is undeniably distressing, but it also gives a certain amount of hope: hope that we can quickly obtain medical and psychological help for the victims of rape and sexual assault in Ukraine; hope we can record their stories so they can be used in court; hopefully in the end, however unlikely that possibility may seem today, justice will be served.

Ssexualized violence has been used as a tool in conflicts for centuries around the world, whether in Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Colombia, or elsewhere. Sometimes the use of rape is genocidal, as was the case in Rwanda, where ethnic Hutus wanted to impregnate Tutsi women to break their lines, or to transmit HIV. At other times, rape is a crime of opportunity, or a means of declaring one side the “victor” of a war: estimates vary, but according to historians, Soviet and American soldiers raped massive numbers of German women at the end of World War II.

Whether women (and men too) talk about sexual violence in any context depends on a number of factors, including culture and religion, the existence of a documentation infrastructure and investigation, and the extent of medical and psychosocial support for survivors. Even in places with a strong legal system, like the United States or Western Europe, far too many survivors don’t find justice or are afraid to come forward in the first place.

Reporting rapes and assaults in an actual war zone is, predictably, more complex – justice systems may be broken, weapons are plentiful, and it may be impossible to testify in an environment so insecure. As a result, wartime rape has mostly been documented after the fact, making both the collection of evidence and therefore the prosecution much more difficult.

Consider how the experts arrived at the estimate of 250,000 to 500,000 women raped during the Rwandan genocide. In 1996, two years after the bloodshed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rwanda compiled the number of officially documented cases, then, due to the widespread understanding that rape, even in times of peace, is grossly under-reported, extrapolated his final estimate based on his assessment of the prevalence of sexual assault.

Various studies have established the number of women sexually assaulted in so-called rape camps during the bosnianot Early 1990s war between 20,000 and 60,000. Still, most sources have said that truly accurate numbers will probably never be established, as in most conflicts.

Survivors generally have few incentives to seek justice – instead, they face a series of obstacles. The Syrian civil war is a good example. Researchers and journalists like me have worked hard to uncover reports of rapes by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s fighters; survivors feared reprisals not only from government forces, but also from male family members. I have met Syrian women who have been divorced by their husbands or beaten for being sexually assaulted, and spoken with many Syrian refugees who say they know men who have killed their wives for being raped. Their experience is not unique. I spoke with young girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of many ongoing conflicts, who left their villages to seek help after being raped and, upon returning home, were rejected by their own community.

Sexual violence “seems to be the only remaining form of violence in which the victim is blamed or even supposed to have invited them,” Gloria Steinem, a journalist and feminist activist, told me in 2012.

Even if a woman pushes for a conviction, there is no guarantee that she will see one. Although a special tribunal has been set up to try war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, for example, I have spoken with women who say they still see their rapists on the bus or on the street , that the men paid for their release from prison … if they were convicted. While it’s hard to get figures on convictions for sexual assault during conflict, I can tell you, based on more than a decade of reporting on the issue, that a convicted perpetrator in court is a rare thing. Convictions of those at the top of the chain who ordered the soldiers to rape are even less frequent.

Rmonkey at war is both a war crime and a crime against humanity. Historically, although the definition of these crimes was well understood, bringing such cases to court, let alone proving them, was another matter. The war in Ukraine offers a chance to remedy these failures.

Thanks to advances in technology, including more abundant satellite images; smartphones capable of taking high-resolution photos and videos; faster and more readily available Internet services; and vastly improved communication platforms – health workers, lawyers, journalists and human rights groups can alert the world to what is being perpetrated in Ukraine and document cases in ways that facilitate trials possible.

These new or more advanced technologies must complement traditional methods of documentation, including collecting information from defectors, collecting appropriate medical evidence in a timely manner, and obtaining details from the parties themselves of their own crimes, as was done with the Nazis during World War II. and with the Bosnian Serb army. With rape in particular, there is often no physical evidence of soft tissue damage to prove the crime in a courtroom. There may, however, be other telltale injuries, such as cigarette marks, ligature scars, wood splinters, abrasions, or genital mutilation, which should be clearly and professionally documented. Investigations should be conducted by “gender competent” officials. Are they able to effectively ask witnesses and health professionals the right questions about sexual violence? Can they gather the right physical evidence, testimonials and direct and circumstantial evidence?

Basically, all of this evidence-gathering can begin immediately, both in areas where Russian forces have withdrawn and in parts of Ukraine that are still disputed but where communication has not been interrupted. The European Union, the UN, several human rights groups, the Secretary General of NATO and the Attorney General of Ukraine have recently either called for investigations into possible war crimes in Ukraine, including rapes, offered their assistance in carrying out the investigations.

It may seem fanciful at this point – with Russia still hammering Ukrainian territory and no resolution to this war in sight – to plan for a period in which Russian soldiers could be tried for their abuses. Yet this is not at all out of the realm of the possible: neither Russia nor Ukraine is being prosecuted before the International Criminal Court, but Ukraine has already accepted the Court’s jurisdiction. Another possibility is that countries that have begun to prosecute war crimes unrelated to their citizens, such as Germany, may pursue cases based on the concept of universal jurisdiction. It’s a long road and there’s no guarantee of success, but collecting high-quality evidence in Ukraine now greatly improves the odds.

Although the majority of Ukrainian women may not be fighting on the front lines, they sacrifice their lives just as much as Ukrainian men. We owe it to them – and to all of humanity – to ensure that men who violate women’s bodies are not allowed to do so with impunity. For once, we are not desperate to help women and investigate war crimes. We are actually at a starting point.

“It’s like 1942: where do you start investigating the Holocaust?” Patricia Viseur Sellers, former gender legal advisor to the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, said. “You start where you can.”


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