The former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, was the first person to be convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for rape in 2007. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for rape and pillage committed by the troops under his command and a further 16 years for murder. He is serving both sentences concurrently.
The judgment was handed down in March, where the court also recognised that sexual violence against male victims can be prosecuted. Five thousand rape victims were represented or participated in some form in the ICC hearings.
Speaking at a side event of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties, academic Yassin Brunger, who teaches law at Queen’s University Belfast, said victims in the Bemba trial were let down by the media who reduced sexual abuse to only being a weapon of war that mainly affected women.
“In the media there is talk of rape as a weapon of war. And while rape can indeed be used as a weapon of war and the Bemba judgement highlighted this very clearly, rape is not only trapped within the confines of war,” she said.
The judgment prosecuted rape as a crime against humanity, but Brunger called on people working in international justice to counteract this narrative. She said that confining it solely to being a weapon of war or a strategic tool used by armed groups actually does an injustice to victim.
“I think it is important to be victim-centred in the narrative that is being echoed,” she said.
She said the ICC did more than what is being perceived by the public because the judgment addressed rape as a crime against humanity and a war crime. By doing so, the ICC acknowledged the suffering caused on more than just a physical level. Victims were impacted psychologically and emotionally, as rape was intended to humiliate and punish victims and to destabilise communities.
She said the conversation on the status of women needed to start before the firing of the first bullet because gender-based and sexual violence speak to issues of discrimination and the status of women and girls.
“While not taking away the fact that male victims were recognised in this judgment, women and girls have been disproportionately affected by gender based and sexual violence crimes,” said Brunger.
She said the status of women and girls in the society where these crimes have been committed reflect an inherent patriarchy that exists within their context, which is also reinforced by state structures.
“[There are] laws that don’t necessarily recognise rape as rape but perhaps as adultery and other forms of sexual violence”. It’s important for the ICC prosecutor’s office and others working within the sector to understand these laws in order to move beyond the notions of rape as a weapon of war.
“This knowledge can shape how we talk about it and reflect the narratives of victims of gender-based and sexual violence,” she said.
She said individual countries should be responsible for prosecuting violations committed within their territories and not always look to the ICC.
“There are many more countless victims whose stories are not represented in the courtrooms of The Hague. Where we should be looking at is the avenue of state action and state responses to address accountability and impunity for victims living in situation countries.”
She also called for a “gender-centred approach” in all of the ICC’s dealings, otherwise it would fail in its mandate to move the issue of gender-based and sexual crimes forward.
“When we talk about gender, it needs to be a court-wide approach [or] we do a disservice to victims and we do not show a thorough commitment to addressing an issue that affects a multitude of states across our globe”, she said.