Event Reports

Prosecuting Sexual Violence Crimes in National and International Contexts: Exchanging Experiences and Expertise

4th - 5th August 2016

The conference was held at Strathmore University in Nairobi by the Strathmore Institute of Advanced Studies in International Criminal Justice (SIASIC). It brought together experts coming from the legal system, the NGOs that work on the ground and the medical sector. Together they presented what they have accomplished so far in that field and which challenges concerning the topic of sexual violence are ought to be fought. A detailed report can be downloaded here.

Pertinent strategies were discussed for making available to national prosecution authorities engaged in conflict-related sexual violence cases the insights that have emerged from work being done at the international level on these issues. It also included the challenges encountered by East African prosecution authorities in the prosecution of sexual and gender based violence in conflict and peace time, as well as some of the solutions and recommendations put forward to deal with these issues. Above all, challenges and recommendations were given regarding collaboration and coordination between legal justice actors and members of the civil society in preventing and addressing SGBV have also been captured. The conference was then finalized on a high note with the launching of the book Prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence crimes at the ICTY edited by the chief and deputy chief prosecutors of the ICTY, and published by Oxford University press.

It became quite clear that there is a need for better cooperation between the different actors. Moreover, there has to be a change in mindset in terms of the taboo topic of rape and the fact that sexual assaults indeed are crimes and are not in order with the legal system. Also using sexual abuse as a weapon in war times is something that all the stakeholders need to fight against by taking concerted efforts. The lack of rule of law is often the reason why only a few cases make it successfully through the legal system. The chances of prosecution are so little that a lot of victims don’t even bother to report the assaults. This is why the dark figure of these crimes is high.

Sexual violence is often used as a strategic weapon of war, even on behalf of the UN military (there have been cases where victims were abused in exchange for food and medical support). The problem of immunity during times of conflict arose, this is especially the case when sexual violence is either even ordered or at least tolerated from superiors. The dehumanization of the victim as well as the urge to take revenge on the enemies plays always an important role in all of this. Numbers of sexual crimes increase during war times because rape and murder often go hand in hand. There is a lack of evidence and if at all, crimes are reported with great delay. Moreover, each victim has to be helped and treated differently and in line with its needs. This is why these issues finally need to be taken very seriously by societies and need to be regarded as severe crimes - therefore a change of mindset is required: Those cases often don’t have anything to do with sexual pleasure but simply demonstrate power and hence should be seen as violent felonies. Therefore, the stakeholders see the need to break the stigma and taboo that is circling around this topic and break down what has been achieved in international criminal justice to a domestic level.

Putting East Africa on the spot, it became quite clear that all states deal with similar problems. There is great need for an effective witness protection programme as well as educating victims about their rights. Since up to now medical support has been missing in terms of securing the evidence, it is also urgently required to improve the situation in the field of medical assistance as well. DNA tests are often sent abroad which is expensive time and moneywise. Another aspect is the taboo that is still connected to the topic and which often hinders the precise and detailed prosecution of the cases: This results in problems regarding collecting evidence in so far as that many victims feel so much shame that they oftentimes tend to illustrate things varnished. The lawsuits are taking too much time and the victims are condemned by society. In order to save the victim’s and her family’s dignity when she gets pregnant, the latter often marries her off to her perpetrator. These issues are being taken care of in private and are therefore hard to detect and fight. Moreover, there is a common understanding that apparently sex is a marital right.

Finally, the participants also agreed that there has to be better cooperation between the legal system and civil society. NGOs play an important role in that scenario, since they are often the first contact for victims and therefore embody a great support for them. Since this topic is very emotional, there is a need for a lot of empathy towards victims. Especially police officers, that acknowledge the reports, are ought to be trained on how to cope with the victims. Moreover, it is of utmost importance that the help doesn’t stop after victims have brought their case to trial but that they get psychological support in order to process the cruel things that have happened to them. Important evidence often gets lost along the process and witnesses are being threatened. Consequently, there is a general distrust among the different actors and victims are even more intimidated and scared to speak up. Thus, clear policies and guidelines for victims as well as for the police, the judiciary and the medical sector are required in order to improve the situation countrywide and to encourage victims to report these crimes.