How do you accuse your neighbor of a war crime? How do you stand in front of uniformed officers and make the claim that rather than liberators, these people are rapists? What does it take to demonstrate to a village that all of the crimes that have been perpetrated against its people are worthy of conviction - including long-ignored sexual violence?
Rape and pillage are concepts as old as war itself. Certainly war carries with it the idea of gathering the spoils found by those who stand victorious on the battlefield. But does sexual violence have to be a part of war? And what are the risks and sacrifices involved in ensuring that the legal system provides justice for everyone?
It is our contention that with perseverance there will be a global understanding that sexual violence cannot be tolerated as a by-product of war and that victims and combatants will expect that these crimes will be prosecuted.
The legal framework for this type of prosecution is changing. Globally, lawyers, governments, and civil society members are developing and expanding the important historical precedence for this effort. For practitioners working today and students who will fill the legal ranks tomorrow there is much to be learned by what is happening in the courts of Colombia, Bosnia, Congo and beyond.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Democratic Republic of Congo
The Colombian armed conflict is one of the longest in the world, rooted in a 10-year civil war between political parties in Colombia. This conflict led to the creation of various guerrilla and paramilitary groups that have been fighting the government since the early 1960s. While the guerrillas claim to be fighting for the rights of poor Colombians, the paramilitary groups claim they are protecting citizens from guerrilla threats. In order to protect its citizens the Colombian government is fighting for order and stability.
This conflict has killed over one million people and displaced more than five million, the largest group of internally displaced people worldwide. Those affected also face sexual and physical assault, as well as forced membership and many other violent crimes. This is where civil society and human rights groups come into play as the leading champions of witness protection and prosecution. They work with prosecutors from the Fiscalía to bring criminals to justice.
The prosecutor from the Fiscalía (name withheld at the present time) followed in this documentary is fighting to help victims of sexual violence, assaulted by a paramilitary commander in a rural area of Colombia see justice. Her responsibilities include coordinating a large and dedicated team determined to navigate the road to justice while avoiding life-threatening security threats, legal challenges, and long-held cultural impediments to the public discussion of sexual violence.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
While much of the world has been focused on the war crimes and crimes against humanity tried with much international attention at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, in Bihac, and around Bosnia and Herzegovina, the judicial system has been tackling the hard, often slow, and always challenging effort of ending the global culture of impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict at the most local of levels. This work involves not only prosecutors but also police investigators, witness protection teams, and most importantly, survivors, their families, and those who are accused of crimes. The 20-years that have passed since these crimes were committed (between 1992 - 1995) have in no way lessened the pain for those who live with the daily memories, but they have made a hard task already harder, especially when combined with a strong concern by survivors of shame and stigma.
It is against this backdrop that Jasmin Mesic and the team at the Una Sana Canton Prosecutor's Office brings these important cases to court. He and his team are coordinate a network of civil society support groups, social workers, and police investigators with little fanfare but absolute conviction; challenging the idea that rape is the one war crime that justice cannot address.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Sometimes, problems with access to justice are literally physical. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of Western Europe - and there are simply not enough courts, judges, roads, prisons, lawyers, and anything or anyone else necessary to make access to justice easy. These shortages are compounded by, and often caused by, the decades of violence that the eastern portion of the country has endured.
But that doesn't mean that lawyers in the DRC have given up, nor does it mean that victims and witnesses are unwilling to testify, even when they risk enormous consequences. Congolese lawyers like Amani Kahatwa and her colleagues at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative and parters at Avocats Sans Frontières and others are working together with civil society, the UN, and the DRC government to support the ability of the Congolese judicial system to meet the needs of those whose bodies have been the battleground for war. This effort is not fast, nor is it easy, but it is happening.