For a long time, rape had been met with tacit acceptance in war and therefore was committed with impunity. Political and military leaders would shrug it off as if it were some kind of buffoonery.
Rape, among other forms of violence, has always been a secret weapon of war owing to its gender-specific character and the underlying political objectives of the battle. But this crime has been downplayed in history amnd led those in power to believe that war rape is more of a personal offence than a war crime. Thus, rape has become the most neglected war crime of all time.
Visiting the great galleries of art or leafing through the classics, one will find that rape in war is an old concept. Herodotus, in his first history book on western history, wrote in response to a series of abductions of women by the Phoenicians and the Greeks during the Greco-Persian Wars, "Plainly the women would never have been carried away, had not they wished it."
It was an early indication of how men would write history. Rapes took place during the ancient Greek, Roman, and Persian wars, the era of Alexander the Great and World War II by both axis and allies – and it set forth that women to be seen as nothing but spoils of war.
Men have always used rape as a tool of exerting fear on women. They have asserted that rape is a conscious process to intimidate women and to keep them in a state of fear, American Author Susan Brownmiller rightly pointed out in her groundbreaking book "Against Our Will" (1975), "Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe".
Hence, one of the triggers that lead men to rape is the fact that they can. When it comes to war, rape is mostly considered 'inevitable' or 'incidental' or even awful, a 'by-product of sending men to war'. Sometimes it is a means for creating a grotesque bond among soldiers. Notwithstanding, rape in war must be understood as a systematic abuse that targets women for political and strategic reasons rather than considering only the sexual component, as was the case of Bangladesh in 1971.
Pakistani soldiers raped around 2,00,000 to 4,00,000 women during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Some women were hung from the banana trees, sometimes bound and raped, gang-raped, their breasts and other body parts mutilated while countless others were taken to different army camps and kept as sex slaves.
Dr Geoffrey Davis, an Australian expert on late-term abortion from International Planned Parenthood Federation, came to Dhaka after the war. He said he was carrying out abortions "on an industrial rate" by the scale of a hundred abortions a day in Dhaka after the war. Witnessing the alarming scale of rape and other atrocities, Pakistani journalist & Author Anthony Mascarenhas wrote a book titled 'The Rape of Bangladesh' to describe its wanton destruction.
However, the monstrous number of rapes went far beyond a 'by-product of war'. It was nothing but a deliberate policy and a tool of destroying the Bengalees altogether. Pakistani Major General Khadim Hossain Raja said in his memoir 'A Stranger in my own Country' that their commander General A A K Niazi had ordered the officers to "let loose their soldiers on the women of East Pakistan till the ethnicity of the Bengalis had changed".
Despite these brutal human rights abuses, the International Commission of Jurists delivered its 1971 report on the war in East Pakistan. There the commission chose to assume that young girls and women kidnapped by Pakistani troops were held to fulfil the soldiers' sexual gratification. The report entirely failed to link widespread rape with the Pakistani army's intended goal of breaking the spirit of the Bengali people during the civil war.
Prosecution of rape as a war crime
Following the atrocities of the First World War and the Armenian Genocide caused by Turks, a commission of responsibilities was set up in 1919. In a list of 32 war crimes, rape and forced prostitution were nearly at the top.
But that did not stop rape in the Second World War. To prosecute the horrifying war crimes committed during World War II, the first international tribunal was established in Nuremberg and Tokyo. All parties to the conflict were accused of rape, yet astonishingly no one was prosecuted for sexual violence, not even an apology was sought.
Instead, there was deafening silence! On the sexual slavery of "comfort women"; on the rape of German women by Stalin's troops; women raped and their breasts branded by General Franco's Falangists in Spain, silence there too.
In 1998, rape as a war crime was first enshrined in the Rome statute that established the International Criminal Court. It is also the year when the first prosecution of rape as a war crime took place although, the conviction was overturned on appeal.
After 22 years of establishment of ICC, there still has not been a single conviction for war rape. It is quite striking that rape has not been prosecuted like any other abuse despite the gravity of the offence. The differential treatment of rape points to the fact that for the most part, the problem is not the absence of adequate legal prohibitions, but in the global community's willingness to tolerate this pervasive human rights violation.
Such connivance of war rape for a long time has resulted in its widespread mischaracterisation, which has contributed to the failure to denounce and prosecute wartime rape. It is dismissed by persons in a position to stop it - military and political leaders. They have characterised rape as a private crime, a sexual act, claiming it to be the ignominious conduct of one occasional soldier, or, worse, it has been accepted because it is commonplace.
For example, in Peru, Peruvian military officers dismissed numerous reports of rape by soldiers as a "regrettable excess."
Widespread rape inadvertently serves a strategic function in war and acts as a tool for achieving definite military objectives.
In the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian forces committed rape and other human rights abuses to drive the non-Serbian population into flight. In Myanmar, too, rape was a part of a campaign to drive the Rohingya community out of the country.
In many instances, rape can serve a strikingly sex-specific function when predators commit rape with the intent of impregnating their victims. A Bosnian rape victim wrote, "They aimed to make a baby…to humiliate us…."
The abuse, in some cases, not only serves strategic or political functions but also the perverse sexual gratification of the attacker. Somali women refugees in Kenya typically were raped after being successfully robbed. Raping of the thousands of women pressed into service as "comfort women" during World War II, rape of Jewish women by the Nazis although their political agenda was concerned with the victim's "race defilement", further demonstrate that rape's function may not be just to satisfy the sexual proclivities of the attacker.
It is the control and protection of women's purity or honour and mischaracterization of rape as a crime against honour, and not as a crime against the physical integrity of the victim, that makes women the easiest target.
With time sexual violence during war has reached shocking dimensions. While women suffer too much in conflict zones, rarely ever do they see the light of justice. War rape is too big a crime to be overlooked yet men-written history has left half of it untold. Trivialising rape and impunity for war rape must be stopped at once.
The victims must be treated with respect. The world should know that they are the ones with bravery and heroism, and not just bystanders of history.
Mohsena Akter Drishty is a student of law at the University of Chittagong.