Rape and impunity


In the last few days alone reports highlighting the widespread use of rape in war have proliferated:

Bosco Ntaganda, rebel commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a reputation for extreme brutality, appeared for the first time at the International Criminal Court on charges of rape, murder, sexual slavery and using children as soldiers.

The Human Rights Council of the UN in Geneva gave investigators another year to gather evidence of war crimes in Syria, saying they had already found horrifying first-hand accounts of murder, torture and rape. It urged Sri Lanka to carry out more credible investigations into killings, rapes and disappearances during its long civil war, especially in the conflict's last brutal stages in 2009. And the council condemned rebel human rights crimes, including rape, in northern Mali and agreed to appoint an independent monitor.

Survivors of Guatemala's bloody civil war relived in court the massacre of relatives and massive abuses including rape as they testified against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, accused of overseeing genocide during the 36-year conflict.

Meanwhile, in a welcome attempt to draw attention to the issue, a most curious double act of film star Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, last week together toured DRC refugee camps meeting rape survivors . They have been collaborating since last May, with projects ranging from shaming public officials into action to funding women's clinics and dispatching forensic experts to the Syrian borders, Libya, Mali and the DRC.

Hague, who admits he was inspired by Jolie's campaigning, has created a team of 70 British experts to deploy to conflict zones, including health experts, counsellors and police officers who can train local people to collect and store evidence the lack of which has help stymie war crimes prosecutions for rape.

Jolie points out that although there were up to 50,000 cases of rape in the Bosnian conflict, there were only some 30 war crimes convictions for sexual crimes. "The hope and dream is that the next time this happens, it's known that if you abuse the women, if you rape the women, you will be held accountable for your actions ... it won't be considered that you were simply swept up in mass hysteria and aggression."