This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
As we approach International Women's Day and reflect on the goals of our Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, we at Physicians for Human Rights sometimes feel like we are swimming against an inexorable tide of denial and temporizing attitudes. We are repeatedly told that claims of rape in conflict are exaggerated, that the victims do not want to speak about the violence because they would rather put it behind them, and that it's nearly impossible to prove the crime of sexual violence. We have heard it all.
But the failure of investigators, prosecutors, and courts to seek justice for the victims has significant consequences. Remember the women held in sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II? The International Military Tribunal for the Far East did not investigate these cases, which involved as many as 200,000 Asian women. At a war crimes tribunal held in Tokyo in 2000, 66 women survivors of sexual slavery from Burma, China, Guam, Indonesia, Malaysia, North Korea, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, among others, described their lives of shame, rejection, and persistent physical and mental health problems and the struggle to keep their sanity as the world rewrote their experiences out of the historical record.
At the International Criminal Court (ICC), there is a danger that the same erasure and denial is being imposed on victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the Lubanga case — the first case to be decided by the ICC — the prosecutor failed to bring charges of sexual enslavement and rape against Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord charged with recruiting and using child soldiers, even as victims and witnesses included sexual violence as part of their testimony. Lubanga was ultimately convicted of war crimes for conscripting and enlisting children and using them to participate actively in hostilities, but when the court issued its judgment, the judges explicitly noted the prosecutor's failure to include charges of sexual violence despite the overwhelming evidence.
Earlier this week, in another blow to these survivors, the ICC's appeals chamber rejected inclusion of victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the design of the reparations order.
Justice is again being denied to the victims of sexual violence. And because the ICC failed to capture the full range of victims who suffered from Lubanga's crimes, the survivors will now be deprived appropriate reparations that would ensure them psychological and physical health care, access to programs for reintegration into their communities, and access to other rehabilitation assistance.
It is horrific to be targeted for sexual violence in any context. To be targeted in conflict is to be used as a sacrificial pawn to sow fear in communities — fear compounded by shame that may tear apart the lives of the victims, their families, and their communities. Justice matters, because in acknowledging the harm and demanding accountability for the perpetrators, a community is taking its first step in repairing that harm. Justice denied prolongs the pain and exacerbates suffering. History matters, because when we fail to confront our history, we are too often doomed to repeat it.
There is no excuse for courts to fail the victims of sexual violence. As Physicians for Human Rights has demonstrated in its work in eastern Congo, doctors, nurses, police investigators, prosecutors, and judges can work together to support evidence-based prosecutions for crimes of sexual violence.
The ICC should know better. The ICC should do better.