Throughout history, sexual assault has been used as a weapon of war, up to and including events under way in Syria. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last week that up to 50,000 women were assaulted in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) during the 1990s conflict, while in Syria, security forces "are using rape against both men and women as a tool to spread fear among the opposition."
Britain has announced it will establish a team of police officers, lawyers, forensic experts and psychologists who will travel to war zones to gather evidence about mass sexual violence for use in the trials of rape suspects.
On May 30th, Balkan Insight quoted Hague as saying that only about 30 perpetrators of sexual assault in BiH were convicted by local courts or the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
"Almost half of the 161 individuals [charged] by the tribunal had charges of sexual violence included in their indictments. The tribunal was the first international tribunal to begin proceedings against perpetrators of wartime sexual violence," Nerma Jelasic, ICTY spokesperson, told SETimes.
In 1995, the tribunal charged a number of people with crimes of sexual violence in the camps around Prijedor. Two years later, the ICTY became the first international tribunal to hand down a conviction for sexual violence in the case of Dusko Tadic.
Another landmark judgment followed in 2004, when General Radislav Krstic was sentenced to 35 years in prison for involvement in the Srebrenica genocide, including sexual violence committed by his soldiers. This was the first case in history where rape was declared a tool of ethnic cleansing.
The Sarajevo-based Association of Women Victims of War says more victims are breaking their silence.
Association founder Bakira Hasecic told SETimes that "98% of war crimes have been against Bosniak women," though the association has Bosniak, Croatian, and Serbian members. More recently, Roma women joined.
Overcoming the trauma, she added, "is impossible [to] erase from our minds all that we have lived through."
She is critical of the strategy adopted in 2008 for prosecuting alleged war criminals. "If they continue with this strategy ... they will need 1,000 years."
As of late 2010, 28 people had been convicted of sexually violent crimes in BiH and four were additionally convicted of failing to prevent crimes. Some received long sentences, such as Milomir Stakic, who got 40 years.
Rape victims were not included in the respective laws for the victims of war in either BiH or Kosovo. Nor are there are exact figures available for the number of victims in Kosovo.
"It is said that the number of women raped ranges from 10,000 to 20,000. In our society, people do not talk openly yet about this kind of violence," Feride Rushiti, of the Centre Against Torture in Pristina, told SETimes.
According to a May 2000 report by Human Rights Watch, the majority of rapes were committed by "Serbian paramilitaries" with ties to "either the Serbian Ministry of Interior or the Yugoslav Army."
The repercussions for these women are enormous, noted Rushiti, often leading to divorce or the decision to never marry.
BiH's Hasecic concurred. "None of the women overcome trauma. We live out of spite, fighting for justice and truth."