Last month, the first woman ever was convicted of genocide. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda's former minister for family and women's affairs, guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, for her role in planning and ordering others to carry out these crimes during the country's 1994 genocide.
Some, including some feminists, might find it uncomfortable to deal with the fact that women can plan and direct violence. But Nyiramasuhuko's conviction, in particular for rape, should be celebrated as a giant step forward for women's rights.
There are two main reasons for this.
First, it contributes directly to justice for sexual violence.
Sexual violence is perhaps one of the least prosecuted crimes in the world. While most people agree that rape is bad, many carve out excuses. The alleged victim was drunk, silent, suspected of criminal activity or just plain married to the rapist. The perception in the general public — and more troubling, with police officers — is that a high percentage of rape allegations are false, even when research shows this to be untrue.
To be sure, there is more empathy surrounding sexual violence in war, often because victims are genuinely seen as "innocent." But even so, it took decades from the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, in which sexual violence was defined as an attack on a person's dignity, to the adoption of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, in which the many different types of sexual violence in war were given context and detail.
While only a fraction of war crimes may ever be prosecuted, commentators have noted that rape continues to be underprosecuted for a number of reasons, including the reluctance of rape victims to speak up, and the general difficulties in collecting information and proving coercion.
And so thoughtful jurisprudence on rape in war — and indeed, including it on an equal basis with the other crimes Nyiramasuhuko was accused of — helps to overcome this gap and should be celebrated.
Second, Nyiramasuhuko's conviction counters the most overused and dangerous justification for rape in war: "Boys will be boys."
The basic idea behind this notion is that male soldiers rape female civilians because of an uncontrollable genetic impulse to have sex. Sometimes the boys-will-be-boys excuse gives rise to well-meaning, but misguided, recommendations that soldiers be allowed to visit their wives or girlfriends more frequently. At other times, it is used as a justification to shrug off sexual violence in conflict as inevitable: Regardless of our efforts, boys will continue to be boys.
Nyiramasuhuko's conviction, and everything we know about sexual violence as a weapon of war, tells us just how wrong this concept is. Systematic rape is an effective way to terrorize a civilian population and destroy the social fabric that might later lead to reconstruction. It is used as a weapon of war, and, as such, it is ordered or willfully ignored by commanders and superiors. Even if those commanders and superiors are women, as in the case of Nyiramasuhuko.
If Nyiramasuhuko's conviction indeed contributes to overcoming the boys-will-be-boys nonsense, perhaps one long-lasting contribution of the case would be an end to the insulting notion that men just can't control themselves. I have never understood why male experts on war so blithely propagate the idea that men essentially are animals that cannot be stopped.
Surely, until we all accept responsibility for our actions, as conscious, thinking human beings, there can be neither peace nor justice.
Marianne Mollmann is the women's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.