Rape as a tactic of war

January 13, 1993

The horror stories of systematic rape by warring factions i the Balkans have been described as "unprecedented." They aren't.

Rape -- and often the deliberate impregnation of women -- has long been a tactic of war. Like many other barbarities, this tactic is designed not only to inflict physical brutality but also to impose psychological devastation.

Often, especially in tight-knit, traditional communities, women and girls who have been raped are shunned and sometimes even turned out of their family homes. Those who survive suffer grievously, as do their children, particularly those conceived through this violence.

Rape is specifically covered by conventions on the treatment of prisoners in war. Moreover, the kind of systematic rape reported from many parts of Bosnia fits definitions of the "grave breaches" that can trigger war crimes trials. But rape is not specifically mentioned as one of these "grave breaches" -- and given the reports from Bosnia, it should be.

Even reading or listening to these stories is difficult -- but not as hard as it is for these women to share their shame. Yet with so many other life-threatening crises to deal with, their trauma is not likely to be addressed any time soon, if ever.

People familiar with the suffering of these women and children suggest that one way to help is simply to make sure that systematic rape is no longer regarded as part of war. The experience of the Korean "comfort women" systematically raped Japanese soldiers in World War II shows that victims' lives are effectively ruined. As a physician said of one of Bosnia's teen-age Muslim rape victims, now pregnant, "For her there are probably no alternatives but madness or prostitution."

Revision of the Geneva accords is possible; even without it, perpetrators of systematic rape in the Balkans can be prosecuted. But naming rape as a specific war crime would highlight the international outrage this brutality deserves. Until then, individual countries can make clear that their own policies strongly condemn rape during wartime, that any case of rape is a crime -- and that systematic rape rises to the level of brutality that deserves punishment through an international tribunal.

Those moves cannot heal women and girls already victimized, but at least they would send a message that could give pause to future combatants who are tempted to resort to barbarism.

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