Rape has long been used by the world’s armies as an instrument of war — to humiliate and terrorize populations or as part of a wider campaign of ethnic cleansing. It is also a crime under international law and, after decades of advocacy, has formed the basis of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity cases against perpetrators in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
But, experts say, rape is an extremely difficult crime to document and even more challenging to prosecute — especially in times of war.
“Today’s documentation is tomorrow’s prosecution,” said Pramila Patten, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict. “We need trained people to do this work to have a better chance of pursuing cases to the highest level.”
According to Ukrainian officials, human rights groups, and victims and witnesses who spoke to journalists, Russian troops have engaged in rape and other forms of sexualized violence in multiple locations across Ukraine since the invasion on Feb. 24. Most of the victims have been Ukrainian women and girls, who statistically are most at risk. But preliminary reports also suggest that men and boys have been targeted.
In some cases, survivors said Russian forces told them they would be ostracized and unable to have more Ukrainian children because of the assaults, according to Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said tuesday that she believed Russia used rape as a deliberate “strategy” in the war, without elaborating. Russia has denied the allegations. “It’s a lie,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in March, the Interfax news agency reported.
The United Nations has yet to verify a case of wartime rape or sexual violence in Ukraine, but “all the signs are flashing red,” said Patten, whose office is among several local and international agencies — including the International Criminal Court — either assisting Ukraine in war crimes investigations or conducting their own.
“Even if all of this information that’s coming to me has not yet been verified by the United Nations … this should not paralyze or delay urgent and immediate action to put in place prevention and response measures,” she said.
But the challenges for even veteran war crimes investigators are many. In Ukraine, the war is still raging, making it difficult to even reach hard-hit areas, let alone gather evidence from sites where crimes allegedly took place.
One concern is that survivors don’t have immediate access to medical facilities where staff could conduct physical examinations, document signs of assault and possibly collect evidence such as DNA samples. Even when a conflict subsides, survivors of rape or sexual assault are often too ashamed or traumatized to speak out, experts say.
In some instances, the trauma causes victims to forget details or give inconsistent accounts. They may also struggle to recall the characteristics of a perpetrator or the exact timing of the assault, leaving investigators without a path to track patterns of abuse.
Rape, if carried out to destroy a nation or ethnic group, can amount to genocide under international law. But in Ukraine, it is not yet clear how systematic the sexual violence has been, nor whether the attacks by troops involved orders from more senior commanders.
Still, “commanders should recognize that a failure to take action against murder and rape may make them personally responsible for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility,” Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month.
In recent years in Iraq and Myanmar, efforts by lawyers and rights groups to build cases against those who targeted religious minorities with sexualized violence eventually fell apart. The investigations, Patten said, were not conducted in a coordinated or ethical way that centered on the survivors and their trauma. As a result, there were discrepancies in victims’ testimonies and some of them were forced to relive their suffering.
“I hope that this time we learn from our lessons,” Patten said.
The formal recognition of targeted sexual violence “historically is a very recent development in international war crimes,” said Phillipe Sands, professor of law at University College London.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of a Rwandan town, became the first person ever to be found guilty of committing crimes against humanity for the rape, torture and murder of women from the Tutsi minority during the genocide there four years earlier. He was tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which set a legal precedent for prosecuting the systematic rape and murder of women and girls as a war crime.
Then, in 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled for the first time that mass rape and sexual enslavement in wartime were crimes against humanity because they caused mass suffering, even if it did not directly result in widespread death. court convicted three Bosnian Serbs of the systematic rape and enslavement of Muslim women in southeastern Bosnia in 1992. Later, the same court found both Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former general Ratko Mladic guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the mass rape of women and girls.
“We are now more attuned to it and the lasting damage of it to individuals and communities,” Sands said of rape and other sexual violence in wartime.
He credits what he says is a growing number of women who have joined the international legal community in pushing for the tactic to be recognized as one that is used to target and destroy civilian communities.
In 2008, the UN Security Council passed a resolution reaffirming “That rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”
“Women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group,” the resolution says.
Still, part of the reason rape as a “weapon” is so powerful is that it makes it hard for survivors to be reintegrated in their communities, said Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a psychologist who treats survivors of gender-based violence in conflict zones.
Kizilhan has worked closely with some of the Yazidi women who were kidnapped, raped and enslaved by members of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Now, from his base in Germany, he is advising psychologists in Ukraine on how to treat survivors of sexual violence.
Wartime rape is used “very systematically to destroy society,” he said. “We have to work now to support them and to empower them to be able to have a future.”