The sexual and gender-based crime that few talk about

18 February 2018 by Janet H. Anderson, The Hague (The Netherlands)

“The first one slept with me, and he ejaculated in me. Then the second one came to do the same thing. He ejaculated in me. And finally the third one did the same thing as the two earlier ones had done.”

Witness 23 in the trial against Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo at the International Criminal Court was a local leader, in a position of respect and authority, in Bangui the capital of the Central African Republic. He was sodomised by Bemba’s soldiers in front of his family from 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon on the day they invaded his household on November 2002.

ICC vice president judge Joyce Aluoch, was on the bench in that trial. His testimony in January 2011 stood out for her.

And so it should. So far, among many international courts and tribunals, although several cases  have included details of sexual violence against men, witness 23’s own words before the court are the first from a man to have led to a conviction for rape.

Experts in the field of sexual and gender-based crimes acknowledge that men are regularly victims. The ICC’s statute is gender neutral. But the ‘rape as a weapon of war’ industry – and I include my profession, journalists – generally focuses on women. Gender is taken to mean female.

At a recent a seminar in The Hague on sexual violence: the male perspective, it was striking that judges like Aluoch would talk about the issue. And that many African countries themselves were taking a position and deciding to take action. Representatives from Uganda, Nigeria and Senegal owned the problems they had back home with dealing with sexual crimes against men. Not only domestically but also in dealing with international crimes.

Niamh Hayes from the Irish Centre for Human Rights wrote about Bemba’s conviction as “a first”.

“The Bemba judgement represents the first time in the history of international criminal law that sexual violence against men has been charged as the crime of rape (as opposed to crimes of torture, outrages upon personal dignity or cruel treatment) or that a defendant has been convicted of rape based on the testimony of male victims.” 

At the seminar, she, like other presenters, focused on the reasons why it has been so difficult to bring these crimes to book.

The men face the same issues as female victims – the same psychological trauma, social stigma, even rejection by family members. And that is all exacerbated by the difficulties of accessing the right medical care for their physical trauma.

In 2011 Witness 23 also told the court “(For) somebody like me, a man lying with me, that's why I considered myself to be dead because a man cannot sleep with another man. With what they did to me, I knew that I was dead. I could no longer feel like a human being”.

Prisca Zwanikken of the Royal Tropical Institute, says that experts now believe sexual violence against men is much more prevalent generally than previously thought. She also pointed to studies that show how it is also widely experienced during conflict. Nearly a quarter of all men experienced life-time sexual violence in Eastern DRC, according to one study, and nearly two thirds of that was conflict related.

But Hayes says it’s also been an uphill struggle to get male rape dealt with as such.  International tribunals are seen as “maddeningly inconsistent” wrote one commentator on her piece, in their approach to male sexual victimisation. Often a male rape hasn’t been called a rape, but rather a more general crime against humanity or war crime (at the ICTY in the Češic case the defendant was technically convicted of rape but during the trial, and in the judgement, the judges and lawyers referred to “sexual assault” rather than rape.  He admitted he had forced two male prisoners to perform fellatio on each other.) But the Bemba conviction has helped to push the boundaries again: “I'm just relieved to see this type of crime being unequivocally called by its proper name at last,” says Hayes.

It is very difficult for boys or men to come forward, says Zwanikken, whether the perpetrators are men or women. At the seminar in The Hague, a male survivor of rape from Rwanda, Faustin Kayihura, had agreed to talk to the group by video link. But even though his story was published in a book, even though he was part of a group of survivors giving support to each other, even though his story had formed the basis for a local trial known as Gacaca, he couldn’t face talking about his experience, in the end.

So the Bemba trial stands out. The courage of a man standing in front of an international court for three days, who told the judges “ The most important thing now is that we are now here in this courtroom and justice is looking after all this”. Something to celebrate? Or maybe to remind us of how much more needs to be done to support the victims and enable them to tell their stories.

ICC Trial Chamber III declares Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)