On December 16, 2011, the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) freed war crimes suspect Callixte Mbarushimana. Mbarushimana was the alleged “linchpin” of the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) campaign of murder, rape, and torture of civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). His release marks a significant setback for the international prosecution of wartime sexual violence.
In the DRC, as in other armed conflict zones, sexual violence is increasingly perpetrated by combatants against civilians to dominate enemy camps through humiliation, demoralization, and destruction of group solidarity. Thousands of surviving victims have been left socially ostracized with sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, infertility, and mutilation.
Since ramping up violence in 2009, the FDLR has made the “worst place in the world to be a woman or child” even worse. As a leader of the Hutu militia, Mbarushimana allegedly orchestrated hundreds of attacks involving gang rapes so vicious that victims later bled to death as retribution for the Congolese government’s offensive against the FDLR.
Mbarushimana’s case was celebrated because of its focus on the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war—charged as the crimes against humanity of torture, rape, other inhumane acts, and gender-based persecution and as the war crimes of torture, rape, inhumane treatment, and mutilation. The celebration proved short-lived, however, when Mbarushimana became the first suspect released from ICC custody due to insufficient evidence.
Mbarushimana’s case is indicative of systemic flaws jeopardizing the ICC’s achievement of justice for sexual violence victims in war-torn countries. Despite advancements in recognizing wartime sexual violence as a serious breach of international law, gender-based crimes remain the most vulnerable type addressed by the ICC due to inadequate investigations, charges, and prosecutions.
When Fatou Bensouda steps in as the next Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, she should focus on developing consistent prosecutorial theories of how sexual violence fits into policies of accused criminals in the context of wars. Recognizing the systematic ways in which sexual violence is used as a weapon of war from the outset is necessary to ensure comprehensive investigations, obtain sufficient evidence, prioritize sexual violence charges, and achieve consistent prosecutions.
Photo courtesy of CNN