In her new book, Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative (University of Pennsylvania Press), Professor Chiseche Salome Mibenge documents an undeniable fact: sex is a weapon of war and a weapon that is used frequently against both women and men.
“Sexual violence is a strategy of war,” says Professor Mibenge, who is a member of Lehman College’s Political Science department. “The idea of making sex a war crime under international law, however, is a new idea.”
A very new idea, indeed. It was only after the atrocities that were committed in two separate conflicts during the 1990s in Eastern Europe, where the former Republic of Yugoslavia was torn apart by religious and ethnic violence, and in the African nation of Rwanda, that things began to change. In each case, rape and sexual crimes were committed on such a mass scale that the international community took notice and acted.
“Sex is used as a way of degrading women,” she says. “It’s a form of physical and psychological torture.” During the Rwanda Genocide in the 1990s, male soldiers would tell their rape victims that they would die of sadness. “They would tell the women ‘I don’t have to waste a bullet on you,’” she says. “But men are not spared.”
As she notes in Sex and International Tribunals, sex is also used as a weapon against men in different ways. During the Eastern European wars of the 1990s, Serbian soldiers forced Muslim men to perform sexual acts on male members of their own families. “It’s a form of torture,” she says, “and breaking cultural taboos.” Often in African conflicts husbands were forced to watch their wives be raped.
But thanks to the work of the various international war tribunals who have been prosecuting the crimes committed in these conflicts, as well as others, the voices of the victimized are being heard. “People have a great respect for law,” she says. “Once something is categorized as being illegal it can have a surprising impact.”
Mibenge, a native of Zambia, is also an activist who has worked with international crime tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. After receiving her law degree in Zambia, she earned her Ph.D. in international human rights law at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.