2016 has the potential to be the year in which we make substantial progress in the fight against sexual assault. Most Americans are familiar with the famous faces associated with survivor advocacy in the United States, including popular musical artists Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. However, landmark events in the fight against sexual assault are currently unfolding internationally – particularly in the Congo, South Korea, and Germany.
International Criminal Court Rules that Rape is a War Crime
On March 21, 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Jean-Pierre Bemba guilty of war crimes including rape and pillaging. Bemba is the former head of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo and the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this ruling, he is being held responsible for atrocities committed by his militia during an invasion into the Central African Republic (CAR) between 2002 and 2003. His victims, which numbered over 5,000, testified to systemic sexual assault and pillaging in the CAR. During the course of investigation, it became clear that rape was being used as a tool to terrorize and humiliate a peaceful civilian population. This case is significant because it is the first time that an ICC defendant has been held responsible for rape as a war crime.
While these rape victims would have likely preferred to see justice against the individual soldiers responsible, Bemba’s conviction is still a landmark occasion. It is not enough to just declare rape immoral. The ICC took the necessary step of identifying sexual assault as a crime against humanity and followed through by actually convicting a leader who allowed it to happen.
Japan Apologizes to Comfort Women
In December 2015, the South Korean and Japanese governments finally reached a formal agreement on the issue of comfort women. The term refers to the tens of thousands of Korean women coerced or lured into brothels between 1930 and 1945 to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s Imperial Army. The issue of comfort women has been a significant block in the relations between South Korea and Japan throughout the last 70 years. In this agreement, Japan issued a formal apology and offered 8.3 million USD for the care of the surviving comfort women. Japan’s Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, stated “the issue of ‘comfort women’ was a matter which, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. In this regard, the government of Japan painfully acknowledges its responsibility.”
This apology was a significant step for improving relations between South Korea and Japan, but has received with mixed reviews, especially from the comfort women themselves. It is unclear in this apology whether the Japanese government is accepting legal or moral responsibility. Japan already accepted moral responsibility in 1993 but the former comfort women have not found this in itself to be sufficient. They are requesting Japan to take legal responsibility and this is not an arbitrary distinction. Justice cannot be seen within the international system without the acceptance of legal responsibility and Korean women’s psychological wounds will continue to fester until full apologies are received.
Germany Close to Losing Sight of the Real Issue
One thousand women reported being sexually assaulted during Cologne’s New Year’s celebration. The perpetrators were described as being of North African or Middle Eastern descent. Because of the assailants’ ethnicity, these events quickly became part of the discussion on the migrant crisis in Europe. In focusing on the status of the perpetrators, the issue of the assaults themselves has gotten lost in the discussion.
According to German law, rape is only prosecutable if the victim can prove that they physically resisted and verbally said “no.” Under these conditions, a victim must show bruises or other injuries in order to seek justice for rape. Many of the sexual assaults involved fondling of both breasts and genitals. Because these violations occurred quickly and in the confusion of a crowd, the victims did not have a chance to effectively fight back and thus did not sustain injuries to prove what had happened to them.
In response to these attacks, an amendment was written to no longer require proof of physical refusal. It has been approved by Chancellor Angela Merkel and is now awaiting approval by parliament. This amendment is progressive in the way that it is more supportive of and more believing of victims. However, it is not clear yet how much more effective this will actually be in practice of holding more people responsible. Indeed, saying that it is difficult to prove a lack of consent is an understatement.
Where do we go from here?
2016 has seen a lot of changes in how sexual assault is handled around the globe. However, it is not time to celebrate just yet. The ICC’s ruling set a remarkable precedent for the future of acceptable warfare, but required 5,000 victims to step forward in order to convict one person. The pain of Korea’s comfort women is finally being recognized, but it has taken 70 years and the apology still falls short in terms of taking legal responsibility. Germany may soon pass a law that better supports victims, but this opportunity for progress gets overwhelmed by its connection to a political issue that people are more comfortable talking about. Sexual assault is not just a domestic or women’s issue. It is a global issue that requires a more effective global response. Hopefully, these recent developments will serve as solid stepping stones on the path towards global change.