Lessons Learned from International Prosecutions of Sex Crimes

Sex Violence as an International Crime: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Anne Marie de Brouwer, Charlotte Ku, Renée Römkens & Larissa van den Herik eds., 2013).

It has been nearly twenty years since crimes of sexual violence were prosecuted in international tribunals explicitly as crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) set the stage for how such crimes were to be understood as a matter of substantive criminal law and how they were to be prosecuted as a matter of procedural criminal law. These tribunals also left many unanswered questions to be determined by future courts in future cases. A recent book, Sexual Violence as an International Crime: Interdisciplinary Approaches, is a compilation of articles and essays by scholars, lawyers, professionals and others who have had a front-row view of these prosecutions. Its editors—Anne Marie de Brouwer, Charlotte Ku (who in the interest of full disclosure, is a colleague of mine), Renée Römkens and Larissa van den Herik—have undertaken the task of assembling a volume in the wake of “two decades of experience prosecuting crimes of sexual violence” in order to “assess the work that has been done with a view to understanding the next steps that need to need to be taken.” (P.8.) The volume’s contributors acknowledge some of the key milestones reached in the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence, expose important failures, and forecast future challenges. (P. 8.)

The lessons learned from these early cases and subsequent cases address elemental definitions of crimes including the contextualization of consent in sexual assault against a backdrop of structural disempowerment or the inclusion of men and boys as victims of sexual violence; the use of conspiracy theories to prosecute not only the direct perpetrators of sexual violence, but also those further removed within the operational structure. They offer an assessment of practices developed in the investigation, reporting and analysis of data including the value of social scientific methods in meeting evidentiary burdens of fact and in understanding the impact of the harm on communities and individuals. The authors also explore the increasing sensitivities to victim-related concerns including evidentiary rules excluding evidence of past sexual conduct; privacy issues raised in the collection and documentation of medical and personal data; efforts to prevent the re-victimization of the victims by the criminal justice process itself.

In addition to discussing the changes in the law and in the courts, the book’s greatest contribution is as a testament to the seismic change that has occurred around the globe during the last twenty years regarding the social construct and understanding of gender-based violence as an act of war or a violation of human rights. When, in 1995, I wrote Addressing Gender-Based Violence in an International Context, 18 Harv. Women’s L.J. 139, I lamented that despite the then-recent international tribunals and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the problem of sexual violence had yet to be addressed at a societal and grassroots level. What I failed to account for was the societal shift that would begin to occur surrounding the prosecution of these cases. Many of the essays in this volume consider the developing awareness regarding sexual violence as an act of terror and conflict, but also as a daily social problem. Notably, Sexual Violence as an International Crime also acknowledges the importance of partnerships between prosecuting authorities and NGOs or locally based community organizations in preventing and addressing gender-based violence. Reaching back into the past while providing lessons for the future, this timely book is a worthwhile read for anyone interested about the handling of sexual violence cases in post-conflict regimes.

Cite as: Margareth Etienne, Lessons Learned from International Prosecutions of Sex Crimes, JOTWELL (October 9, 2013) (reviewing Sex Violence as an International Crime: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Anne Marie de Brouwer, Charlotte Ku, Renée Römkens & Larissa van den Herik eds., 2013)), http://crim.jotwell.com/lessons-learned-from-international-prosecutions-of-sex-crimes/.