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The Uncondemned: Story of the First Conviction of Rape as a War Crime

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The Uncondemned: Story of the First Conviction of Rape as a War Crime

Posted by Megha Swamy on November 30, 2016

A newly-released documentary, “The Uncondemned,” weaves together the stories of a group of determined survivors of sexual violence, human rights advocates, lawyers, and researchers who overcame obstacles to collectively help prosecute rape as a component of genocide and hold the perpetrator accountable for his acts.

The documentary, produced by Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel, follows the story of the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the late 1990s. Akayesu, the mayor of the town of Taba in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, faced 15 charges, including genocide, incitement to commit genocide, crimes against humanity (extermination, murder, torture, rape, other inhumane acts), and violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions (murder, cruel treatment, and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular rape, degrading and humiliating treatment and indecent assault). The tribunal found that as mayor, Akayesu ordered Hutus to kill their Tutsi neighbors and encouraged and ordered the rape and murder of Tutsi women. In September 1998, the tribunal found Akayesu guilty of genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and crimes against humanity (extermination, murder, torture, rape, and other inhumane acts.) 

The documentary examines the experiences of three Rwandan women who testified during the trial and were instrumental in the case. The women describe in their own words how they had come together to share their experiences with one another and then worked with human rights investigators and the prosecuting lawyers, overcoming fear and shame, and ultimately traveling to Arusha, Tanzania, where the legal proceedings were held to face Akayesu in person and testify before him at his trial. One of the women recounts how she had traveled to testify despite having given birth only a few weeks earlier and while recovering from a bout of malaria at the same time. The women talk about how they felt compelled to testify, despite fear and assassination threats. One of the women described her sense of connection and obligation in having the opportunity to testify to her personal experience, not just for herself but for all those who could not and had suffered throughout history before her.

In the documentary, members of the understaffed, underfunded prosecution team also recall the uphill task before them at the tribunal. The documentary profiles the group of lawyers and human rights researchers and activists that together overcame legal and logistical challenges in the historic case. Pierre-Richard Prosper, then a 31-year old lead prosecutor at the trial who later became the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, recalls how the staff was so severely underresourced that they conducted a meeting on how to utilize their last ream of printing paper. Sara Darehshori, then a co-counsel for the prosecution, recounts arriving in Kigali in 1995 with no one at the airport to greet her, and with no idea where she would be staying or working, hitched a ride with a nongovernmental organization to the nearest hotel.  

Akayesu was found guilty by the tribunal of 9 of the 15 charges, including genocide and several crimes against humanity. Breaking new ground in international criminal law, the Akayesu judgment notes:

“[rape and sexual violence] constitute genocide in the same way as any other act as long as they were committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group, targeted as such. Indeed, rape and sexual violence certainly constitute infliction of serious bodily and mental harm on the victims and are even, according to the Chamber, one of the worst ways of inflict harm on the victim as he or she suffers both bodily and mental harm. In light of all the evidence before it, the Chamber is satisfied that the acts of rape and sexual violence described above, were committed solely against Tutsi women, many of whom were subjected to the worst public humiliation, mutilated, and raped several times, often in public, in the Bureau Communal premises [in the town of Taba] or in other public places, and often by more than one assailant. These rapes resulted in physical and psychological destruction of Tutsi women, their families and their communities. Sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction, specifically targeting Tutsi women and specifically contributing to their destruction and to the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole. […] The rape of Tutsi women was systematic and was perpetrated against all Tutsi women and solely against them. […] [T]utsi women were subjected to sexual violence because they were Tutsi. Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the [T]utsi group – destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.”

Rape, including attacks that target people of particular ethnic and religious groups that have raised concerns of genocide, continues to be used as a weapon of war and a means of repression in many places, including SudanSouth Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic. A 2011 study estimated that in Congo, as of 2009, some 1.92 million Congolese women had been raped at some point in their lifetime. Militia groups and members of the Congolese army continue to use sexual violence as a weapon of war. While much work needs to be done, “The Uncondemned” shows the impact that determined individuals can have, despite extraordinary difficulties and years of struggle, in holding perpetrators of atrocity crimes to account.

Click here to learn more about “The Uncondemned.”