Islamic State militants must be brought to justice for the sexual enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq, a prominent American lawyer said ahead of the release of a film about the world’s first conviction of rape as a war crime.
“The Uncondemned” tells the story behind the first genocide trial in history and the three rural Rwandan women who overcame their fear and shame to testify about the atrocities perpetrated against them.
“This film is particularly important given the scale of sexual violence in so many conflicts today,” said Pierre Prosper, who led the landmark prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
“It’s a reminder of our responsibility to act. We made legal history back in the 1990s – Rwanda showed us that this is a crime that can and should be prosecuted, but it feels as if the lesson has stopped there.”
Prosper, who later became U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes from 2001 to 2005, said a special tribunal like the ICTR should be set up to try militants involved in the mass enslavement of Yazidi girls and women.
U.N. war crimes investigators said this year that Islamic State (IS) was committing genocide against the Yazidis, a religious community of 400,000 people in northern Iraq.
“If there was ever a case for an international tribunal, it’s this one. I’m puzzled by the slow action of the international community,” Prosper told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Los Angeles.
“If you are going to call it genocide, you have a responsibility to do something about it. That’s the lesson we learned in Rwanda.”
Yazidi survivors of IS atrocities were among guests invited to the film’s premiere in New York at the United Nations on Wednesday night.
Tens of thousands of women were raped during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide when extremist Hutu militiamen slaughtered 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the central African country.
Although rape had been declared a war crime in 1919, it had never been prosecuted until the 1997 trial of a small-town Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu.
Prosper broke new ground when he also convinced the U.N. tribunal to recognise rape as an act of genocide.
“When you are raping and abusing women, the fabric of society is destroyed – the women are clearly destroyed, but you are also destroying the men and boys,” said Prosper, a partner in a U.S. law firm.
“Rwanda is rebounding remarkably, but in the depths of people’s eyes you can still see the impact it has had.”
TOOL OF TERROR
Akayesu, who was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, is serving a life sentence in a Mali prison.
“The Uncondemned”, which is scheduled for release in the United States on Friday, highlights the role of three key witnesses in securing his conviction.
Prosper said the women, known only as JJ, NN and OO during the trial, showed the power of individuals to change the world when they had the courage to speak up.
The film’s director Michele Mitchell said making the documentary taught her the “incredible healing value of justice” for both individuals and communities.
“One of the things witness JJ says in the film is ‘keeping quiet kills you softly’.”
Mitchell said she was shocked that so little was being done to bring to justice perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts in Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and elsewhere.
She hopes the film, which receives its British premiere next month, will spur the public to press politicians to take action.
“Rape is still not taken as seriously as other crimes of war, and that needs to change,” Mitchell said, adding that the term “sexual violence” underplayed the true nature and impact of the crime.
“It’s an act of torture, an act of power, an act of humiliation, and we have to start tackling it like it’s an act of torture.”
Mitchell said rape cannot be dismissed as “just something that happens in war”.
“Rape is an act of deadly intent and in conflict it is used to destroy communities and people,” she added.
“We probably won’t be able to stop it happening because it’s just such an effective tactic, but we can make it a lot harder for people to get away with it.”