Ukrainians Want to Hold Russia Accountable for Wartime Rapes

RThe use of the apes as weapons of war dates back to before there was any conflict. In Ukraine, however, women lawmakers have launched a campaign against Russian soldiers to sexually assault them.

“No one thought that such cruelties and atrocities could happen in the middle of Europe,” says Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian Member of Parliament who in March traveled from Kyiv to London, where she and three other female lawmakers urgedBoris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to cease trade with Russia over the allegations that Russia was financing the rape and exploitation of women in their country. They took their message to Paris a few weeks later and raised the issue again with President Emmanuel Macron. They will travel to Brussels on April 21st, the seat of European Union.

“It’s important that people do not avert their eyes from this crime,” says Vasylenko.

Official reports of violence against women, which were circulating for five weeks following the invasion of Kyiv, took on the form of coordinated, systematic campaigns of violence. Although women and girls were targeted most, the victims ranged from young and old, males and females.

Continue reading: A visit to the Crime Scene Russian Troops left behind at a Camp Summer Camp in Bucha

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova said that 25 teenage girls were kept in a basement in Bucha and gang-raped; nine of them are now pregnant. Older women were interviewed on cameraRussian soldiers raped children. Children were discovered naked, with their hands bound behind their backs and their genitals cut. These victims were both boys and girls, while Ukrainian boys and men have also been sexually assaulted. In Russian captivity, a group of Ukrainian POWs were forced to have their heads cut and stripped naked.

Human rights monitors say the number of additional cases extend into the scores, stoking fears for Ukrainians both still under Russian control or facing the prospect of becoming so, as Moscow launches a massive assault in the country’s east.

“These sex crimes…are a weapon of war in order to humiliate, subjugate, terrorize and force people to flee the territory,” says Marta Havryshko, Research Associate in contemporary history at the I. Krypiakevych Institute of Ukrainian Studies and a URIS Fellow at Basel University. “Russian soldiers are trying to send a signal to the whole community: we are the winners, you are weak, we will destroy you, so you better give up your struggle for independence.”

Campaign in UkraineIt reflects the development of outrage. Although rape was recognized in 1919 as a war criminal, it took many decades and wars before the first case of war crimes involving rape against a Rwandan politician occurred in 1998. The U.N.’s first prosecution was for the Former Yugoslavia, when Serbian forces maintained “rape camps” as what judges deemed “an instrument of terror.”

In Kyiv, the current effort for justice shows not only advances by women—Ukraine currently has the largest number of female lawmakers in its history, several of whom are raising awareness about wartime rape—but also of the rising awareness that robs sexual violence of the stigma its perpetrators intend. As the lawmakers press the case for prosecution in the capitals of Europe, viral posts on Ukrainian social media—from a gynecologist, a lawyer, even a popular TV host—implore fellow Ukrainian women to come forward with evidence of sexual violence committed by Russian troops.

The technology can also help. Technology also helps. Indelible images include the naked bodies of children and women, or the bloodied thighs, tied-up dead men’s thighs.

The world is starting to pay attention.

In the United Kingdom, which has a track record of documenting sexual violence in conflict, from Syria to Iraq to Somalia and South Sudan, Ukraine’s mass rapes have reignited calls for a permanent, independent, international body to investigate and prosecute rape as a war crime.

Continue reading: The Secret War Crime

“If we’re going to make a meaningful dent in the calculated and planned use of sexual violence in war then we need to have a proper, separate individual body,” says British MP Alicia Kearns, who organized for the Ukrainian lawmakers to visit London. “I think it would be transformative.” The effort is backed in the House of Lords by Arminka Helic from the House of Lords, who fled Bosnia as a refugee in the 1990s and helped set up a landmark initiative by the UK on preventing sexual violence in conflict a decade ago, with then-Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, a U.N. Special Refugees Envoy.

Kearns describes how such a body—with a member-state setup, headquartered in London or the Netherlands, which is already home to the International Criminal Court at the Hague—might function in a warzone. At the beginning of a conflict, protective measures would be put in place and experts immediately deployed to help the local prosecutor’s office collect evidence to prosecute the “low level and middle-ranking commanders who are the ones ordering their men to commit rape.”

It’s important that evidence is collected contemporaneously. What usually happens now, Kearns says, is a scramble for evidence when the “conflict finally resolves and by then, quelle surprise, it’s too late.”

The April 13th launch of the Murad Code (guidelines for conduct focusing on collecting information about violence against women in conflict) marked a step towards the creation of the new body. It was launched by Nadia Murad (the Yazidi activist and ex-captive of ISIS), the Nobel Laureate from the U.K., and aims to establish a standard for gathering evidence from witnesses and survivors. This was announced by Murad, who spoke last week to UN Security Council regarding the need for a plan to deal with the Ukrainian sexual violence. According to the U.N., its human rights monitors are investigating allegations of sexual violence and rape.

Continue reading: Angelina Jolie speaks to Nadia Murad about Sexual Violence as War Weapon

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova—who in 2020 became the first woman to hold this position—has consulted with Beth Van Schaak, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, on how to work with Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators on cases of sexual violence. TIME received a statement from the State Department confirming that the U.S. includes rape, and other gender-based violence, in its review of war crimes.

Russia denies allegationsdescribed the rape of its soldiers in Ukraine. “It’s a lie,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters at the end of March. A week later, Russia’s chief propagandist Vladimir Soloviev held a discussion with five other men on state TV, where they dismissed the accusations of rape as a “British psyops”.

Kateryna Bulos, a Ukrainian lawyer with a specialization in international human right, said that Russian soldiers were encouraged by the highest ranks to commit rape. She noted that at a news conference with Macron on Feb. 7, Putin cast aside Ukraine’s objections with a ditty about rape from a Soviet-era punk song: “Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty.”

“It was both chilling and outrageous to me that a president who’s also the commander of the armed forces would so easily make a rape joke…. It’s enabling the troops on the ground,” says Busol, an Academy Associate at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program in London.

Putin is not the first to make jokes about rape or make degrading remarks regarding women. In recent years, he has put down women for menstruating, and boasted his country’s prostitutes are the best in the world. In 2017 he made domestic violence law. (That same year, Ukraine, which has some of Europe’s highest rates of domestic violence, went in the opposite direction and outlawed it).

While Ukraine was unaware of the extent of the sexual violence during wartime, the country is gradually moving toward greater equality in gender, according to Sasha Kantser. She’s the external affairs manager at Feminist Workshop in Lviv, western Ukraine, which provides information for women and men living in the occupied territories about everything, from contraception emergency to sexual health.

“Women are being encouraged by society to talk about the sexual violence they’ve experienced because that makes the Russian side accountable,” she says. “And people are responding as humans… This is partly an achievement.”

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