The Trial That Made Rape a War Crime

By Padmini Parthasarathy

Soldiers have raped and pillaged since the concept "soldier" and the act "war" have existed. However, using rape systematically as a tactic to destroy a population is a more recent invention. And international courts didn’t prosecute it as a crime against humanity until a horrific genocide in Rwanda that left an estimated 800,000 dead.  

Documentary filmmakers Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel are producing a film about the courtroom drama that unfolded. Jean-Paul Akayesu stood trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for crimes against humanity, including, for the first time, ordering followers to rape en masse.

A 1999 report to the General Assembly, stated that rape "constitute[d] acts of genocide insofar as they were committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a targeted group, as such. It found that sexual assault formed an integral part of the process of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group, and that the rape was systematic and had been perpetrated against Tutsi women only, manifesting the specific intent required for those acts to constitute genocide."


The three women who testified at the UN International Tribunal for War Crimes in Rwanda, witnesses JJ, OO, and NN, are shown for the first time in the documentary. During their testimony in international court, they sat behind a curtain for fear of social stigma and reprisals.

"My theory about why it happened in 1994 is that you had two horrible genocides occurring at the same time and not only was it fairly public that rape had occurred—especially in the case of Bosnia and then for Rwanda—but you also had a lot of female lawyers and women who had come up through the legal ranks who wanted to pursue this," Mitchell told VITAMIN W. "The person who brought up prosecuting rape as a war crime for the first time, to the best of my knowledge, was Geraldine Ferraro."

Other obstacles made it difficult to prepare the survivors to testify. For one thing, the word "rape" didn’t exist in Kinyarwandan, the local language.    

But the women weren’t sitting idle, waiting for justice. By the time the UN had decided to pursue the case, Rwandan women had already formed a support group for survivors of rape during the genocide.  

Until early 1997, rape was codified in a lesser category of crime in the local transitional justice courts that had been convened after the genocide. Among the four levels of charges—the worst being genocide, which was punishable by death—rape was in the lowest category, along with petty crimes like looting.

In an attempt to change the law, survivors held a march from Taba, where Akayesu was mayor, to Kigali. Witness JJ and others talked to the parliamentarians, urging them to make rape punishable by death in the local courts. That process went after the men who actually perpetrated the rapes. But until 1994, the international courts had not gone after command responsibility for this war crime.  

"The women weren’t exactly waiting for justice," agrees Mitchell. "They had healed themselves to some degree and were ready to testify in international court."


Once Mitchell had decided to do a film about prosecuting rape as a war crime, she was directed to Pierre Prosper, the lead prosecutor for the UN International Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda. He serves as a primary source in the film, along with prosecutor Sara Darehshori.

Prosecutors Pierre Prosper and Sara Darehshori

Prosper made the case that rape cannot be extricated from genocide. It is a military tactic used to destroy a people. In fact, it is still being used by groups, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the remnants of the group that perpetrated the genocide, now embroiled in the Congolese civil war. When the filmmakers asked if rape is being used as a weapon of war in the Congo, the members responded with a loaded pause.

Filmmaker Michelle Mitchell interviews the FDLR

"Destruction doesn’t mean a stack of bodies. There are other ways to destroy somebody. One of the things that these women were told as they were being raped was ‘we’re leaving you alive so that you can die of sadness.’ That to me encapsulates this strategy," says Mitchell. "These people who were pursuing the case were so young, and they felt an immense pressure to get justice for these women. And I think they were traumatized to some degree as well, and it was so evident that for these women, having their day in court was so important."

Filmmaker Nick Louvel


"It’s very important to take the sex out of sex crimes and to move this into a different sphere of debate. This is a human rights issue. This is a tactic that is an act of torture, power, and humiliation, and it should be taken as seriously as poison gas, as anything else we get up in arms about, and now there is judicial precedent." says Mitchell.

In the international courts, rape is not defined by gender, but as "a physical invasion of a sexual nature committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive."

"I hope that by setting it in the courtroom, it makes it safe for people to talk about this in a way where we can actually come up with some constructive and real ways to shift the dialogue and start to take this more seriously from the top, down to sexual assault in our country. It’s the ultimate act of bullying." The courage that the Rwandan women showed and the fact that they were able to change history will hopefully give others the courage to speak up everywhere.

The film will be released next year. Check the trailer out in the meantime:

THE UNCONDEMNED from Film@11 on Vimeo

Image: Film at 11, Wikimedia Commons