In the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine ~ raging for more than four months now ~ Ukraine has documented more than 15,000 suspected war crimes, such as execution, indiscriminate killings and the looting of civilian property and even genocide. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), as of June 3, had received reports of 124 alleged acts of conflict-related sexual crime across Ukraine ~ mostly against women and girls ~ ranging from gang rape to coercion to watching an act of sexual violence committed against a partner or a child. In the face of allegations of sexual violence by Russian troops in Ukraine, Pramila Patten, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, outlined the elements of Framework on cooperation between the Government of Ukraine and the UN on prevention and response to conflict related sexual violence signed in May 2022 which seeks to strengthen accountability and combat those abhorrent crimes, while expressing concern over a stark discrepancy between that painful reality and the global community’s ambition to end the use of rape as a tactic of war.
Horrific accounts of a woman being raped repeatedly by a Russian soldier after her husband was killed outside Kyiv, along with the account of a mother of four being gang raped by Russian soldiers in Kherson, or of a woman raped by a Russian commander on the day tanks entered the village of Kalyta kept streaming in and one may guess that such accounts are just the tip of an iceberg. This was brought to light a few week ago when a topless woman ~ with her chest painted with Ukraine’s national colours and the words “stop raping us” covering her torso ~ stormed the red carpet at the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, to register her protest against the alleged rapes by Russian soldiers of Ukrainian women. Somehow it reminds us of an eighteen-year-old scene back home.
On 15 July 2004, twelve Manipuri women disrobed in front of the historic Kangla Fort in the heart of Imphal ~ then the headquarters of the Assam Rifles ~ carrying banners on which screaming messages such as “Indian Army Rape Us”, “Indian Army Take Our Flesh”, were painted in red in protest against the killing of Manorama Thangjam who was also allegedly raped. Rape in Ukraine at the hands of Russian soldiers, the scale of which is yet unknown, follows the heinous tradition of sexual atrocities against women during war and insurgency. History documents Crusaders raping women on their march to Constantinople in 1096 and 1204, German troops raping Belgian women in World War I, and American soldiers raping Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War. Rape was used as a systematic wartime tool of intimidation and genocide in Rwanda, Africa, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 20th century.
Serb, Bosnian Serb, and Croatian Serb soldiers, Bosnian Serb militias, and Chetniks organised widespread imprisonment of Bosnian-Herzegovinian and Croatian women in detention centres and military brothels, where they endured multiple rapes. An estimated 50,000 women and girls were systematically raped. Be it genocidal rape aimed at annihilating an ethnic (that occurred in Rwanda during the 1994 ethnic violence and has carried over to the Congo) or political group (such as the “Green Bombers” of Zimbabwe, a militia group created by the government), opportunistic rape, when combatants or the police and soldiers resort to rape in areas of intermittent civil dissonance (such as in the case of the oilrich Niger Delta region of Nigeria), or forced concubinage that involves the conscription and kidnapping of young girls to perform sexual and other services for militiamen and soldiers (as in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, the Sudan, and Zimbabwe), sexual violence against women stands as an example of a “war within a war.”
One can refer to the Japanese Army’s invasion of China in 1937 and the savage military takeover of China’s capital city, and the rampage during December 1937 to February 1938, which starkly came to be known as the Rape of Nanking. Under the command of General Iwana Matsui and Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, Japanese soldiers and officers systematically went through the city, raping all women, regardless of their ages. Besides China and Serbia, similar atrocities occurred in Bangladesh, among others, where women were held in camps, repeatedly raped, and murdered by the military junta of Pakistan. According to Susan Brownmiller, Pakistan’s treatment of Bengali women in 1971 compares to the violence, pain, and humiliation bestowed by Japanese soldiers on the people of Nanking. Mass executions slaughtered the Chinese Army, 260,000 to 350,000 civilians were killed, and up to 80,000 women and men were raped.
After the Liberation War of Bangladesh, many recalled the statement by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman that three million had died and 200,000 women had been raped as indicative of the magnitude of the devastation wrought by the war. Though the Rape of Nanking made headlines around the world, the international community did not proceed to investigate the rapes until after the war. It was only after former comfort women lobbied the International Commission of Jurists and the United Nations Human Rights Commission and managed to gather momentum that the United Nation’s 1998 report began to acknowledge that sexual violence against women must be prosecuted as a crime against humanity. The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda issued many indictments on charges of torture and genocide for crimes involving the sexual violence against women.
But the fate of the women always remains mired in international politics, as neither the West nor the Chinese government held the Japanese government accountable for the Rape of Nanking, anxious as both were to make alliance with Japan in the Cold War era. Whether Russia would be held accountable for its acts of sexual violence during its war with Ukraine might well get subsumed by energy politics in post-Cold-War era. Russia’s wartime crime against women in Ukraine must be seen in context of what it had done in the past. At the start of 1945, most Germans, seized of what German troops had done elsewhere, feared retribution and had ominous premonitions about occupation by the Allied troops. History documents the Soviet offensives against and occupation of East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, Austria, the Czech lands and other German-inhabited areas of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the peace.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn poignantly described what he saw as a young officer in his prose poem “Prussian Nights”: mothers raped, daughters violated and murdered, virgins turned into old women (“A girl’s been turned into a woman. A woman into a corpse …”). If one takes into account the sheer number of the German women raped by the Red Army on the rampage, the numbers of victims might reach as many as two million. Antony Beevor’s book Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (Viking, 2002) graphically documents widespread rape of German women and female Soviet forced labourers, both before and after the war, even though Russian official sources denounced the book as “lies” and “slander against the people who saved the world from Nazism”. He narrates how domination and humiliation permeated most soldiers’ treatment of women which bordered on a range of deviant behaviour ~ from incoherent violence in East Prussia to a carnal bestiality in Berlin.
The victims evidently bore the brunt of revenge for the Wehrmacht’s crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union. The re-publication of the diary by Anonyma, Eine Frau in Berlin, in 2003 occasioned us to get familiar with the frenzied span of six weeks when the Red Army conquers Berlin, between the end of May and mid-June 1945, that brought to the fore the rape question during warfare once again. We have at least four basic documents of the international law of war ~ the Hague Conventions (1899, 1907), the Geneva Conventions (1949), the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (1977), and the Rome Statute (1998) establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) which in 2002 became the first permanent criminal court charged with “ending impunity” for international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But despite international laws criminalising rape and acts of sexual violence, the remit of the ICC is limited; it can intervene only when a country is unwilling or unable to genuinely prosecute. Countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda and the Central African Republic referred their situations to the ICC only because they were unable to prosecute themselves. But when it comes to implicating Russia, it is a different ballgame altogether. Russian historiography fights shy of mentioning the abominable behaviour of the Red Army in the “liberated” territories and especially in Germany and Hungary even though the extent of rape by Soviet soldiers was unprecedented in any European war before or since.
The Soviets earlier and even Russians today, with very few exceptions, refuse to recognise the widespread and destructive nature of rape during the war. Post Ukraine, Russia is certainly guilty of gender-based crimes that constitute violations of common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular … mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” If Russia cannot be brought to book this time, the international community must owe an apology to all the women, dead and living, that it failed to deliver them justice for the hell wreaked upon them.