The Common Good
July-August 2001

The Mercy Seat

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 2001

Is rape a war crime, or 'collateral damage'?

Sex slaves. Type that into your "search" field and the filtering software will get a workout. You’ll also get steered to the U.N.’s International War Crimes Tribunal Web site highlighting information on this winter’s groundbreaking conviction of three Bosnian Serbs for the systematic rape of Muslim women during the Bosnian war. The charge? Sexual enslavement.

The Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia is the first to write rape and sexual enslavement into international war-tribunal statutes as a criminal offense and a crime against humanity in war. The Nuremberg Tribunal heard sex crime evidence, but did not allow it in the formal records. The Tokyo Tribunal allowed rape to form part of the evidence for those convicted during the Rape of Nanking, but sexual crimes were not prosecuted on their own merit.

"I support wholeheartedly the decision of the War Crimes Tribunal to convict these men of rape," said Subhija Sejdic, program director of Sarajevo Phoenix, a micro-business that works primarily with women suffering from effects of the war. "However, the lasting consequences of this violence against the thousands raped—grandmothers, mothers, and daughters—can in no way restore to these women the dignity they enjoyed prior to being violated."

The Tribunal judge stated that these "lawless opportunists" were without mercy in their torture of the women they enslaved and "should expect no mercy, no matter how low their position in the chain of command may be."

In the world’s highest court, the law has exacted retributive justice. Now on to the horrors of the Sudan and East Timor. Is that the end of the story? Has the world’s common good been served? Retributive justice stops at punishment. But what about healing and mercy?

If tribunals and truth commissions are to truly further peace with justice in the world, systems must be put into place that repair the harm of crime by concentrating on personal responsibility, apology, healing, mercy, forgiveness, and rebuilding. In other words—restorative justice. Otherwise Subhija Sejdic’s despair will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rose Marie Berger is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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