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A Step Forward in Libya: Treating Rape as a War Crime

A woman stood up during the conference and told the graphic and horrific details of the sexual torture she was subjected to for nine months. She, however, was not alone; there had been around 35 other women in the same detention center, all of whom were subjected to sexual violence. And these 35 women were also not unique in their experiences of sexual violence; International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo stated, “The information and evidence indicates at this stage that hundreds of rapes occurred during the conflict.”

This conflict was the Libyan Revolution of 2011. Because rape is viewed by most Libyans as an attack upon the honor of a family or tribe—rather than an attack against a woman’s body, mind, and autonomy–sexualized violence was used as a weapon of war by Gaddafi’s forces to obtain information and punish rebel communities. Rape was also used as a terror tactic to induce submission to the regime.

As Libya recovers from the violent Arab Spring and begins to rebuild its government and country, a bill that would treat rape during armed conflict as a war crime is being drafted. As the law currently stands, rape is already a crime under Libyan law. Convicted rapists face around 10 years in jail. Under the new specialized law, convicted rapists in armed conflict could potentially face a life sentence in prison.  Additionally, legislators have agreed that this new law should require compensation from the state to victims of sexual violence. The amount of compensation would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

While this bill is not yet law—it still must be passed by the general national congress of Libya—it is a positive first step toward ending impunity for sexualized violence in war. Such a law would make it possible to begin holding perpetrators of wartime rape accountable, including where those rapes were sanctioned by the government.

The Global Justice Center has been advocating for states to be punished for using rape as an unlawful weapon of armed conflict. The GJC strongly hopes that the Libyan bill will provide an example for countries like Syria and Burma, whose governments similarly authorize mass rape of ethnic minority civilians and rebel populations. Action must be taken around the globe to ensure that women are no longer systematically harmed through sexualized violence condoned by the governments that are supposed to protect them.