Sex crimes are war crimes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 October, 1993, 12:00am

THE history of warfare is riddled with atrocities; and rape is, sadly, one of the more frequent crimes committed by advancing armies against the local civilian population. However, the confirmation by a United Nations Commission yesterday that rape has been used systematically by Bosnian Serbs as a weapon of terror is a particularly grisly reminder that at the edge of modern and sophisticated Western Europe, the veneer of civilisation runs very thin.

The systematic military use of rape to shame Muslim families into fleeing their land is an extraordinarily callous and brutal method of pursuing ethnic cleansing. It is an act as deliberate and degrading as genocide; and the fact that the accusation hasalready been made with greater force and equal credibility by the European Community earlier in this war should not prevent the world from condemning it over again. The daily barrage of news from the battle front has tended to inure us all to the sufferingof the victims, most of whom want nothing more than to be allowed to live their lives in their own homes at peace with their neighbours.

The Commission's conservative estimate of the number of victims is intended to ensure its charges stand up under legal scrutiny in future war-crimes trials. Unfortunately, its caution means debate over the next weeks and months is likely to degenerate into a numbers game as different estimates are bandied about by opposing sides to draw attention away from the appalling depravity of the crime. The Commission's admission that some Croats and Muslims are also guilty of rape will help the Serbs deflect criticism.

The Serb civil war in Yugoslavia is not generally about religion, although the three factions profess different faiths. Systematic rape is as far removed from the teachings of the Serbs' Russian Orthodox church as it is of Catholicism or of Islam. But Serbs and Muslims, in particular, look to their co-religionists for unquestioning support. In those countries, notably Russia, where ethnic and religious ties incline public opinion in support of their Serb brothers, it will be easier to counter the naturalrevulsion of fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians if an accusatory finger can also be pointed at the other side.

Rape is despicable wherever it is committed. It is not condoned or encouraged by civilised armies fighting by international rules of combat. But in any war, especially in civil strife where international rules tend to be discarded, ill-disciplined troopsoften commit atrocities. Such crimes, however, cannot be compared with systematic rape as a military strategy. History will rightly condemn the Serbs and their commanders as war criminals.