Rape in Ukraine: Evidence of command responsibility
And how NYT could have better highlighted this critical development.
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Last week, The New York Times published a story with the headline “‘Fear Still Remains’: Ukraine Finds Sexual Crimes Where Russian Troops Ruled.” It’s a look at previously unknown cases in the formerly occupied east, and the stigma and pain women are enduring. But I believe the Times’s editors highlighted the wrong thing in their headline. (Editors, pretty much as a rule, write headlines. And since we live in a world in which the majority of people don’t read past the headlines, how an article is framed in that single line matters.)
The article itself does the important job of revealing war crimes that witnesses say have been occurring behind occupied lines. The reporters tell individual women’s stories of rape and humiliation, laying bare their pain and talking about what is being done to help them. Eventually — in paragraph 27 — the writers get to what I think should have been in the headline.
The graph says: “From the accounts of those who have come forward, there is evidence that Russian commanders knew about rape or even encouraged it, officials said.” [Bold is mine.]
Proving command responsibility would allow for the prosecution of the men who organized the execution of these crimes — or even did nothing to prevent soldiers under their command from carrying them out. It could even allow for the prosecution of men at the highest levels of the Russian government, if a link can be made between their orders and the soldiers’ actions.
The story continues: “Witnesses reported commanders’ [sic] ordering rape or giving instructions that suggested they condoned it, like telling soldiers to find some relaxation.”
Click here to read more about what I’ve learned about rape in Ukraine and whether it will be tried as a crime against humanity.
The article quotes Iryna Didenko, the head of the prosecutor’s department investigating sexualized violence, as saying that there is “an even clearer pattern” of organized sexualized violence in Russian detention facilities. This tracks with previous wars I’ve covered. In Syria, much of the rape I reported on took place in prisons, and in Bosnia, women were assaulted while held in what were known as “rape camps.” (The other most common places rape seems to take place in conflict are at checkpoints and when soldiers go from house to house, looting.)
There have been many reports of Russian soldiers electrocuting Ukrainian prisoners, including on their genitals. The Times story says that the “similarity of the evidence and accounts across cities, describing torture methods, interrogations and officers from Russia’s main intelligence agency, the F.S.B., has convinced Ukrainian prosecutors that abuses can be traced to the Russian leadership.”
“It cannot be that a soldier did this without an order,” Didenko told the paper. The F.S.B. “came efficiently, knowing their job, tortured everyone on the genitals,” she said.
“It’s surely a system,” she added.
In some previous conflicts, international prosecutors and investigators have been able to build cases for command responsibility through the consistency of repeated phrasing soldiers used during assaults. Language can indicate whether mass rape has been coordinated and systematic.
A U.S.-based group called AIDS-Free World successfully petitioned to have South Africa investigate mass rape in Zimbabwe allegedly carried out by the ruling ZANU-PF party against opposition supporters in 2008. Part of their case was built on the fact that women in different parts of the country had heard similar phrases being uttered during their rapes — they were called “traitors to Zimbabwe” or told they were being “sent a message,” Paula Donovan, the group’s co-director, told me in 2013.
While investigating sexualized violence in Syria, I heard and read multiple stories of repeated phrasing from Syrian army soldiers and prison guards, such as, “You want freedom? This is the best brand of freedom.”
Coincidence? Maybe. Erin Gallagher, a former investigator of sexualized and gender-based violence for the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told me in 2013: “I can’t conclude if [Bashar al-] Assad and his command ordered it or have just given his men free reign. What is clear is that he and his commanders are doing nothing to stop their soldiers from committing such crimes.”
An invading army’s goal in perpetrating sexualized violence can be multifold: to humiliate and dehumanize not only the women (or men) who are violated, but also their families and whole communities; to terrorize as part of an attempt to control a population; or to be employed as part of a larger objective — genocide.
To that end, sexualized violence can be used to sterilize women by destroying their bodies, or to forcibly impregnate them in order to dilute the population, as happened in the Bosnian War and the Rwandan genocide.
Among a number of components, genocide consists of mental and physical crimes “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Didenko said, as have a number of investigators I’ve spoken to in Ukraine, that she believes rape and torture are part of Russia’s campaign to wipe out the Ukrainian identity, if not the people themselves.
After more than a decade of reporting on rape in war, the only thing that surprises me about it is how many people think, or want to think, it isn’t happening, or even dismiss it as an “inevitability.” (No one ever seems to do that with torture, however...) This can lead to a lack of media coverage, which can lead to public apathy.
Looking back over the last 10 years, I do think the media has become better at seeking out and publishing stories of sexualized violence, although I’m not sure the mainstream media has yet found the right balance between telling stories and putting them into important international legal contexts, which would help readers understand why and how some crimes are pursued and others seemingly ignored when it comes to justice.
Rape is happening in Ukraine, just as it was in Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda and World War II. And as investigators discover more and more about what the Russians have perpetrated, it will be critically important to build cases that reach as high as possible, and for us in the press to continue to report on it all — offering context, whether legal, cultural or something else.
No man should go unpunished for perpetrating terror on a population — neither the lowly soldier who rapes nor the power-hungry commander who orders it or simply does nothing to prevent it. Every single Ukrainian who has suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers deserves nothing less.
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