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Sexual violence in armed conflict: the historical limits of humanitarian action and the ICRC in the 20th Century

Analysis / Gender / Gender and conflict / History / Humanitarian Action 12 mins read

Sexual violence in armed conflict: the historical limits of humanitarian action and the ICRC in the 20th Century

Drawing of women detainees during the Second World War, Melita Lovrencic, 1942.

Despite clear legal prohibitions, sexual violence remains widespread and prevalent during armed conflicts and other situations of violence, with grave humanitarian consequences. Sexual violence is often utilized as a tactical or strategic means of overwhelming and weakening the adversary, whether directly or indirectly, by targeting the civilian population.

In this post to mark the 30th campaign of the 16 Days of Action, ICRC historian Daniel Palmieri examines ICRC inaction during the mid-20th century – and the Swiss cultural backdrop against which the organization operated at that time – to unearth contextual and structural factors that contributed to this glaring historical passivity.

For far too long, sexual violence was considered an unfortunate result of war and often kept silent. Yet rape has been a serious breach of the rules of war since the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first attempts to codify the law of armed conflict took place during the American Civil War, with the publication of the Lieber Code in February 1863. Sexual assault was explicitly mentioned as a punishable act and rape prohibited on pain of death.

Thereafter, there was a semantic regression when it came to qualifying such abuses in law. Although the act was still punishable, the word ‘rape’ disappeared from the texts. Perhaps out of a sense of modesty, legislators preferred to speak of an attack on the ‘honour of the family’, as in the Hague Peace Conventions. This term of honour is found again in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, but with two important innovations: first, women are specifically indicated as being persons ‘to be protected’; second, rape makes a reappearance, being expressly mentioned as an example constituting an attack on the ‘honour’ of women.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was instrumental in drafting the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and is its guarantor today. From the moment it was founded in 1863, the ICRC immediately set about relieving the brutalities of war. Surprisingly, however, it was not until the late 1990s that the ICRC became concretely involved in the issue of sexual violence committed during situations of armed conflict – it took resolutions from the International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1996 and 1999 for the institution to take that step.

How can we explain such a glaring contradiction: a humanitarian organization steadfastly concerned with helping all victims of armed conflict, yet so egregiously late in acting against one of the most endemic and pervasive scourges of war?

Sexual violence in the mid-20th century

Rape is not a nice word. It seems that people try to avoid it. This was long the case at the ICRC where, for example, the minutes of the decision-making bodies only mention the word ‘rape’ five times in a hundred years. Behind this heuristic problem, it is possible, by selecting events where mass rape was perpetrated – such as in Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) or in Berlin in 1945 – to know how the ICRC reacted to these violations of the laws of war.

The ICRC was present in China from the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War. Its delegate tried unsuccessfully to visit Japanese-occupied territories, including the city of Nanjing, but was always refused access by the Japanese military authorities on the grounds that there were no humanitarian needs or that it was a military zone of operations. While the ICRC was not able to intervene directly in Nanjing, it did receive reports from eyewitnesses of the events there, particularly allegations of mass rape.

The ICRC was also active in Germany during and after the war. From the spring of 1945, the question of rape in connection with the advance or occupation of the Soviet army appeared in the documentation of its delegation in Berlin. It should be noted that the ICRC was always informed of sexual assaults on German women by means of indirect testimony; no account of meetings between its delegates and rape survivors is mentioned. Rape is thus reduced to mere information, and sometimes even relegated to the realm of the ‘most incredible stories’ that circulate in Germany.

All this gives the impression that sexual violence, although committed on a large scale, was not really a matter of concern for the ICRC delegation during this period. The same impression could be given in Geneva at that time, since headquarters did not discuss this topic at all.

A failed intervention

There is one historical situation in which the ICRC attempted to intervene: rape committed in May and June 1944 by the colonial troops of the ‘French Expeditionary Corps’ in Italy. Six years later, in August 1950, the ICRC delegate in Naples sent proposals to Geneva to alleviate the great distress of the people of the Mezzogiorno, including one to provide medical assistance to the women who had been victims of those rapes and who were now suffering from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This action would concern more than 2,400 women, but also an unknown number of men, themselves victims of rape or infected. The delegate indicated that the victims’ living conditions were extremely difficult, as they were completely neglected by their authorities.

The president of the ICRC at that time, Paul Ruegger, accepted the proposal, considering that this medical assistance was clearly within the competence of the ICRC because it would alleviate a consequence of the war. In a letter to the president of the Italian Red Cross in February 1951, President Ruegger stated that the ICRC was ready to help these victims. But the Italian Red Cross declined the offer, claiming that everything had already been done by its government to solve the problem.

Rape as a disease

This brief and incomplete history highlights the fact that the ICRC seems to have been either powerless or reluctant to react against sexual brutality in wartime. In other words, nothing concrete had been done to alleviate the suffering of victims of rape or, more importantly, to prevent such barbaric assaults from happening again.

If one looks closely at the conditions under which the ICRC has had to work, there are perhaps some mitigating circumstances for its impotence. In China and Italy, the ICRC was effectively prevented by the authorities from recording abuses or assisting their victims after the fact. In Berlin, the lack of first-hand information or direct contact with women who were raped contributed to a lack of attention to this problem. Moreover, in the Second World War, only women prisoners of war were protected by the Geneva Convention of 1929. The absence of a specific legal framework for civilian victims (which would only be put in place in 1949) also played a role in the ICRC’s lack of proactivity. Yet, in its statutes, the ICRC was free to take any humanitarian initiative that fell within its traditional role of protecting and assisting the victims of war. So why was it not more active on the issue of rape?

Although these historical ICRC documents do not (always) mention rape explicitly, it does appear in the background when the institution deals with STIs. Metaphorical language is used, for example, for the rapes committed by Soviet troops in Germany, with the ICRC speaking of the ‘appalling development’ of sexually transmitted diseases following the passage of the Red Army. The same was true of the rapes in Italy in 1944, where the women who were raped were identified as ‘sick’.

Thus, while the ICRC did not completely avoid the question of rape during wartime, it approached it from a purely medical point of view, through the prism of venereology. Adopting a more ‘scientific’ language forged a certain distance from the brutal act itself, which was never really mentioned. This prudish attitude, which focused on the physical clinical consequences of rape, left out all the ways that victims suffered. Looking only at the aftermath of the rape also avoided reflecting on those who committed the brutality and on the silences that may have surrounded the commission of such acts.

In other words, rape in wartime did not exist; only its possible consequences, such as STIs, remained. Questions of prevention and accountability were left aside.

An all-male and Swiss organization

For a long time, the ICRC was an all-male organization, both at headquarters and in the field. In its activities, it advocated non-discrimination in its assistance to war victims, yet it lacked the internal female voices that could make it more likely to be attentive to the needs of and risks faced by women, but also more generally to how to deal with victims of rape. Thus, for decades, only male delegates visited people in captivity.  For women prisoners who had been raped, it was often difficult to testify about the abuse in front of representatives of the same sex as those who had committed it.

Another explanation for the ICRC’s seeming indifference to the problem of rape is linked to the cultural environment in which the organization developed: Switzerland, a country which has long been considered underdeveloped in terms of women’s issues. Swiss women – historically subjected to a range of discriminatory social, economic, cultural and governmental policies – only gained the same political rights as their male counterparts in 1971.

It would therefore not be surprising if the ICRC, which for a long time consisted almost entirely of Swiss males, also contributed in its own way to the reproduction and perpetuation of such misogynistic patterns. Though Switzerland was far from the only State where women’s rights and rape were not a priority, it represented the dominant culture at the ICRC. Thus, for all humanitarian issues involving women, the ICRC would have favored a strictly Swiss perception of the problem, i.e. by relegating it to a secondary level.

The culture of war

Blaming Switzerland’s heavy macho heritage may not be enough to understand the ICRC’s lack of responsiveness to sexual violence. Another hypothesis would be to focus on the ICRC’s main concern: war, a traditionally masculine domain. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the ICRC seems to have considered war to be a men’s affair and to concern only men. While this conception could still be adapted to the warfare of the 19th century – the type that existed when the ICRC was founded – it quickly became obsolete over time, both with the involvement of women as combatants and in other supportive roles, but  also as victims and those impacted by the structural damages caused by war. But the ICRC’s backward-looking view of war persisted for some time.

Continuing this analysis, one could link this attitude to the persistence of a culture of war in Switzerland. Indeed, despite several centuries of peace and its legendary neutrality, Switzerland continues to have a privileged relationship with armed violence. The militia army remains an irremovable institution and one of the pillars of the federal State. Celebrations and festivities also help to keep the country’s warlike memory alive, even though its citizens have not (fortunately) gone to war for more than 150 years.

In this peaceful context, the ICRC was the only organization that allowed its delegates to experience what it meant to live in real wartime. The often-difficult working conditions, but also the under-representation of women among the delegates, would have been two elements favorable to the creation of a strong male solidarity, or even of a male caste of humanitarians – humanitarian who, perhaps unconsciously, would have been led to identify with other men, this time combatants, on the sole criterion of gender. This identification might have distorted the perception of rape in wartime, by considering these acts committed by ‘fellow human beings’ as ‘individual blunders’ and not as a real problem. Or perhaps it was a sense of shame for their gender that caused male ICRC delegates not to grant sexual violence the importance it deserved. In both cases, the result was the same: the humanity of women was concealed.

For the ICRC in the 20th Century, the issue of sexual violence in wartime has long shown the limits of humanitarian action when it comes up against the overriding societal context of those who are supposed to carry it out.

This blog is an extract of a paper delivered in Rennes, France in 2021. The ICRC’s Women and War Initiative placed a focus on the intersectional and gendered experiences of conflict and wartime, with a focus on women. In 2014, the ICRC launched its annual Special Appeal on Sexual Violence, which highlights its work to prevent, mitigate risks and respond to wartime sexual violence and sexual violence in conflict and detention.

To the present day, the ICRC has called for nearly CHF 300 million for its efforts to prevent sexual violence and to provide healthcare, mental health and psychosocial support, economic initiatives, protection and humanitarian assistance to its survivors.  In 2018, the ICRC adopted its Strategy on Addressing Sexual Violence (2018 – 2022) which details how the ICRC will achieve its vision: ‘to work towards eliminating sexual violence in armed conflict, OSV and detention, ensuring that its victims/survivors have access to all necessary services, and that communities and individuals strengthen their resilience’.

Though progress has been made since the Second World War, preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence in a survivor-centred manner remains a challenge for the ICRC, the humanitarian sector, and beyond. Commitment to gender-sensitive responses is imperative, and we must continue to improve.

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