Rape As a Weapon of War

Rape has always been a weapon of war. But until recently it was neglected as a crime worthy of prosecution on its own. During the Nanjing Atrocities young and old women were repeatedly violated by Japanese Imperial troops. While definitive numbers are difficult to pin down because of the nature of the crime, tens of thousands of rapes were documented, witnessed, and reported.

While postwar courts such as the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg heard evidence of rape being committed, the actual crime of rape was missing from the tribunal’s charter and not mentioned within the definition of a crime against humanity. At the International Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials, the record was slightly different.

While the Tokyo Trials did not prosecute leaders in the Imperial Japanese Army for the institution of military sexual slaves, it did reference the atrocities of sexual nature committed in Nanjing by referring to these crimes as the “Rape of Nanking.” Two Japanese officials, Matsui Iwane and Hirota Koki, were convicted of failing to prevent rape and while the crime still remained subsumed under crimes against humanity, rape could no longer be ignored as a crime of war.1

However, the official record of recognizing sexual violations committed during war did not begin with postwar trials after World War II. The Lieber Code, written during the Civil War in the United States, contained three articles specifically codifying the protection of women against rape during this conflict.2  Following World War II, the 1949 Geneva Conventions also stated that “Women shall be especially protected against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.”3

Not until the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1996, the first international war crimes trial held since Nuremberg and Tokyo, did the world’s attention finally move international political will to prosecute rape and other forms of sexual violence as an international war crime. On June 28, 1996 a headline in the New York Times read: “U.N. Court, for First Time, Defines Rape as War Crime.”4 The historic ruling included the indictment of eight Bosnian Serb military and police officers for their connection with the rapes of Muslim women during the war in Bosnia (April 1992 through December 1994.) This historic ruling, heard at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslovia (ICTY), was a landmark in the efforts to prevent and prosecute sexual violence during war. It was the first international tribunal to try a case exclusively for charges of sexual violence and was being prosecuted as a crime against humanity. No could leaders and soldiers operate with impunity when crimes of sexual nature are committed almost entirely, but not exclusively on women, during armed conflict.5

Philosophy professor Claudia Card expands upon the understanding of rape as a war crime by explaining the role rape holds in the crime of genocide. She explains:

There is more than one way to commit genocide. One way is mass murder, killing individual members of a national, political, or cultural group. Another is to destroy a group’s identity by decimating cultural and social bonds. Martial rape [rape committed during war] does both. . . . If there is one set of fundamental functions of rape, civilian or martial, it is to display, communicate, and produce or maintain dominance. . . . Acts of forcible rape, like other instances of torture, communicate dominance by removing our control.6

She continues by explaining that the violation involved in the crime of rape is intended to terrorize the victim and the nation being occupied, to destroy any community bonds that may exist, and to send a clear message of domination, humiliation, and power to both the victim and family members (particularly husbands, fathers, and sons, who may be unable to “protect” their wives, daughters, or children). Card states that rape can be used as a weapon of revenge and as a form of genetic or biologic imperialism. Professors John Roth and Carol Rittner expand upon this idea by explaining acts of rape resulting in unintentional pregnancy by the perpetrator group also can destroy a family’s solidarity by “imposing” themselves into future generations.7

A Chinese woman is carried into the hospital for gunshot wounds inflicted by a Japanese soldier who threatened to rape her.

Today great strides have been made in educating and prosecuting rape as an international war crime. Following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was held. In 1998 at the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the first conviction of genocide was handed down that included as a component of genocide.8 That same year, the Rome Statute was passed, establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC Statute explicitly defines rape as an individual crime and de- fines it as a war crime and crime against humanity.9


  • 1 : Matsui Iwane, Japanese Imperial commander of the Central China Area Army, and Hirota Koki, the foreign minister of the Central China Area Army, were the two Japanese officials prosecuted, convicted, and executed for failing to prevent the crimes that occurred in Nanjing beginning in December 1937. For further reading, please refer to Reading 6.2 in this resource, “War Criminals and Aggressive War.”
  • 2 : Crystal N. Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War,” New York Times, April 2, 2013, accessed November 7, 2013.
  • 3 : The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (UN-ICTY), ICTY -TPIY: Crimes of Sexual Violence website, accessed June 20, 2014.
  • 4 : Marlise Simons, “U.N. Court, for the First Time, Defines Rape as War Crime,” New York Times, June 28, 1996, Accessed November 12, 2013. In the trial Prosecutor v. Tadic, which began on May 7, 1996, Dusko Tadic was specifically charged with rape and sexual violence as a crime against humanity and war crime. While he was not convicted of rape, he was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes of sexual nature.
  • 5 : UN-ICTY, ICTY-TPIY website, accessed June 20, 2014.
  • 6 : Claudia Card, “Rape as a Weapon of War,” Hypatia 11, no. 4: Women and Violence (Autumn 1996): 7.
  • 7 : Ibid., 8 and Facing History and Ourselves video with Profesors John Roth and Carol Rittner.
  • 8 : As of 2014 the ICTR has indicted 93 persons who were the most responsible for the 1994 genocide. More than half of these indictments charged rape and other forms of sexual violence as a means of perpetrating genocide and as crimes against humanity or war crimes.
  • 9 : “Crimes against Women under International Law,” Berkeley Journal of International Law, 2003, accessed January 1, 2014.

Connection Questions

  1. What is implied by calling rape a weapon of war? How would you characterize the injuries suffered as a consequence of rape as a weapon of war? How would you compare them to other wartime injuries?
  2. In the final line of the June 1996 New York Times article included in the reading, the reporter states, “Experts said that while previous postwar courts have heard evidence of rape, they have treated it as secondary, tolerated as part of soldiers' abusive behavior.”1 Why do you think such a violent crime was tolerated and accepted during war as “part of soldiers’ abusive behavior”?
  3. Rape was not recognized as a war crime until 1994. The first conviction did not come until 1998. At a 2014 summit on Sexual Violence in war time, actress and activist Angelina Jolie explained that rape is not an “inevitable part of war.” What needs to happen to break the cycle? What role can law play? What role can celebrities like Angelina Jolie play? What else can be done?


  • 1 : Marlise Simons, “U.N. Court, for the First Time, Defines Rape as War Crime,” New York Times, June 28, 1996, accessed November 12, 2013.

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