Speaking Out

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Thu May 3, 2012

Betsy Apple Speaking Out: Taylor Conviction Good for Women—And A Cautionary Tale for Mugabe

By Betsy Apple

Charles Taylor’s conviction last week for aiding and abetting mass rape and other international crimes in Liberia represents a significant step forward for women. In an international court sitting in Sierra Leone, four judges unanimously found that Taylor, then-President of Liberia, supported the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and other fighters who waged civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, resulting in tens of thousands of rapes, deaths, and dismemberments, among other crimes.

Taylor’s fate could well befall another president, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, which would advance the struggle to end the rape of women even further.

As the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court since the post-World War II Nuremburg trials, Charles Taylor’s conviction helps to lift the cloak of impunity that so often enshrouds and protects the perpetrators of mass rape. He was found guilty of aiding and abetting—in other words, assisting, supporting and encouraging—rather than directly ordering or planning the rapes. While the judgment has been described as a major disappointment for the prosecution (which had hoped to show that Taylor either controlled the armed fighters or was part of a “joint criminal enterprise” in which he participated in a common plan to rape, murder, torture, and pillage), survivors and activists have much to celebrate.

The judges in the Taylor case sent a clear signal that no one—not even a head of state—is exempt from responsibility for his role in supporting mass atrocities. While Taylor’s sentence, which will be handed down on May 30, may be less than it would be had he been convicted of “command and control” responsibility for the armed forces that raped, murdered, amputated limbs, and pillaged, he will still lose his freedom and spend time in jail, which is a clear defeat for his defense team. This conviction demonstrates that those who are instrumental in making rape happen can be held culpable, even if they are not in charge of, or serving as one of, the actual rapists.

At least one more head of state, Robert Mugabe, would do well to sit up and take notice.

The mass rape and other sexual violence that occurred during Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections was perpetrated by Mugabe’s party members and supporters of ZANU-PF against women associated with the political opposition; of that, there is no doubt. The evidence AIDS-Free World gathered indicates clearly that ZANU-PF supporters identified women to rape based on their political affiliation. (The perpetrators told women that that is why they were being raped during nearly every attack.) This widespread rape of women because of their political beliefs, activities, or affiliation was a brutal and effective tactic intended to undermine the political opposition and keep Mugabe in power. It worked.

Like Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe had a close relationship with many of the commanders who either raped or ordered their men to rape. And like Charles Taylor, Mugabe has funded his regime and maintained his power through the profits from blood diamonds. No international body—the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a commission of inquiry, a Human Rights Council special rapporteur—has undertaken a comprehensive investigation or sought to prosecute the mass political rape in Zimbabwe in 2008, to their shame. Because of this failure, we don’t know exactly what theory would prevail in a case against Mugabe: would it be joint criminal enterprise? Command responsibility?

We do know, however, that, again like Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe bears responsibility for supporting, encouraging, fomenting the violence against women from the political opposition—in short, aiding and abetting. The Taylor case has established a standard against which the behavior of other aiders and abettors can be measured. And Robert Mugabe measures up.

To AIDS-Free World, the crime of mass rape represents three things: It is a violent way to perpetuate discrimination against women by causing them brutal physical, emotional, and other harm; it is a strategy to destroy entire communities by targeting the women whose perpetual labor and care, in reality, undergirds them; and it is a horrific method of spreading HIV from rapist to victim. Widespread rape in conflict (such as that occurring during Sierra Leone’s civil war) is discussed endlessly by the “international community,” but is far too rarely addressed with concrete action.

Taylor’s conviction for aiding and abetting sexual crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sierra Leone is that concrete action we need to end impunity for rape, in Sierra Leone and, hopefully, in Zimbabwe. This judgment is a signpost to men who would foment rape: Don’t do it, or you may end up like Charles Taylor—in jail. For Robert Mugabe, the Taylor conviction is a sign of things to come.