The many challenges of prosecuting sexual terrorism: the case of ISIS

Published 28 January 2021

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Sexual violence in conflict has historically been overlooked with perpetrators often escaping punishment. In his latest ICCT-Perspective, Christophe Paulussen discusses the legislative and prosecutorial challenges of sexual terrorism and why the number of prosecutions is still so shockingly low.

Sexual terrorism label
Rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict have been taking place around the world for ages. But despite the high occurrence of sexual violence in conflict, these crimes historically were not explicitly criminalised and its perpetrators have largely escaped prosecution. In the ICCT-Perspective ISIS and Sexual Terrorism: Scope, Challenges and the (Mis)Use of the Label Asser researcher Christophe Paulussen explains the concept of sexual terrorism and ISIS’ use of this tactic. Also, he discusses legislative and prosecutorial challenges at the national level, including the (dis)advantages of using the sexual terrorism label.

The underlying problem
“It took until the 1990s for the international criminal tribunals’ statutes to label and/or prosecute conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) as international crimes, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. (…) Although international and national prosecutions of CRSV have increased since, the number of prosecutions is still shockingly low and does not account for those cases in which CRSV and trafficking in human beings are used to commit terrorism.” Explicit criminalisation of sexual terrorism could therefore help in that respect. But there are also disadvantages to the sexual terrorism label, namely an extension of the counter-terrorism framework, and, with that, human rights violations. Therefore, “(…) it is very important to keep a critical attitude to any (new) counter-terrorism measures, and to focus on trying to solve exactly what is in fact the underlying problem – namely that states, in their counter-terrorism measures, often do not comply with international law.”

Read: ISIS and Sexual Terrorism: Scope, Challenges and the (Mis)Use of the Label

Christophe Paulussen is a senior researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut. He is coordinator of the research strand 'Human Dignity and Human Security in International and European Law', coordinator of the inter-faculty research platform ‘International Humanitarian and Criminal Law Platform’ and research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague.