(New York) — History was made today when the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, guilty of nine counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The verdict is the first handed down by the Rwanda Tribunal; the first conviction for genocide by an international court; the first time an international court has punished sexual violence in a civil war; and the first time that rape was found to be an act of genocide to destroy a group.

Rape is a serious war crime like any other," said Regan Ralph, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division. "That's always been true on paper, but now international courts are finally acting on it."

The Rwanda Tribunal was initially reluctant to indict Akayesu for rape. When Akayesu was first charged in 1996, the twelve counts in his indictment did not include sexual violence — despite the fact that Human Rights Watch, and other rights groups, had documented widespread rape during the genocide, particularly in his area. A lack of political will among some high-ranking tribunal officials as well as faulty investigative methodology by some investigative and prosecutorial staff of the Rwanda Tribunal accounted for this omission initially.

During the Rwandan genocide, thousands of women were targeted by Hutu militia and soldiers of the former government Armed Forces of Rwanda on their genocidal rampage. Tutsi women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharp sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery or sexually mutilated. These crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which Tutsi women were subjected to sexual violence after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the looting and destruction of their homes.

Under pressure from Rwandan and international rights groups, the Office of the Prosecutor finally amended the charges against Akayesu to include sexual violence in June 1997. During the Akayesu trial Rwandan women testified that they had been subjected to repeated collective rape by militia in and around the commune office, including in view of Akayesu. They spoke of witnessing other women being gang-raped and murdered while Akayesu stood by, reportedly saying to the rapists at one point "don't complain to me now that you don't know what a Tutsi woman tastes like."

International criminal law has always encompassed crimes of sexual violence: rape can be a violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1948 Genocide Convention, the 1984 Torture Convention, and a crime against humanity under the Nuremberg Charter. After World War II, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg established rape as a crime against humanity, but did not actually prosecute it. The Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Tribunal) did convict Japanese officers of rape.

Despite these legal precedents, rape has long been mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders as a private crime, the ignoble act of the occasional soldier. Worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace. Longstanding discriminatory attitudes have viewed crimes against women as incidental or less serious violations.

Since 1990, some progress has been made. Both the two International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda have brought sexual violence charges. The Yugoslav tribunal brought twenty-seven initial indictments that included charges for rape and sexual violence. Of those charged, fifteen are at large, six are in custody, two are deceased, three have had the charges withdrawn and one was found guilty of other charges. The Rwanda Tribunal has brought two initial indictments for sexual violence (one of which was today's Akayesu case) and an indictment for murder where sexual violence was used to kill women. In July of this year, a treaty creating a permanent International Criminal Court expressly named crimes based on sexual violence as part of the court's jurisdiction.

Human Rights Watch today urged the Rwanda Tribunal to indict more suspects for crimes of sexual violence. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Rwanda Tribunal must more thoroughly integrate this issue into its prosecutorial and investigative strategies and provide better witness protection programs so women can testify without fear of reprisal.

"The victory today was hard won," said Regan Ralph, "but international courts have much more work to do."