2/28/2023 - Politics and Society

Sexual violence in the war of Ukraine, an instrument for “desnazification”

By Maria Hegglin

Sexual violence in the war of Ukraine, an instrument for “desnazification”

The gender dimension in the Russian-Ukranian conflict: war crimes and possible crimes of lesa humanity and genocide

One year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is no doubt that one of the most dramatic dimensions of the conflict is gender. From an early age, testimonies of Ukrainian women and girls were reported to have been victims of sexual crimes. According to the testimonies that were collected journalists, human rights organizations, the Attorney General of Ukraine and the International Commission designated by the UN, crimes include violations, group violations, sexual torture, forced nudity and other forms of abuse. Besides, the victims go from 4 to 80.

Contrary to what some might think, a war conflict is not all allowed, and this kind of abuse against the civilian population is highly condemned by international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions, which constitute, as a whole, the “laws to make war”, establish that all kinds of sexual crime perpetrated by military against non-combatants is a war crime, and must be punished as such by an International Tribunal.

In the Ukrainian case, due to the proper characteristics that these and other abuses were adopted - illegal arrests in detention centers, forced transfers, executions and torture of civilians, among others -, there are those who argue that we are facing crimes of lesa humanity, and even before a genocide against the Ukrainians. Both the Attorney General’s suspicion that there is a systematic pattern of sexual violence, and the explicit goal of the Russian government to “unify” Ukrainian society, support this last point.

Systematic plan to denazify?

In recent months, the recovery of about 40% of the occupied territories allowed further investigation into sexual crimes perpetrated by the Russian army. Since the Attorney's office, there has been a pattern of sexual abuse organized within the clandestine detention and torture centers directed by the Russian Armed Forces.

For example, after the Russian withdrawal, four major centers were found only in the city of Kherson, where there is evidence that systematic sexual tortures were performed against detained civilians. The same included violations with electric fucking and discharge in the genitals. But Kherson was not the only place where these crimes were detected; traces were also found in the regions of Kíev, Chernigov, Jarkov and Donetsk.

Given the scale and great frequency with which this type of abuse is detected, the Crimes of War on Sexual Violence Unit of Ukraine puts the possibility that sexual violence is the result of a directive of the senior Russian commanders and that ultimately is a tool within a genuine Kremlin-driven plan. The “desnazifying” ideology that rises to the Russian offensive contributes to delineating this hypothesis.

Within the rhetoric of the Russian government, the invasion initiated February 2022 is the way to defend the population of Russian ethnicity that dwells in the Ukrainian region of the Dombás, victim of a genocide by the Ukrainian regime “pro-Nazi” and “anti-Russian”. Kremlin's goals were clear in this sense. Article What Russia should do with Ukraine, published by the state agency RIA Novosti, Timofey Sergeytsev argues that eliminating Nazism from Ukraine is the ultimate goal of the military operation itself. In addition, it defines denazification as “a set of measures directed to the Nazi mass of the population, which technically cannot be punished directly as a war criminal.” Finally, he argues that this process is long because it implies a complete transformation of the Ukrainian identity and that, for its correct realization, the total debugging of the active Nazis (political, activists), as of the passive Nazis (the civilian population in general that supports the government). Ultimately, for Sergeytsev, the Russian occupation must allow “the creation of systemic conditions for a subsequent denazification in times of peace”.

Under this context, sexual violence can be read in a denazifying key. In several testimonies of rape victims there appeared phrases like “this is what will happen to all Nazi prostitutes” or “we will violate them until they cannot give birth to more Ukrainians”. Thus, sexual crimes, especially the violations of women and girls, appear as a perverse instrument to eliminate the “Ukra-Nazis”, symbolically, from the erosion of the Ukrainian identity, as in a real way, through unwanted pregnancies that arise from these abuses.

This is not the first time that sexual violence served as a weapon for genocidal purposes. As Laurel Wamsley points out in the NPR portal, during the Bosnian war, there were Serbian “trape fields” in which there are testimonies of women and girls who said they were raped until they got pregnant, and then forced to continue with these pregnancies without the possibility of carrying out an abortion. Thus, the aggressors ensured that these babies were of their ethnicity, favoring the proportion of Serbian population within Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A tortuous path to justice

The Convention for the Prevention and Sanction of the Crime of Genocide, the main international document in this matter, defines the crime of genocide as “any of the acts mentioned below, perpetrated with the intention of total or partially destroying a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such: (e) transfer by force of children from the group to another group.

In the Ukrainian case, the denazificadora ideology that subjacees when triggering Russian is no other thing than the Kremlin's purpose statement of eliminating the Ukrainian nation as such; and the sexual violence perpetrated by the Russian Armed Forces, which fits perfectly to subalíneas b) and d) of the definition, is one of the instrumental actions that carry out to accomplish its goal.

In any case, that we can understand the facts under this logic and that today there is a social condemnation of this kind of crimes, does not mean that in the future there will be a legal condemnation for perpetrators. There are a number of factors that cloud the perspective of justice for victims of sexual abuse and genocide in Ukraine.

First of all, as was well exposed in the Report of the Independent International Research Commission on Ukraine (A/77/533), cases of sexual and gender violence are difficult to investigate, as victims face obstacles to denouncing these violations. The security situation and forced displacements due to war prevent victims from being adequately met, with the health, psychological and legal care they need. In addition, sexual crimes have the particularity of often staying secret, because, for a matter of inhibition and/or social judgment, the victims prefer not to report the incident.

Secondly, there is the difficulty inherent in the definition of genocide, to demonstrate that the Russian commanders intend to destroy the Ukrainians as a group. Some politicians, journalists and academics take the denazifying ideology as justification for this intentionality, but this could not be enough for an international court that needs more concrete evidence (declarations, official documents, etc.) that takes into account a genuine plan and the use of sexual violence as an instrument.

Finally, the biggest stone on the way may be the lack of membership of Russia and Ukraine to the International Criminal Court, the main international body that is responsible for judging international serious crimes, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide crime. Without the ratification of the Statute of Rome by both countries, it will be truly complex to think of justice for the Ukrainian victims.

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maria hegglin

Maria Hegglin

Hi, I'm Maria. I am currently studying the last year of the Bachelor's Degree in International Studies at Torcuato Di Tella University. I am also an intern in the Foreign Trade area of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Franco-Argentina. My main interests are: human rights, gender and development. In my free time I do contemporary dance, creative writing workshops and I look at many movies. In another life, I did a year of the UBA Literature.

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