Sexual violence is devastating for victims, whatever the context. But in armed conflict – where it is strategically used to victimise men, women and children – sexual violence is often sidelined as an unfortunate side effect of war, or even ignored entirely.
This crime is perpetrated on a large scale by armed groups in many regions around the world, though estimating actual numbers is very difficult due to significant under-reporting by victims. And a culture of impunity exists, in which successful prosecutions for rape and sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide are rare.
Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes a victim’s right of access to justice. National and international criminal justice systems have a duty to ensure that victims have access to fair and effective investigations and prosecutions.
International efforts to raise awareness, support victims, and prosecute perpetrators have never been stronger. In 2014, UN special envoy Angelina Jolie-Pitt joined with then UK foreign secretary William Hague and others at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict to outline practical steps to tackle impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war and to change global attitudes toward these crimes.
I attended this summit hoping to learn more about the role of forensic science in the investigation and prosecution of sexual violence in conflict situations. But I found that the potential for forensic science was largely overlooked. For a number of complex cultural and technical reasons, it was not included in the subsequent International Protocol for the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, either.
Yet forensic science has an important role to play in the investigation and prosecution of crimes. It can provide physical evidence to help reconstruct events, corroborate witness statements, provide intelligence to investigators and in some cases identify perpetrators.
The fundamental basis for all forensic techniques is the assumption that every contact leaves a trace – this is known as Locard’s exchange principle. These traces can take various forms: from DNA, to fingerprints, to hairs and fibres, to tool marks and beyond. They can be analysed to link people to an activity or location associated with a crime, and used in court as evidence to support the prosecution or defence.
Forensic DNA analysis can be particularly useful in cases of violent and sexual crime, because of the presence of biological material – such as blood, semen and saliva – at some crime scenes. This evidence is particularly valuable in cases where the perpetrator and victim are strangers to one another. In a domestic context, only about 10% of reported cases of sexual violence involve strangers, so in the vast majority of cases DNA is not required to identify the perpetrator. But the perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict are rarely known to their victims, making DNA analysis a potentially powerful form of evidence.
DNA evidence obtained from victims can contribute to investigations and prosecutions in a number of ways. It can identify a perpetrator when suspects are available for comparison, link multiple cases to individual perpetrators, provide valuable intelligence about the prevalence and strategic nature of these crimes and support prosecutions by providing high-quality, physical evidence.
In light of these facts, it is unfortunate that DNA evidence is not accessible to investigations and prosecutions of sexual violence in conflict. Lack of access to medical facilities and professionals and inadequate training for police and NGO staff make DNA analysis seem impossible in conflict regions.
In an effort to overcome these barriers, I have assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers with expertise in forensic science, genetics, gender studies, sexual violence legislation, victimology and psychology. We have now launched our project at the UN HeForShe campaign’s first-ever #GetFree tour, aimed at empowering university students to understand and address gender inequality.
Our aim is to work with governments, international organisations, NGOs and the International Criminal Courts to design and implement forensic strategies which can contribute to investigations and have a positive impact on prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict zones.
For instance, we are currently working with global partners to come up with DNA recovery products, which could be made available to victims who are not able to access traditional medical and forensic examinations. This is especially relevant for remote regions, where access to medical facilities and professionals is not possible.
We hope this research will provide insight into how to overcome the cultural, legal and technical barriers that exist when trying to implement forensic science in these complex circumstances. It won’t be easy, but making forensic technology accessible to regions and communities who desperately need it is a step toward empowering victims, supporting prosecutions and ending the culture of impunity that currently exists.
This article is part of a collaboration with the University of Leicester and the HeforShe campaign for gender equality.