Beyond Retribution and Impunity: Responding to War Crimes of Sexual Violence

67 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2004

See all articles by Naomi Cahn

Naomi Cahn

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: August 26, 2004


Beyond Retribution and Impunity: Responding to War Crimes of Sexual Violence articulates principles for an approach to gender-based violence during conflict and post-conflict that operates within three different meanings of justice: criminal/civil justice, restorative justice, and what I define as social services justice. The article argues that responses to sexual violence must integrate legal and nonlegal, national, international, and local approaches, and must respond to both short and longer-term needs. It focuses on victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during what has been called the First World War in Africa, which occurred from 1996-2003.

Joseph Conrad famously wrote about The Heart of Darkness more than a century ago. Today, the Congo is emerging from a devastating war which involved neighboring countries, including Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Angola. As the Congo undergoes a transition to a democracy, it must grapple with its response to the hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual violence who are still wounded - in so many ways - as a result of the conflict.

By focusing on the actual victims of violence, this article articulates a new vision of social services justice. Social services justice adds another dimension to the criminal/civil justice system and to restorative justice (remedies such as reparations and mediation) by focusing on the social, economical, medical, and psychological components of providing justice to victims and moving beyond the two-dimension focus on perpetrator/victim. This new vision of justice is applicable to countries beyond the Congo and to victims of any type of conflict-based violence.

This article discusses the contemporary Congolese conflict, providing the context for the sexual violence that has occurred during the war. Next, the article provides a fuller development of the principles that should guide any response to the sexual violence, surveying the possible approaches. Finally, the article provides specific recommendations for a victim-centered approach that reflects and respects community concerns and interests and that also ensures responsibility for perpetrators.

Keywords: family law, feminism, international law, development, war crimes, sexual violence

JEL Classification: K33, N47, O55

Suggested Citation

Cahn, Naomi R., Beyond Retribution and Impunity: Responding to War Crimes of Sexual Violence (August 26, 2004). Available at SSRN: or

Naomi R. Cahn (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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