Side Event – “Documenting Conflict and Atrocity-Related Sexual Violence Crimes in CAR, Iraq, Myanmar and Sri Lanka"

Country Supplements to the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict

(co-hosted by the United Kingdom, the Centre for International Law Research and Policy – Case Matrix Network, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, the Institute for International Criminal Investigations and Redress)

Overview by Adina Nistor, Affiliated Expert PILPG NL


  • When victim and documenter safety cannot be insured, the mindful decision is to choose not to document the perpetration of international crimes;

  • Guiding principle that cannot be emphasized enough: do no harm. Investigating international crimes and particularly crimes of sexual violence requires cultural sensitivity and a commitment to not further traumatize victims or put them (and documenter) at risk;

  • Taboos, strong cultural and religious beliefs, and investigators’ own prejudices can hamper the investigation of sexual violence crimes.

  • The Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict (the Protocol) is a useful tool for documenting conflict and atrocity – related sexual violence crimes, which should be adapted to match the specificity of the country where the crimes have been committed.

This side event offered a thought-provoking discussion on investigating sexual violence in various socio-cultural and economic contexts, on how it should be ideally conducted, and what the steps are to move further in a constructive way. The speakers explained the role of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict (the Protocol) and how theory and practice related aspects of documenting conflict and atrocity – related sexual violence crimes can be strengthened. Through the development and application of the Protocol to four country-specific supplements (on CAR, Iraq, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka), the first steps into solidifying and increasing knowledge on this sensitive topic have been taken. Other states and relevant actors are encouraged to use the Protocol, and to transpose and adapt it to national practices.

The experts present at the meeting addressed weaknesses inherent to current practices prevalent in the work of those documenting sexual violence crimes, with a particular focus on over-documentation, inadequate coordination, and the lack of competence of (especially self-appointed) investigators to conduct such sensitive work. The Protocol has been therefore designed to guide practitioners in conducting the documentation of sexual violence crimes in a culturally sensitive and ethical manner, which concern for the mental and physical wellbeing of those interviewed, but also the wellbeing of themselves as investigators. Being aware of the context-specificity of sexual violence crimes is essential first of all for appropriately identifying the crimes committed, for addressing survivors with sensitivity and dignity, and for ensuring that they are not re-traumatized by the process of providing evidence. Given that each conflict and each country where such crimes take place have their own set of legal practices, cultural norms, and traditions that are locally specific, the guidelines offered in the Protocol serve as a starting point in having the awareness that is necessary to adapt to the given context and to the given conflict situation.

The speakers also discussed the four individual guides on the four different countries (CAR, Iraq, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka) more in-depth; they addressed issues concerning the countries’ common ground, but also their points of divergence. The stigmatization suffered by victims of sexual crimes for example is a particularly challenging issue from an investigative point of view. The stigma attached to these survivors has legal and social implications for how such crimes are being addressed. In the case of male victims of sexual violence in particular, in countries where sodomy laws are in place, this prevents them from coming forward about what they have suffered for fear of legal repercussions and double victimization (by the perpetrator(s), and by the legal system).

One aspect that was underlined by the practitioners present at the meeting was that the issue of over-documentation is increasingly problematic, especially when it is conducted by self-appointed, untrained investigators. Ad-hoc approaches to gathering and handling extremely sensitive evidence, and of gathering statements from survivors of sexual violence crimes can lead to further human rights violations and can jeopardize the process of justice delivery for the victims. Gathering evidence without having a clear understanding on why and how this evidence is collected leads to unnecessarily exposing survivors to risks (filming interviews with victims can endanger them and this aspect should be always considered by the investigator). Documenters and donors have to be mindful of the dangers of investigating international crimes and at times make the decision to not investigate when doing so is harmful. While all victims of sexual violence crimes are extremely vulnerable, the speakers addressed the fact that when it comes to children, collecting evidence from them is even more problematic and ethically challenging. 

The discussion ended with best way to look forward. Ideally, victims of sexual violence crimes should be empowered to fully know their rights. They should therefore receive clear, truthful and appropriate answers to questions such as: Who are you and why are you taking my statement? What purpose will it serve? In what way does it benefit me? Ultimately, the role of the investigators is not only to document what happened, by whom, and to whom, but also to protect those who have been victimized and not to produce further harm.