Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sexual slavery, forced marriage, conjugal slavery: problems around collecting the voices of the victims

Courts distort the voices of victims in various ways, making it difficult to piece together the truth.

Gaëlle Breton-Le Goff
8 August 2019, 7.00am
Celestial Meeker/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc)

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It is disturbing to note that the perpetrators and victims who testified in the Charles Taylor trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone all used the word "marriage" to describe what are really imposed sexual relations.1 It is therefore based on the words of the victims and former perpetrators that the prosecutor’s office and then the judges built their notion of “forced marriage” initially,2 and that of “conjugal slavery” at a later stage.3

In this context, the voices of the victims are particularly important as they provide a factual basis for developing new international crimes. For this reason, I have been working to identify the voices of the victims that served to qualify the crime of forced marriage/sexual slavery in those cases handled by the International Criminal Court (ICC). My goal has been to better understand the logic of how crimes are defined. This testimony-gathering exercise, however, has not been without a number of challenges, which I will try to highlight.

Methodologically, my study has focused on four ICC cases related to the crimes of forced marriage/sexual slavery: three in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 4 and one in Uganda.5 The testimonies of the victims were collected both at the confirmation hearing stage and at the trial stage. The testimonies came both from witnesses of the prosecutors and from victims authorised to participate in the proceedings pursuant to Article 89 and following of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence.6

Problems faced in seeking the voices of the victims included: 1) the limited number of cases relating to such crimes; 2) the increased number of redacted testimonies across trials; 3) the prosecutor’s intermediary role in accessing the testimonies of victims at the key stage of confirmation of charges; 4) the impact of the prosecution’s strategy on the testimony; 5) the use and misuse of the terms “marriage” and “wife” by the prosecution; and finally 6) the death of the witness and the consequences of trauma on the testimony.

The lack of convictions relating to crimes of forced marriage/sexual slavery does not mean that the words of the victims are not true or real.

1. Limited sampling

Of the 42 persons accused or implicated by the ICC, only five are or were prosecuted for sexual slavery/forced marriage.7 Of those five accused persons, two were acquitted. M. Ngudjolo Chui was acquitted of all charges and G. Katanga of sexual slavery charges. Of the three remaining accused, G. Ntaganda and D. Ongwen are on trial and Al-Hassan is still awaiting a confirmation hearing.8 This means that the sample is relatively limited.

Number of persons accused in the ICC: 42

Number of persons accused of forced marriage/conjugal slavery: 5

Number of ongoing trials concerning these crimes: 2

Number of persons acquitted of these crimes: 2

Number of persons found guilty for these crimes: 0

It should be noted, however, that the lack of convictions relating to crimes of forced marriage/sexual slavery does not mean that the words of the victims are not true or real. The charges for sexual slavery were not dismissed in the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases because the testimony of the victims lacked credibility. Rather, they were dismissed because the prosecutor could not prove command responsibility and therefore the connection between the crime committed by subordinates and the commander’s action or failure to act.9

2. Differentiated access to the testimonies of victims across trials

The second problem regards accessing the testimonies of the victims of sexual violence and how it is treated differently across chambers and cases. Indeed, Articles 64-7 and 68 of the ICC statute allow judges to order, for security reasons or to protect witnesses and victims of sexual crimes, that cases be heard on camera and that sensitive information be redacted from transcripts. It is hard to understand, however, why protection measures make access to the testimonies of victims so different across trials. In the Ongwen case the testimonies of victims of sexual violence are all accessible.10 They are partially accessible in the Katanga case11 and entirely redacted in the Ntaganda case.12 The difficulty in accessing the testimonies of the victims in certain trials affects the analysis and understanding of the final outcome.

3. The intermediary voice of the prosecutor and judge at the confirmation hearing stage

In certain cases, the prosecution decided not to call any witness to the stand at the confirmation stage, as provided for under article 61(5) of the ICC Statute. The difficulty with this is that the story of the crime of sexual violence is told through an intermediary, namely the ICC prosecutor. His or her words do not reflect the victim’s voice, how they express themselves, or their view of the crime and the violence they suffered. They are repeated, selected, and summarised, first by the prosecutor and then by the judge. The researcher thus only gets bits of the victim’s words. Those that the prosecutor or the judges decided to disclose to support the prosecution’s strategy or the confirmation of charges decision.

So, because the prosecutor decided to prosecute G. Katanga, M. Nudjolo and B. Ntaganda for sexual slavery, the prosecutor’s account is more focused on detailing the physical evidence of the crime of sexual slavery than that of “forced marriage”, although some victims, such as P-249 and P-132, did report events that also relate to “forced marriage”.13

Consequently, the statute’s rules enable the prosecution to decide whether or not witnesses will be called to testify at this stage of the proceedings, even though they were not heard during the key stage of determining the charges.

4. When the prosecution’s strategy affects the testimony

Article 53(1) of the statute provides the prosecutor with discretion to proceed and to decide on what charges to proceed. The prosecutor is therefore free to select different charges for apparently similar acts.

Both in the Katanga case and in the Ongwen case, women were victims of the same acts: they were abducted, raped, given or taken as “wives”. They were controlled and watched in their every move, were forced to carry out domestic chores, and had now power over their sexuality or maternity. Nevertheless, the prosecution decided in the first case to prosecute for “sexual slavery” and, in the second case, for “forced marriage as another inhumane act”.

In the decision on the confirmation of charges against D. Ongwen, the judges upheld the element of exclusivity “imposed on the victim” as well as the social stigma resulting from being married with an LRA rebel to maintain the charge of “forced marriage”.14 Yet, one of the female victims testified at the Ongwen trial that she had been raped by several men and given successively to different husbands.15 Unfortunately, since the prosecution seeks to prove different crimes, testimonies do not provide a full picture of the events. The questions asked aim at highlighting elements of actus reus that are relevant to the crime of sexual slavery or forced marriage, as it has been defined in the confirmation of charges decision.

Finally, it is common for the prosecution to use the terms “given as wives” or to combine “forced marriage” and “sexual slavery” in the same sentence. This lack of legal clarity is problematic for the researcher as the dividing line between sexual slavery and forced marriage is very thin and, it should be stressed, somewhat artificial.

5. The death of witnesses, victims of sexual violence and how trauma and the passage of time impact on the testimony

Trauma, resilience mechanisms and the passage of time affects testimonies of sexual violence in various ways, and inevitably result in the defence questioning the credibility of the witness. And while the Rules of Procedure and Evidence do not require that evidence of crimes of sexual violence be corroborated, the testimony of witnesses may still vary due to the elapsed time between when the original statement was given to investigators and the hearing date.16

This is how the credibility of P-132, in the Katanga case, was challenged by the defence. The court noted, however, that some of the inconsistencies were due to the fact that, when she was interviewed by the investigator, she was afraid to tell the whole truth for fear of being rejected by her community. 17 The court finally held that despite the difficulties P-132 encountered in recalling tragic events, her testimony’s coherence contributed to her credibility. The court stated, however, that it would only rely on “those parts of the (…) testimony whose credibility (…) cast no doubt”.18

Finally, there have also been instances where witnesses, victims of sexual violence, died before being able to testify at the trial. In such cases we cannot access the testimonies of the victims.19 Neither can we access testimonies during cross-examination, which can sometimes bring a different light or reveal new information. While the testimonies of deceased sources may be admissible, it will be up to the chamber to determine their probative value. 20


It is a challenging task to collect the voices of the victims during ICC hearings in order to understand the facts, the crimes, how victims perceive the tragic events they experienced, what those events mean to them, and how other actors perceive their life experiences. What is available is fragmented, biased, and at times redacted. Court proceedings furthermore have no monopoly on the truth. And when it comes time to redress and rehabilitate the victims, their families and communities, a good psychological, social and ethnological understanding of the environment is required.

  1. Témoin Alimamy Bobson Sesay, ancien rebelle, Transcrit du 18 avril 2008, pp. 8006-8007, SCSL, Prosecutor v. Charles Taylor, Trial Chamber. Témoin TF1-189, Transcrit du 17 septembre 2008, pp. 16518, SCSL, Prosecutor v. Charles Taylor, Trial Chamber. ↩︎
  2. SLSC, Affaire AFRC, Prosecutor v. Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzi Kamara, Santigie Borbor Kanu, Appeal Chamber, Judgment, 22 février 2008, para 195-196. ↩︎
  3. SLSC, Prosecutor v. Charles Taylor, Trial Chamber II, Judgment, 18 May 2012, para 425-430. ↩︎
  4. CPI, Le Procureur c. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, ICC-01/04-01/06, CPI, Le Procureur c. Bosco Ntaganda, ICC-01/04-02/06, CPI, Le Procureur c. Germain Katanga, ICC-01/04-01/07. ↩︎
  5. CPI, Le Procureur c. Dominic Ongwen, ICC-02/04-01/15. ↩︎
  6. Cour pénale internationale, Règlement de procédure et de preuve, CPI, La Haye, 2013. ↩︎
  7. Il s’agit de D. Ongwen, de B. Ntaganda, de G. Katanga, de M. Ngudjolo et de Al-Hassan, un malien de Tombouctou. ↩︎
  8. Au moment de mettre sous presse. Voir Le Procureur c. Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, ICC-01/12-01/18, Fiche d’information sur l’affaire, Mise à jour en mai 2019, ↩︎
  9. D’ailleurs, la Chambre de première instance II dans son jugement du 7 mars 2014 contre G. Katanga a déclaré : « Pour la Chambre, le fait qu’une allégation ne soit, selon elle, pas prouvée au-delà de tout doute raisonnable n’implique pas pour autant qu’elle mette en cause l’existence même du fait allégué. Cela signifie seulement qu’elle estime, au vu du standard de preuve, ne pas disposer de suffisamment de preuves fiables pour se prononcer sur la véracité du fait ainsi allégué. Dès lors, déclarer qu’un accusé n’est pas coupable ne veut pas nécessairement dire que la Chambre constate son innocence. Une telle décision démontre simplement que les preuves présentées au soutien de la culpabilité ne lui ont pas permis de se forger une conviction « au- delà de tout doute raisonnable ». Le Procureur c. Germain Katanga, Chambre de première instance II, Jugement rendu en application de l’art. 74 du Statut, 7 mars 2014, ICC-01/04-01/07, para. 69 [Katanga, Jugement]. Voir également, Le Procureur c. M. Ngudjolo, Chambre de première instance II, Jugement rendu en application de l’art. 74 du Statut, 18 décembre 2012, ICC-01/04-02/12, para. 36. Sur la responsabilité indirecte, voir le para 110 du jugement. ↩︎
  10. Aussi bien au stade de la décision de confirmation des charges que de la phase du jugement. ↩︎
  11. La Cour a entendu 3 témoins victimes : P-132, P-249 et P-353. Katanga, Jugement, supra note 9, p. 401 et suivantes. En juin 2018, seul le témoignage de P-249 était accessible. Voir Transcrit 135 du 4 mai 2010, Le Procureur c. G. Katanga, Chambre de première instance II, ICC-01/04-01/07-T-135-Red-ENG WT 04-05-2010 [Katanga, Procès]. Toutefois, depuis cette date, les Transcrits de P-132 et de P-353 sont accessibles mais avec des sections expurgées pour des questions de sécurité. Ce qui nous empêche de connaître les faits concernant le mariage forcé vécu par P-132 lorsqu’elle a quitté le camp de Yuda. Il en est de même avec le témoignage de P-249, les parties du témoignage relatives à ce qu’elle a vécu dans le camp et à la naissance de son enfant sont expurgées. Voir Transcrit 135 du 4 mai 2010 aux pp. 57-59, Katanga, Procès, ICC-01/04-01/07-T-135-Red-ENG WT 04-05-2010. Au niveau de l’audience de confirmation des charges, aucun Transcrit concernant le témoignage des victimes d’esclavage sexuel n’est disponible pour l’affaire Katanga & Ngudjolo. ↩︎
  12. Dans l’affaire Natganda, toutes les parties du témoignage des victimes, témoins de la poursuite, relatives aux crimes de violence sexuelle ont été systématiquement expurgées des Transcrits. La seule information dont nous disposons c’est l’interprétation qu’en ont faite la Poursuite et la Cour dans la décision de confirmation des charges. ↩︎
  13. Voir le témoin P-249, Transcrit 43 du 4 juillet 2008 aux pp. 18 et 19, Le Procureur c. Germain Katanga et Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, Chambre préliminaire I, ICC-01/04-01/07-T-43- FRA ET WT-04-07-2008 [Katanga & Ngudjolo Chui, Audience de confirmation des charges]. Pour le témoin P-132, lire Transcrit 140 du 12 mai 2010 à la p. 18, Katanga, Procès, ICC-01/04-01/07-T-140-Red-FRA WT 12-05-2010. ↩︎
  14. Le Procureur c. D. Ongwen, ICC-02/04-01/15, Chambre préliminaire II, Décision relative à la confirmation des charges contre Dominic Ongwen, 23 mars 2016, para. 93. ↩︎
  15. Tel est le cas du témoin 352 : Transcrit 67 du 1er mai 2017 aux pp. 44, 45 et 49, Le Procureur c. D. Ongwen, Chambre d’instance IX, ICC-02/04-01/15-T-67-Red2-ENG WT 01-05-2017. ↩︎
  16. L’attaque de Bogoro (Ituri, RDC) a eu lieu en février 2003, le premier recueil de preuves a eu lieu en 2006 et la victime a témoigné en Cour en mai 2010. C’est pire pour les témoins du procès Ongwen car les faits concernent la période du 1e juillet 2002 au 31 décembre 2005, et le procès est toujours en cours en 2019, soit 14 ans après les faits. ↩︎
  17. Katanga, Jugement, supra note 9, para 204. ↩︎
  18. Ibid, para 212. ↩︎
  19. C’est notamment le cas de P-0022 dans l’affaire Ntaganda. ↩︎
  20. Le Procureur c. G. Katanga & M. Ngudjolo Chui, Chambre préliminaire I, ICC-01/04-01/07, Décision relative à la confirmation des charges, 30 septembre 2008, para 109 et 116. ↩︎
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