The German government on Wednesday approved a draft law allowing sexual violence in conflict zones to be prosecuted as a war crime and a crime against humanity.
The center-left-led coalition passed a justice ministry measure allowing a change to Germany’s criminal code. It would permit Germany to probe such crimes committed abroad under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”.
The change would mean that the existing war crimes definition would be expanded to encompass sexual assault, sexual enslavement and forced pregnancy termination.
“Sexual violence, primarily against women, has long been used in conflict worldwide by terrorists, systematically in armed conflicts and as a tactical weapon,” German family and women’s affairs minister Lisa Paus told AFP.
Berlin was seeking to bolster “the rights of the victims of this horrible crime by giving them the opportunity to take an active part in the criminal trial” as co-plaintiffs, Paus said.
The impetus behind the new legislation, which still requires parliamentary approval, was widespread accounts of sexual assault since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she said.
Paus of the Green party also pointed to reports of the rape of Israelis by Hamas fighters in the October 7 attacks.
“International criminal law has become dramatically relevant since the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine,” Justice Minister Marco Buschmann of the liberal Free Democrats said in a statement.
The third party in the ruling coalition, the Social Democrats, noted the importance of the legal reform in explicitly protecting LGBTQ people in war zones, calling it “historic”.
“War crimes” and “crimes against humanity” were both defined in the 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A war crime covers more than 50 scenarios, including killing, torture, rape, and hostage taking.
Germany has in the past repeatedly prosecuted atrocities committed abroad, including in the war in Syria.
It does so use universal jurisdiction which allows countries to try people for crimes of exceptional gravity, including war crimes and genocide, even if they were committed in a different country.
UN investigators probing violations in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion reported in March that Moscow was behind a vast array of war crimes, including widespread attacks on civilians and infrastructure, killings, torture, rape, and other sexual violence.