"What had occurred here with forced marriage was something very serious and very specific, and wasn't fully recognized," says Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is trying nine military leaders thought to be the most responsible for crimes committed during the struggle over political power and control of the country's diamonds. "It was part of a widespread attack against civilians. Women were being taken as wives without consent, either consent by them ... or by family members."
The court's first rulings on the charges, brought against three members of the notorious Revolutionary United Front, are expected in July.
Forced marriage had long been considered a variation on sexual violence. The Special Court's trial chamber had considered it a "redundant" charge already covered by charges of rape and sexual slavery. But Mr. Rapp insists, and the court's upper chamber agreed, that forced marriage is a discrete crime.
"Of course it [forced marriage] almost always involved sex, but it involved other things – an exclusive, essentially lifetime relationship under the control of a man, a demand that this individual [the wife] provide ... household services, travel with the man, care for his needs, and everything else," Rapp says.
The decision paves the way for similar charges in northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rights groups have documented the use of bush wives in ongoing conflicts. Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice at The Hague, says the practice is a common way of rewarding commanders and organizing battalions in the Lord's Resistance Army, which has terrorized Uganda's Acholi population for nearly 20 years. Her group has also documented the "rewarding" of bush wives to soldiers in three separate militias in Congo.