03/10/2008 12:03 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Women's Rights Still Lag Behind at ICC

First there were the Nuremburg Trials. Then the Geneva Conventions. And finally, the Rome Statute.

These documents and events, spanning some 60 years, all mark watershed moments in the development of international humanitarian law. Building on one another, each is designed to protect civilians from the scourge of war.

None has been more complete than the Rome Statute. Enacted in 2002, it established the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first ever permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes. And in the clearest terms yet, the statute identified specific gender-based crimes, from rape and sexual slavery to forced pregnancy and trafficking, as being just as heinous any other crime against humanity.

Hailed as a triumph for women's rights, the Rome Statute was to put an end to the impunity that's often met these crimes. But six years on, as the world once again marks International Women's Day, progress in the Court has been painfully slow.

"We have yet to see the investigative approach needed to ensure the prosecution of gender-based crimes," says Brigid Inder, the Executive Director of Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice, a Hague-based organization that promotes and monitors women's rights in the ICC.

The numbers paint a disappointing picture. The Court has issued warrants against just 10 people so far - in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Sudan. Five of those people remain at large and not a single one has been convicted yet. Of the 10 warrants, only a few include gender-based crimes.

This is despite the fact that women continue to be common targets in conflicts around the world. In Iraq, victims of rape are often blamed for their plight and forced to marry their attackers. In Colombia, rebels use women as sexual slaves. And in Myanmar, women are regularly attacked by soldiers.

At the crux of the ICC's slow progress is the Court's inability to identify enough victims, especially female ones. The stigma of sexual violence can be a huge burden for women in many communities, forcing them to remain silent. Many also come from places where women are second-class citizens, meaning they are given few chances to step forward even if they wanted to.

According to the 2007 ICC Gender Report Card, published by Inder's organization, barely a third of the 500 victims who have applied to participate in ICC proceedings are women. With so few cases, just 17 of those 500 have been officially identified as victims by the Court so far.

While Inder acknowledges that the ICC is still young, she says that many more victims will need to be included in proceedings to ensure violence against women does not continue to go unpunished.

"I think they've been very cautious in their interpretation of the (Rome) statute," she explains. "The ICC has teeth, its mandate is enormous. It needs to show it knows how to use its teeth."

A lot of work remains before the Rome Statute can be labeled a true success. The UN calls violence against women "one of the most serious and urgent challenges of our time." That's because every time they become a target of violence, the heath and vibrancy of children, families and entire communities are put in jeopardy.

A strong ICC is vital to ensuring this changes.

Inder says the Court can help deter this kind of violence by better reaching out to female victims in conflict zones, encouraging and even helping them come forward. This would lead to more charges being laid against perpetrators while setting an international precedent proving definitively that violence against women will no longer be tolerated.

"It's very powerful for the Court to do that," Inder explains. "This is a court created to be bold. The world needs it to be."