In a historic decision, the United Nations war-crimes tribunal in The Hague last month convicted three men in trials that focused exclusively on sexual violence against women during war. By ruling that rape can be used as an instrument of terror against women, the court sets new standards for behavior during war.

When Serb forces occupied the town of Foca in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, Muslim men and women were put in separate camps. During the trial, 63 witnesses testified, including 16 women who reported in agonizing detail about how they were selected by soldiers each night and forced to go to “rape camps” where they were repeatedly brutalized.

The court ruled that the slavery and sexual violence were part of a systematic attack against the civilian population and should be considered a crime against humanity. It sentenced old Dragoljub Kunarac to 28 years in prison, Radomir Kovac to 20 years and Zoran Vukovic to 12 years. In addition to organizing the rape camps, Kunarac and Kovac kept young women and girls at the quarters as servants and slaves subject to sexual and physical abuse.

The ruling has been applauded by human-rights groups. Amnesty International called the verdict “a significant step for women’s human rights — sexual enslavement in armed conflict is now legally acknowledged as a crime against humanity, and perpetrators can and must be held to account.”

That may offer some solace for the victims of the brutality, the youngest of whom were 12 and 13 years old at the time. Their lives have been ruined, however. And during trial, they were forced to relive the horrors and confront — albeit through screens and with the aid of voice scramblers — their torturers. The world owes them a debt. They deserve all the assistance that can be mustered. Justice has been served, but the horrific crimes committed against them and the hurt they have endured cannot be undone.

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