Three months ago, a Libyan woman burst into a hotel in Tripoli and told foreign journalists she'd been gang-raped by Colonel Gaddafi's soldiers. TV crews filmed distressing scenes as Iman al-Obeidi was dragged away by Libyan security forces, despite attempts by reporters to prevent her abduction. Last week a senior figure at the International Criminal Court repeated claims that the Gaddafi regime has used mass rape to terrorise the civilian population. In what was widely described as "a horrific first", the regime was accused of distributing the anti-impotence drug, Viagra, to soldiers.
A similar claim was made in April but the ICC's prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, gave it credibility when he said there was evidence of Libya acquiring "containers" of such drugs in order to "enhance the possibility to rape women". Such accusations suggest that the regime has deliberately planned crimes against humanity, but they're also sensational and problematic: rape in war is so common that the problem is stopping sexual violence against women and men, not persuading soldiers to carry it out.
The historian Antony Beevor has revealed the truly staggering extent of rape by the Soviet Red Army as it advanced at the end of the Second World War; between 95,000 and 130,000 rape victims were treated at Berlin's two hospitals, while the number of German women who were victims of soldiers may have reached two million.
Beevor quoted a playwright, Zakhar Agranenko, who wrote in his diary that "Red Army soldiers don't believe in 'individual liaisons' with German women. Nine, ten, twelve men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis." At the same time, Allied soldiers were committing similar atrocities in Japan: during a 10-day period in the autumn of 1945, they were accused of carrying out 1,336 rapes in a single prefecture.
More recently, American soldiers not only sexually abused prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq but filmed each other as they did it. For once, some of the perpetrators ended up in court, but it's far more usual for a culture of impunity to flourish in the military.
Against this background, it would be surprising if Gaddafi's forces hadn't been accused of rape; what's changed is the willingness of women like al-Obeidi to speak out.
The outrage of the international community is selective: not a single member of the Sri Lankan government is currently under investigation for crimes against humanity, despite the existence of filmed evidence that its forces committed atrocities, including mass rape, in 2009.
On Tuesday evening, Channel 4 will screen the evidence in a harrowing documentary called Sri Lanka's Killing Fields. But some of the most distressing sequences come from the soldiers' mobile phones, filmed as trophies as they posed and joked beside the bound corpses of violated women. This is the military culture of rape at its most sickening, rarely seen by civilians.
It calls for a tough international response to get justice for the thousands of women who've been raped in Sri Lanka, Libya and other conflicts. Just as important, though, is that world leaders send the strongest possible signal that the days of impunity for soldier-rapists are over.
Joan Smith is Political Blonde www.politicalblonde.com;Reuse content