Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 some 100,000 people have been killed, and more than a million people have become refugees – the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has called it the worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War.
Tragedy seems to follow tragedy in Syria as news of chemical attacks and routine-massacres make headlines, but certainly one of the most under-reported of the conflict’s tragedies is its growing rape crisis. The past year has seen an enormous rise in the number of rapes committed by both government and opposition forces in Syria. Rape has become a weapon – a method of torture – in the conflict.
Wartime rape has been recognised internationally as a war crime since 1949 under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but it’s only in recent decades that rape has mutated into a method of waging war. The world is not blind to the plight of women in warfare – the ‘weaponised rape’ that is beginning to define the war in Syria also defined some more recent conflicts, such as those in Bosnia and the Congo where systematic rape was not only commonplace, but encouraged.
How is rape being used as a weapon? During the Bosnian War rape was used as an ‘instrument of terror‘ and Syria is no exception to this trend. Yassar Kanawati, a psychiatrist treating Syrian refugees in Amman, told Women Under Siege of a young unidentified FSA soldier who was forced to watch the rape of his mother, sister and fiancée in a Syrian army prison in Homs. The young man now suffers not only physically (his spine was injured during torture) but also mentally, and it’s unlikely that he will ever fully recover.
Civilians (despite the protection warranted by the Fourth Geneva Convention) have become the primary victims, and all too often targets, of modern warfare. Strictly speaking, the young man aforementioned was not a civilian – he was a combatant, but his torture, alongside the torture of his mother, sisters and fiancée shows the uniquely brutal nature of sexualised violence in Syria.
Like the conflicts in Bosnia and the Congo, rape in Syria is systematic and sadistic – its only purpose is to humiliate and torture. The effects of this type of rape can only be properly described by the victims themselves: One man said he was taunted by his rapists – “You want Assad to quit? This is for saying that you don’t like Bashar al-Assad.” Another women reported the use of rats. This is nothing more than sadistic humiliation, and victims are often reluctant to report their rape to human rights organisations. Subsequently it remains difficult to estimate the full extent of sexual violence in Syria.
Syria’s rape crisis, along with the rape crises in other parts of the world, cannot be ended without huge international effort. Many may come to conclude that rape is the natural and incurable accompaniment of all warfare, but this is certainly a false verdict; with the right strategy wartime rape can be prevented. Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague understand this and are currently leading the effort to end rape in conflict.
The Fourth Geneva Convention implies that the international community has a duty to protect civilians during times of war. There are obvious difficulties in implementing the Fourth Geneva Convention, especially so for the complex sectarian conflict in Syria, but Hague and Jolie argue that there are ways to inhibit sexual violence in war zones.
Speaking at a G8 conference, Hague said “our goal must be a world in which it is inconceivable that thousands of women, children, and men can be raped in the course of a conflict, because an international framework of deterrence and accountability makes it impossible”. The world Hague envisions is more feasible that you may think – his proposed action is to put an end to the seemingly contagious ‘culture of impunity’ by making prosecution a more likely prospect for rapists. In April, G8 foreign ministers agreed to pledge themselves to support and seek justice for rape victims – nearly $36 million was committed to the cause. These are important steps towards ending rape in conflict.
Hague has aptly named as his primary inspiration William Wilberforce, the nineteenth century anti-slave campaigner who tackled head-on the conventional wisdom that slavery was an intrinsic feature of humankind – an assumption that Wilberforce believed to be fatalistic. Accepting rape in conflict as inevitable is also fatalistic.
Gender violence cannot go unpunished, under any circumstances – the chaos of war doesn’t provide an ample excuse for the undertaking of such barbaric acts, and the efforts of the G8, if continued, seem very promising. Obviously sexual violence will not disappear overnight, but with commitment and publicity, initiatives such as this could prove effective in the long term.