Weekly News Roundup

By Julia d'Amours

On Thursday, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed the Department of Education would reform how universities handle accusations of sexual assault. Though DeVos did not say what specific changes would be made, she remarked that universities are “ill-served by a quasi-judicial process.” DeVos’s statement focused on the rights of the accused, whom she claimed are mistreated under current systems. Critics from the Right claim DeVos’s proposal grants disproportionate weight to the testimonies of victims, while voices from the Left say it undermines essential changes made during the Obama Administration. 

On Sunday, federal prosecutors in Brazil opened an investigation of ten murdered indigenous tribe members. The altercation arose when the members of the previously uncontacted tribe encountered Brazilian gold miners along a river near the Colombian border. This is the second reported killing of uncontacted indigenous peoples this year. Survival International, an indigenous rights organization, claimed that given the diminished populations of uncontacted tribes, a single armed conflict could carry serious repercussions for the survival of the ethnic group.

On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that California will file a law suit against the Trump Administration over the repeal of DACA. This comes after a coalition of 15 states announced joint legal action against the proposed repeal. California is estimated to be home to more than one in every four DACA recipients. 

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the bleak living conditions of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Pakistan. Residents of the Rohingya-populated Arkanabad slum report police brutality, malnutrition, and lack of work and education opportunities. Rohingya in Pakistan wish to see the country taking a more firm stance against military persecution in Burma, as it holds the highest concentration of Rohingya outside of their native lands. 

On Wednesday, it was announced that Burma’s defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be skipping the UN General Debate, which is scheduled to begin on September 19th. Burma has been under heavy criticism for its treatment of the Rohingya, and the UN has accused it of ethnic cleansing. Spokespeople for Ms. Suu Kyi claimed that she “has more pressing matters to deal with” and she will “speak for national reconciliation and peace” on national television instead.

Photo by Htoo Tay Zar

Women and Girls Deserve Equal Protection for Medical Services Under IHL

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — May 15, 2017

[NEW YORK, NY] -  Today, the UN Security Council holds its Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence under Uruguay’s presidency. In the concept note, Uruguay reflected on the findings of the new UN Secretary-General’s report on how rape is used as a weapon of terrorism and genocide. They cited the example of the crimes Daesh is committing against ethnic minorities such as the Yazidi in North Iraq and Syria, including using rape as a non-killing crime of genocide. Yet, to date, no trial has been held to prosecute perpetrators of this ongoing genocide.

OMCT & GJC Report to CAT: Sri Lankan laws condone torture of women and girls

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—November 14, 2016

[NEW YORK and GEVENA (OMCT-GJC)] — Tomorrow, the Committee Against Torture (CAT), during its 59th session, will examine Sri Lanka’s fifth State party report. In October, the Global Justice Center (GJC) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) jointly submitted an alternative report focused on how Sri Lankan law violates the Convention Against Torture by banning abortion in most circumstances, and by authorizing rape in certain instances and child marriage.

Growing Consensus in International Community that US Must Lift Abortion Ban

by Liz Olson

Denying women raped in war zones access to abortions is a violation of their fundamental human rights ­­-- yet the US continues to do so in the face of growing international criticism. Under the Geneva Conventions, women raped in war zones fall under the category of the “wounded and sick,” meaning that they are entitled to all necessary medical care to treat their condition. Failing to provide abortion access to these women not only violates their rights under International Humanitarian Law, it subjects them to further trauma, as they are again stripped of control over their bodies.  These women, forced to carry the children of their rapists, face additional pain, suffering, and stigma.

The Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, prohibits US humanitarian assistance funds from being used to pay for abortions “as a method of family planning.” Since then, the law has been incorrectly interpreted as a blanket ban on abortion services, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.  By denying women and girls raped in war zones access to this necessary medical procedure, the US is violating the “principle of adverse distinction” under the Geneva Conventions, which stipulates that IHL cannot be implemented in ways that are less favorable for women than for men. Men and women wounded in war must be provided with all necessary forms of medical care. For women raped in was zones, this includes access to abortion services.

Access to abortion service has been increasingly recognized by the international community as a right under humanitarian law, and the US ban has come under growing criticism. The United Nations, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and the European Union have all come out in strong support of providing safe abortion access to women raped in conflict zones, and it is time for the US to follow suit.

Respect Rape Victims’ Right to Abortions in Syria

by Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

Since 2011, the Syrian civil war continues to inflict irreparable harm on its civilian population and has resulted in over one quarter million civilian deaths. A disturbing and specific factor of the Syrian conflict is the brutal and systematic use of rape and other forms of violence against women. Rape ­– whether perpetrated by ISIS militants, the Damascus regime, or other rebels, is a fate far worse than death for many Syrian women.

In Latakia, a woman reportedly committed suicide because was unable to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Another woman was thrown off a balcony by her own father after he found out she was pregnant as a result of gang rape. Countless other women provided testimony that speaks to the gravity of the violence inflicted on their bodies, be it as an act of genocide, seen with Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS, or as a weapon of war to destroy and divide rebel communities in opposition of the Assad regime.

To quote writer and Syrian refugee, Samar Yazbek, “[women’s] bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”

The Syrian conflict is considered the “largest humanitarian crisis of our time,” according to USAID. A recent report from the Syrian Refugees Websitea project of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, indicates that there are about 11 million refugees and over 13.5 million civilians in need of humanitarian aid.Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), wants to direct more international aid towards assisting women and girls, who he describes as “the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer most.” Women and girls, he further notes, are facing a campaign of widespread rape combined with a woeful lack of reproductive health services.

An estimated 500,000 pregnant Syrian women remain in the war-torn country or are in nearby nations. More than ever, access to abortion services is a critical form of medical care for these wartime rape victims, as well as protected right under the Geneva Conventions. Yet safe abortion services remain woefully lacking. Post-abortion care (care that’s required when women have undergone unsafe abortion procedures), has been identified as one of the major challenges in refugee camps.

Misallocation of funds is partly to blame, which Osotimehin concedes is due to the prioritization of providing food, shelter, and water over “women’s issues.” The resulting gendered bias towards issue-areas renders the discussion of “the dignity, the welfare, and the security of women (…) something that doesn’t play out at all” in donor nations discussions according to Osotimehin. The resulting impact this bias has had on dictating how to address and allocate humanitarian aid is devastating.

Another reason that fewer rape victims are receiving the essential medical care they need is that nearly all the major humanitarian groups in Syria, including UNFPA, are subject to American anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid. The United States, through USAID, continues to be the largest government donor to the Syria crisis, with contributions of nearly $5.6 billion, between 2011 and 2016, matching the next three largest donors’ funding combined. This US monopoly limits in large part the services humanitarian aid providers can make available and equipment they can buy with US funds,

This summer, the Democratic Party, in a historic first step, has included in its platform a vow to overturn all domestic laws that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including the Helms Amendment. The reversal of this ban would allow US foreign aid to be used for abortions and other reproductive medical care desperately needed by thousands of women in Syria and throughout the world.

This year is the 67th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. We must reflect as a nation on both the historical legacy, as well as the ongoing protections the treaties afford civilians in conflict. In its inception the Geneva Conventions sought to define the scope of international humanitarian law by regulating armed conflict in service of offering combatants and civilians unalienable protections.

Just as the Geneva Conventions, and their application, have expanded over time in recognition of the evolving nature of armed conflicts, so too must convention signatories commit to modifying domestic policies that obstruct adherence to the treaties’ binding obligations. Such obligations include providing the right to all necessary medical care, which includes access to abortion services for war rape victims.

It is President Obama’s last opportunity to seize this call to action and pass an Executive Order that lifts the Helms Amendment restrictions and recommits American policy to its humanitarian legal obligations. USAID has already recognized the gravity of the Syrian crisis, both in terms of policy commitment and total aid donations. Now, with the support of the new democratic platform, it must incorporate a gender-sensitive commitment to the women of the Syrian crisis in its aid packages, which must include abortion services as obligated by the Geneva Conventions.

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Remembering ISIS' Crimes of Genocide Against Yazidis on the Anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre

by Jessica Zaccagnino

With the rise of non-state terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, the strategic face of war has changed. This shift has subsequently altered the experience of civilians in armed conflict. In this changing landscape, women and girls face distinct horrors in comparison to men.

Groups such as ISIS have been perpetuating genocide against minorities in controlled territories, notably against the Yazidis. These violent extremists target women and men differently when committing crimes of genocide. In addition to systematic murder, ISIS subjects women to sexual slavery, forced marriages, rape, forced impregnation, and other gender-specific crimes of genocide. Despite the distinct tactics that are being used to commit genocide, the gender reality of genocide is often overlooked when enforcing the Genocide Convention. Global Justice Center’s Genocide Project fights against the gender-gap in responding to crimes of genocide perpetrated by extremist groups, like ISIS, and seeks to ensure that the laws of war work for, and not against, women.

On the morning of August 3rd, 2014, ISIS forces entered the Sinjar region in Northern Iraq, only months after declaring itself a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. The region has a high population of Yazidi people, an ethno-religious Kurdish minority that has been heavily targeted by the ISIS insurgency. In Sinjar alone, 5,000 men were killed, thousands of women were systematically raped and sold into sexual slavery, and over 150,000 Yazidis were displaced. When ISIS took Sinjar, men and boys over the age of ten were separated from women and children, and most, as evidence of mass graves suggests, were killed. In the process of fleeing, an estimated 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, with ISIS forces surrounding them. Although a majority of those trapped were able to eventually escape the mountainous region, the Sinjar Massacre left thousands dead, and thousands more enslaved. Yazidi women “have been systemically captured, killed, separated from their families, forcibly transferred and displaced, sold and gifted (and resold and re-gifted), raped, tortured, held in slavery and sexual slavery, forcibly married and forcibly converted.” These women have been targeted by ISIS solely on the basis of their gender and ethnicity, and such acts make clear ISIS’ genocidal intent to destroy the group in whole.

Despite the air drops of food, water, and supplies, the Yazidis trapped in the mountain siege survived in grim conditions—circumstances intended by ISIS to destroy the group. In addition to air drops, President Obama invoked the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” as a justification for launching air strikes to rescue those trapped in the Sinjar Mountains. Just this year, Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared that ISIS is committing genocide. It is vital for the United States to recognize the unique aspects of genocide that specifically target gender within the persecution of Yazidis when taking action against ISIS. Although the United States has taken a big step in declaring ISIS’ genocide, the United States must move beyond words. In fact, the United States is required by the Genocide Convention to take action against genocide. Yet, as the two-year anniversary of Sinjar approaches on August 3rd, the United States has still not taken any necessary further steps to combat ISIS’ genocidal crimes.

GJC Published in Newsweek on Anniversary of Sinjar Massacre

Grant Shubin, a Staff Attorney at GJC, and Pari Ibrahim, the Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yazidi Foundation published an op-ed in Newsweek about the state of Yazidi women on the second anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre.

Click here to read the full article. 

Rape in Genocide

“In the light of its factual findings with regard to the allegations of sexual violence […] the [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] considers the criminal responsibility of the Accused on Count 13, crimes against humanity (rape), punishable.”

(The Prosecutor v Jean-Paul Akayesu, 1998)

 

Despite the conviction of rape as a component of genocide nearly twenty years ago, the international community has yet to prosecute Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) fighters for similar actions.

In 1998, a decision by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda entered legal history as the world’s first conviction of genocide by trial. 18 years later, The Prosecutor v Jean-Paul Akayesu (“Akayesu”) continues to garner significant international attention; The Uncondemned,a feature length documentary about the case, was released in 2015 and an international lawyer recently compared Akayesu’s importance in international criminal law to the US Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education case which established the unconstitutionality of “separate but equal,” accommodations in US public education.

The genocide conviction is not, however, the case’s sole historical feature; Akayesu also marks the first conviction of rape as a component of genocide (at the time, there was not even a commonly accepted definition of “rape,” in international law). The judges unequivocally compared rape to torture, noting that “like torture, rape is used for such purposes as intimidation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, punishment, control or destruction of a person.” In certain cases, they note, “rape in fact constitutes torture.”

Even with such clear precedent for rape in genocide prosecutions, war rape is still a common feature of modern warfare: research conducted by the Global Justice Center - and submitted to the International Criminal Court - has found that ISIS “systematically raped, enslaved, killed and tortured,” girls and women – actions potentially similar to those Akayesu was convicted for 18 years ago. Furthermore, the United Nation’s (“UN”) Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria recently concluded that ISIS is committing genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the Yazidi people.

Yet despite the UN’s documentation of ISIS-committed sexual slavery, rape, and sexual violence, “little to no action has been taken to investigate, document and ensure accountability.”

By prosecuting ISIS fighters for war rape – an act likened to torture by a criminal tribunal – the international community would provide a semblance of justice to war rape victims, follow and establish international legal precedent, and send a powerful message to potential ISIS fighters that they will be held accountable for their actions.

Join the Global Justice Center’s work for justice for war rape victims: follow us onTwitter andFacebook.

GJC President Janet Benshoof Interviewed by Señal Colombia

GJC President Janet Benshoof was interviewed for Señal Colombia's episode about Monica Roa, a Colombian activist who is currently the Vice President for Strategy at Women's Link Worldwide, where Benshoof is featured as one of Roa's mentors. 

Click here to watch the full episode. 

Thinking of Yazidi Women and Girls on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

On June 19, as the international community observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, rape remains a central reality of war for women and girls around the world.

War rape is both a historical and contemporary part of war: it is not simply a byproduct of fighting but often serves as a central military tactic. In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “the systematic rape of women … [was] in some cases intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child.” Yugoslav women were “often […] interned until it was too late for them to undergo an abortion,” thereby ensuring the creation of a new ethnic reality.

Today, in ISIS controlled territories, ISIS leaders “elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” Multiple accounts by former ISIS captives detail month-long rapes, severe physical and mental trauma, and forced pregnancies.

War rape thus serves to traumatize and create fear in the short term and to extend genocidal effects by producing new ethnic identities in the long term.

Yet despite the horrific psychological and biological results of war rape the United States’ Helms Amendment precludes any US humanitarian aid from being used for abortion services.

Denying abortions to war rape victims endangers innocent women’s lives, helps to perpetuate genocide and its effects, and violates the Geneva Conventions.

Even though the Hyde Amendment, a similar domestic amendment to the Helms Amendment, includes exceptions for rape and cases in which the mother’s health is in danger, foreign victims of war rape are not afforded these rights.

In 2015, Obama noted that the “Golden Rule,” that “seems to bind people of all faiths,” is to “treat one another as we wish to be treated,” — to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” If victims of war rape are to receive the medical care they deserve, the Obama Administration must apply this Golden Rule not only to domestic victims of rape, but to war rape victims in other countries as well.This involves recognizing their rights to non-discriminatory medical treatment and issuing an executive order that limits the scope of the Helms Amendment.