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.

UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria Recognizes Yazidi Genocide

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—June 17, 2016

[NEW YORK, NY] – Yesterday, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria concluded that ISIS is committing genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the Yazidi people. The report, “They Came to Destroy”: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis, recognizes that the genocide is ongoing and is being committed not just through mass killings but also through gendered non-killing crimes such as rape and sexual violence.

Gender and Genocide in the ICRtoP Blog

Read Global Justice Center Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan’s explanation of the gender components of genocide in the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect Blog.

“It’s not enough to just recognize that acts such as sexual violence, abductions, enslavement, forced abortion, and forced impregnation—acts which are disproportionately committed against women—of protected groups can constitute genocide. Rather, the commission of such acts needs to impel action for states and international actors to fulfill their obligations to prevent, suppress and punish genocide. "

Victory for War Rape Victims

This morning the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted the former Democratic Republic of the Congo vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, for two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging.) What is significant about this judgment is that Bemba is the first military commander to be convicted for crimes committed by troops under his command, and it is the first conviction at the ICC for sexual violence.

The ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said, “Today’s outcome is also another concrete expression of my personal commitment and that of my office to apply the full force of the Rome Statute in the fight against sexual violence and gender-based crimes. We will not spare efforts to bring accountability to such heinous crimes in future cases. Where some might want to draw a veil over these crimes, I, as Prosecutor, must and will continue to draw a line under them.”

Listen to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's statement on the case. 

This verdict is a hugely important step in the international community holding perpetrators of war rape accountable.

Click here to read the full judgement. 

NBC Nightly News Interview with Vian Dakhil

On Sunday, NBC Nightly News interviewed Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi woman in the Iraqi Parliament. Over the past year, Dakhil has helped over 1,000 Yazidi women and girls escape from ISIS territory, where they have been routinely captured and enslaved by ISIS militants. Due to a lack of state action to protect the Yazidis from genocidal crimes, individuals such as Dakhil have been forced to act to help defend these vulnerable women.  In 2014, Dakhil made headlines with her impassioned speech to the Iraqi Parliament, where she cried, “My people are being slaughtered…I speak here in the name of humanity.  Save us! Save us!”. Her continued efforts to defend the Yazidis from ISIS atrocities have made her the number one woman on ISIS’s hit list. 

Special Issue of Women’s Voices Newsletter Highlights GJC’s ICC Work

Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice just released a Special Issue of their newsletter focusing on two letters GJC has sent to the ICC asking them to address gender-based crimes. The letters call on the ICC to look at the genocidal crimes being committed against women and girls by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS.  

Click here to read the full newsletter.  

On Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, US Can’t Forget Women Overseas

Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a constitutionally protected right for women in the United States in Roe v. Wade, taking a huge step forward for women’s equality. Since then, anti-choice lawmakers at the federal and state-level have been working concertedly to render this right meaningless by restricting access to abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute recently found that states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions since 1973.  One of the longest-standing restrictions is the Helms Amendments, which has been in place since December 1973 and prevents the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortion services, even in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.  

Shutting down federal funding for abortion services exacerbates one of the longest-standing barriers to abortion access: the cost. As anti-choice lawmakers have known for the past four decades, if the right to abortion can’t be eliminated, the next best thing is to make abortion access practically impossible.

The Helms Amendment impacts some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world; those raped in war. Through the continued imposition of the Helms Amendment without exceptions, the U.S. is denying abortion access to women enslaved and raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and to girls as young as 12 raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. is laudably the world’s largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. Through this aid, the U.S. funds a variety of initiatives around the world, including health care services in conflict zones. But when girls and women present at these U.S. funded health centers for medical care, while they may have access to a wide range of services, safe abortion is not one of them. Insultingly, if these women seek out an unsafe abortion and have medical consequences, they can go to a U.S. funded health care provider for post-abortion care, but only after they have put their own life in danger. Not only is this policy illegal under international law, its consequences are dire and often deadly.

Yesterday, in a receiving line at a town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked by an activist whether she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” as president, to which she gave a resounding yes.   There has been no stronger advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights in the current presidential campaign than Clinton. Rightly framing abortion as a class and racial issue, she’s drawn attention to the fact that making abortion unaffordable essentially renders the right to it meaningless, in particular for low-income women.  However, Ms. Clinton, as a part of the Obama Administration, had ample opportunity to act on the Helms Amendment but failed to do so.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, the Helms Amendment’s impact of women raped in war was raised with the Obama Administration multiple times, including during the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the United States. However, despite the fact that President Obama can take steps through executive action to limit the impact of the Helms Amendment, he and his Administration have continually failed to take any action—to the detriment of countless women around the world.

Like Roe & the U.S. Constitution, a variety of international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine and protect rights to abortion for women around the world. However, as long as the U.S. remains the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid, abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, such as the Helms Amendment, will continue to impede the ability of women around the world to exercise their right to abortion services.  

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Roe, and sit on pins and needles as we anticipate the arguments and Supreme Court decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, let us also reflect on the idea that the right to abortion is nothing without the protection of actual access to these services, including through public funding. And that policymakers in Washington D.C. shouldn’t be the reason that women are unable to exercise their rights around the world.

 

Akila Radhakrishnan is the Legal Director at the Global Justice Center. She has published articles in The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, RH Reality Check, Ms. Magazine, the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy and Reproductive Laws for the Twenty-First Century.

Women’s Piece of Peace: Security Council Debate on Women, Peace and Security

2015 marks the 15th anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which requires parties in a conflict to respect women’s rights and support their participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction. Yesterday the Security Council held its annual open debate under Argentina’s presidency calling upon UN Member to implement resolutions on women, peace and security. This year’s theme focused on the situation of women refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world.

With numerous crises from Iraq, Nigeria, and Syria to Somalia and Mali and the increase of extremists take control of territory, the shifting trend in conflict is seeing a heightening of targeted violence against women, girls and their communities, warned the UN Secretary-General whose statement was delivered by the Executive Director of UN Women Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. The Executive Director in her own statement stressed that women are among the most vulnerable group and the primary subject to violence. But it is women who should be empowered by giving them a voice in decision-making in order to protect them. She noted that “key decisions are still made behind closed doors, deaf to the voices of those directly affected.” Increasing the representation of women in leadership roles and electing them to governing bodies is a way to ensure their protection, as has been seen in Haiti and the Central African Republic.

One of the important issues raised by Member States was that rape is still too often used as a weapon of warfare with a devastating impact on victims of war. Gender based violence also contributes to displacement and women fleeing in hope for safety. Speakers admitted that most refugees are women, and they face a lack of medical assistance which they desperately need. For instance, services that enable the safe termination of pregnancy are fundamental for women to restore their lives after rape and yet are continually denied due to US policy. Failure to provide these services violates the rights of victims of rape.

A highlight of the Open Debate was the statement by the award winning Iraqi women’s rights lawyer Suaad Allami who delivered her statement on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and spoke first-hand of her experiences in working with refugees and the threats to women’s rights by extremist groups such as ISIS. She paid tribute to her friends and colleagues who recently have been killed defending women’s rights. She ended her statement with applause and spoke the last words in Arabic “All human beings have the right to be safe and live a life of dignity.”

Click here to read the Presidential Statement on behalf of the Security Council.

Listen to Akila Radhakrishnan Participate in Reproaction’s Act and Learn Webinar on Helms

For six years President Obama has failed to extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones. At this Reproaction Act and Learn webinar, advocates and experts explained the Helms Amendment and how President Obama’s continued inaction hurts women around the world. We provided a clear answer to this common question: What’s the difference between Helms, Hyde, and the Global Gag Rule? Finally, we shared actions you can take to ensure Obama doesn’t leave a #BadLegacy on reproductive rights.

Featuring these guest panelists:

- Rev. Harry Knox, President/CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
- Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director for the Global Justice Center
- Beirne Roose-Snyder, Director of Public Policy for the Center for Health and Gender Equity (by advance remarks)

If you support Reproaction’s #BadLegacy campaign, or want to find out what it’s all about, you won’t want to miss this webinar.

Listen here.