Mass Atrocity Crimes

This program aims to ensure that individuals and states are held accountable for the commission of gender-based mass atrocities, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.


Fact Sheet: Stopping The Use Of Rape As A Tactic Of War: A New Approach

There is a global consensus that the mass rape of girls and women is routinely used as a tactic or “weapon” of war in contemporary armed conflicts.1 Despite two decades of intense global efforts, rape used as a tactic of war continues undeterred. This is not surprising: rape is a cheap, powerful, and effective tool for military forces to use to kill and mutilate women and children, force pregnancy, terrorize families and communities, demoralize enemy forces, and accomplish genocide.

Rape used to further military objectives or the strategic aims of a conflict (“strategic rape”), constitutes a prohibited tactic or method of warfare under international humanitarian law.

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Women, Peace, and Security: Janet Benshoof, President, Global Justice Center

The last two decades have seen a dramatic transformation in the Security Council’s (Council) role in advancing and enforcing international humanitarian law (IHL). The changing nature of armed conflict, the universal acceptance of human rights, the calcification of certain precepts of international law into jus cogens, and advances in international law have all redefined the limits of state sovereignty and influenced the modern understanding of the Council’s mandate under the United Nations Charter (Charter).

Within this new paradigm, the Council has made protecting civilians in armed conflict central to its duty to maintain international peace and security. As part of this effort, the Council has passed a series of resolutions addressing the impact of armed conflict on women and the use of sexual violence in conflict (Women, Peace and Security Series, WPS Series).2 Despite these efforts, the resolutions have failed to achieve one of the Council’s main goals – ending sexual violence perpetrated against women in armed conflicts around the world.

The chapter, Women, Peace and Security, in the forthcoming publication, Security Council in the Age of Human Rights, examines the Council’s actions in the WPS Series against its duties to act under the evolving imperatives of IHL, in particular those rules considered jus cogens. The chapter argues that the Council has a duty to take stronger and more effective measures to address sexual violence against girls and women in armed conflict, in order to successfully deter its use.

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How the US is Blocking Access to Safe Abortion Services for Women and Girls Impregnated by Rape in Syria

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Syrian government forces and government-controlled militia (Shabiha) have reigned terror over the civilian population. Alma, a victim of this violence, describes being held in a cell where she would kick and scream alongside 20 other women while they were drugged, blindfolded, and gang-raped.

In the worst embodiment of this campaign, rape is used as a weapon of war against Syrian women and girls. Alma continues, “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarettes in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity to my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded everyday by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: ‘You wanted freedom? Well here it is!’” A different victim illustrates the scene at a Syrian detention center in which a doctor visited each woman’s cell to note the dates of her period and to hand out birth control pills: “[w]e lived in filth, in blood, in [feces], with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously.” Still other victims of these crimes against humanity described situations in which their “bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”

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Justice for Girls in Nigeria

Every day, girls in Nigeria are at risk of being abducted solely because they dared to go to school. Boko Haram, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda, has been terrorizing the Nigerian population for over a year and, as part of this assault on the population, has been abducting young schoolgirls at random. In a disturbing video released this week, the purported leader of Boko Haram detailed his plan to continue to kidnap these girls and then sell them in the markets. The kidnapped girls some as young as 12 years old, will be sold into sex slavery or as slave laborers. The sale of these girls will serve to finance the organization. These acts of kidnapping are an expression of the group’s opposition to the education of women and girls which they claim is based on a particular interpretation of Sharia law. These crimes also are a way to weaken and intimidate communities and maintain control over the Nigerian people through intimidation. As of now, over 270 girls have been abducted by the group, their whereabouts unknown, their families left with questions and fear.

Girls are an especially high-risk group when it comes to regions in conflict. Not only are they female, but they are children; in terms of vulnerability- the deck is stacked against them. The systematic targeting of women and girls in times of war is a common practice as, in many societies, the honor and purity of women and girls is inherently linked to the masculinity of their respective menfolk. To marginalize, attack, and exploit women is to dishonor and humiliate an entire community. Therefore, the injustices perpetrated against women are often overlooked and instead attributed as crimes against society as a whole. Therefore, when these war criminals are finally brought to justice, the crimes against women and girls are frequently overlooked. Quoted on this issue in Foreign Policy, our legal director Akila Radhakrishnan states that ”[the] failure to comprehend the specific experiences of girls impedes accountability, reparations, and rehabilitation efforts” and if sexualized violence is not addressed in war crime tribunals, it "renders justice meaningless for these survivors.”

In a press release issued on May 6th after the report of eight more abductions, “UNICEF calls on the abductors to immediately return these girls unharmed to their communities, and we implore all those with influence on the perpetrators to do everything they can to secure the safe return of the girls – and to bring their abductors to justice.” Not only is the international community demanding the safe return of these girls,  but for those responsible to be brought to justice. As long ago as last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) reported that “there [was] reason to believe that Boko Haram had committed crimes against humanity, referring to reports of murder and persecution.” Now, a year later, these crimes have only increased with the addition of slavery and sexual slavery. It is absolutely necessary that these perpetrators are brought to justice as violators of international law and held accountable for their war crimes, including the sexualized violence and forced enslavement of these hundreds of girls. Every victim of deserves justice.

United Nations Stakeholders Alerted of Continued Use of Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War in Burma's Ethnic Areas

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - April 24, 2014

[NEW YORK, NY] - Today, at a side-event to the Security Council’s annual debate on conflict-related sexual violence, the United Nations was presented with a troubling account of continuing sexual violence committed by the military against ethnic women in Burma. On the eve of the April 25 debate, Ms. Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, presented compelling reports of heinous crimes committed by the military and called on the United Nations, international donors and governments to investigate these human rights violations, denounce the use of sexual violence in Burma and support women’s groups on the ground who are attempting to combat this pervasive pattern of abuse.

The Spotlight on Burma: Calling for the Elimination Sexual Violence and Inclusion of Women in Peace Talks

On Thursday, April 24th, the Global Justice Center, along with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International, and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, hosted a side event to the Security Council’s Open Debate on Conflict Related Sexual Violence at the United Nations with the intention of shedding light onto the continued plague of sexualized violence in Burma. The panel consisted of special guest speaker, Naw K’nyaw Paw who is the Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and a grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, the Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. This standing room only event highlighted the ongoing dangers and abuses that the women and girls of Burma face at the hands of the Burmese military and strengthened the call for international action as well as the inclusion of women in the peace process.

Naw K’nyaw Paw poignantly voiced the concerns of an entire nation of women and girls who face the threat of sexual violence on a daily basis, with girls as young as eight years old suffering these heinous attacks. She called out the Burmese government for its ingrained culture of impunity for these crimes, stating that there is no accountability for the perpetrators, most of whom are members of the Burmese military forces. SRSG Bangura went on to assert that sexual violence should not be attributed as an inevitable element of conflict; to do this only marginalizes the plight of those victimized. The stigma attached to sexual assault, as well as fear of retribution, often prevents women and girls from reporting their attacks or seeking aid and, because of this, there is no way to know the true range and scope of these crimes.

The conversation turned toward the absolute necessity of the inclusion of women in peace processes. Ambassador Donoghue reaffirmed Ireland’s full support of Security Council Resolution 1325, which stresses the importance of gender parity in all areas of governance and peace-building. Naw K’nyaw Paw voiced her concerns over the exclusion of women in the Burmese peace processes, stating that women from all ethnic groups must be present at the negotiation tables. When faced with an argument posed by a representative of the Burma Mission that the Burmese government has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), she swiftly countered that to sign was not enough, the practices must be adopted into law; the realities of CEDAW must be visible on the ground, not merely on paper. With regard to planning talks, Naw K’nyaw Paw emphasized the need to strengthen the existing community structures, as opposed to approaching the situation as one in need of complete rebuilding. This, she said, was necessary for sustainable peace in Burma.

In closing, it was reiterated that women’s involvement in Burmese peace talks is of the utmost importance as is the transition to a civilian government. Both of these factors, as well as the elimination of sexual violence which rages on unhindered, devastating the lives of thousands of women and girls, must be realized in order for there to ever be true peace in Burma.

Global Justice Center calls on International Criminal Court to Investigate Genocide of Chibok Schoolgirls

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 14, 2014

[NEW YORK, NY] – On the night of April 14th, 2014, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The abduction ignited worldwide outrage, sparked a vigorous social media campaign to #BringBackOurGirls, and drew condemnation from political leaders around the world.

What Success Looks Like for Women on the Ground

Yesterday in the inspiring and informative event, “What Success Looks Like on the Ground,” women leaders from Burma, Haiti, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo gathered to discuss their personal experiences in combating sexual violence in conflict. The panel was a side event to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

It was moving to hear directly from local women leaders who battle everyday with their governments, militaries, other institutions, and social mores. Together they painted a stark picture of the very real difficulties women face in armed conflict zones around the world, as well as lessons they have learned in working against sexual violence and in supporting survivors.

Panel speaker Julia Marip, from the Women’s League of Burma, noted that “when women have been raped, they suffer twice: once at the rape and again when they become pregnant.” Ms. Marip then pointed out that not only is abortion illegal in Burma, but also that reforming laws – including those criminalizing abortion – is overly difficult due to the constitution’s discrimination against women and the military’s embedded position within the government. She also emphasized the importance of having women at the political table in order to improve the lives of women, including by ending rape and increasing accountability. Ms. Marip and her organization, the Women’s League of Burma, recently launched a report on sexual violence in their country,Same Impunity, Same Pattern: Report of Systematic Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Areas, about which the Global Justice Center hosted an event and wrote an article.

Similarly, Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa, an activist working with women survivors of sexual violence in Congo, spoke of the power of women to end sexual violence in conflict. She called for solidarity, saying that women around the world “must band together as survivors if we want to fix this on a global level rather than go case by case.” She further urged the world to end the crisis in Congo – one of the world’s longest running conflicts – saying that the Congolese “are begging the people who are bringing war to us to take it away.” Without this step, she explained, sexual violence would continue.

Leonie then described the consequences of the ongoing sexual violence in her country, including the suffering of women with unwanted pregnancies from rape, who are often shunned by their families, and the dangers and difficulties that face children born of rape. An audience member from the Congo, Justine Masika Bihamba, of Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence, echoed Leonie’s point, reporting that “every day we are losing women to suicide who have become pregnant from rape.”

Zeinab Blandia, of the Vision Association in Sudan, shared her experiences advocating against sexual violence in her country, and explained that where peace has been established in areas of Sudan, the situation for women has improved. Like her fellow panelists, Zeinab called on the international community to help bring the conflict in her country to an end. She said that if the war and its associated violence against women were to continue, it would be a “shame on the international community and on CSW.”

The panel also touched upon successes combating sexual violence in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake left women and girls increasingly vulnerable to sexual attacks. The event highlighted the work of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a grassroots organization run by women survivors of sexual violence that supports other women survivors in Haiti. Marie Eramithe Delva, executive secretary of KOFAVIV, recounted the success of their campaign distributing whistles to women and girls in the displaced person camps of Port-au-Prince, noting that in at least one camp it had led to a drastic reduction in the number of reported rapes.

The Global Justice Center (GJC) is grateful to have heard these women leaders speak of their experiences and advice for combating sexual violence and supporting survivors. We believe our vision of success on the ground mirrors their calls for justice and accountability for rape in armed conflict, for increased participation of women in government and peace negotiations, and for expanded and non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health services. GJC is eager to partner with women leaders such as these, as it has done with Ms. Bihamba, whose organization sent a letter to President Obama as part of GJC’s August 12th Campaign, urging him to lift the ban on abortions attached to U.S. humanitarian aid. For further information on GJC and its projects, please visit:http://www.globaljusticecenter.net.

Ending Impunity for Widespread and Systematic Use of Sexual Violence in Colombia’s Ongoing Armed Conflict

On November 27, as part of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, advocacy group ABColumbia published a report on women, conflict-related sexual violence and the Colombian peace process. This report reveals the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict by security forces, guerilla groups and paramilitaries. Torture and mutilation, the killing of unborn children, rape in the presence of family members and gang-rape are used as a tactic to achieve military goals. This report sheds light on the strategic use of rape as an illegal weapon of war, a method of conducting hostilities that violate states’ responsibility as well as international law. This report also illuminates the economic and cultural systems that sustain violence against women and girls – pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination, both inside and outside the conflict – that must be dismantled to establish an equality-based rule of law in Colombia. Massively underreported, these crimes are almost never prosecuted and the impunity rate for sexual-related crimes runs at more than 98 percent. According to the report, ending the almost total impunity for this crime is essential for the potential success of a peace process in Colombia.

A woman holds up a poster dotted with rose petals and a message that reads in Spanish; “Only a kiss would shut me up,” during a march to protest physical abuse of women and in support of Colombia’s peace talks in Bogota, Colombia on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.

In 2012, Amnesty International said that in Colombia, “women are targets of sexual violence to sow terror within communities to force them to flee their land, wreak revenge on the enemy, control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants or exploit women and girls as sexual slaves.” While sexual violence against women is employed as a strategy of war by all armed actors in the Colombian conflict, different objectives are pursued using sexual violence by security forces, guerilla groups and paramilitaries.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armados Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) uses sexual violence strategically in the forced recruitment of female combatants. Though recruitment of children below the age of 15 is a war crime, young girls are either lured into the FARC or abducted, to serve “as companions for their leaders,” their forced sexual services as ‘payment’ to protect other members of their family. Furthermore, once ‘recruited,’ FARC imposes their policy of contraception and forced abortion to further control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants.

Oxfam wrote that “state military forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have used sexual violence with the goal of terrorizing communities, using women as instruments to achieve their military objectives.” By terrorizing rural communities, most commonly inhabited by indigenous populations, these groups use women’s bodies to exercise forced displacement and advance their control of territories and resources. The use of sexual violence to induce terror is epitomized by the act being carried out in full view of the community, according to the ABColumbia report. This practice of forced displacement on indigenous communities puts them at risk of physical or cultural extinction – a campaign that looks a lot like genocide. Furthermore, with an increased presence of state military forces in regions characterized by large scale-mining, agribusiness and areas of strategic importance for drug trafficking comes an increase in the exploitation of women and girls as sexual slaves.

Sexual violence is also used to impose social control over the activities of women. This tactic is extensively used by paramilitary groups and occasionally by guerilla groups. Cultural attitudes and social codes are imposed on women and transgression from those roles result in punishment, often public and intended to shame the victim and cause social stigmatization against them. The use of sexual violence as a method of conducting hostilities identifies the ‘enemy’ as the civilian population rather than other armed combatants. Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman reported that “even if cases of sexual violence against women perpetrated by the Security Forces do not correspond to a war strategy (…), they constitute a generalized practice that takes advantage of the conditions of subordination of women, their precarious economic conditions resulting from lack of protection by the State, and the acceptance of existing ideas in the local culture, such as a woman’s body is an object that belongs to men.”

Protesters in Bogota chant “miniskirts are not an invitation.”

“(Rape) is one of the only crimes for which a community’s response is more often to stigmatize the victim rather than prosecute the perpetrator.” – UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict

According to this report, “impunity for these crimes acts to reinforce, rather than challenge, these pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination against women, both inside and outside of the conflict.” Incidents are rarely reported because there are no guarantees for women in the justice system – either they are not believed, or the police took no action, refused to document their case or they feared for their safety. Also, the social stigma attached to sexual violence that fosters the practice of victim-blaming and encourages women to remain silent about their attacks. When Colombia’s security forces are themselves among the perpetrators of violence, it makes sense that women have an extreme lack of faith in their access to justice. Ending impunity for these crimes is essential for changing attitudes about conflict-related sexual violence.

Unlawful weapons violate states’ responsibility as well as international law. Peace talks between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were officially announced in August 2012, after five decades of conflict. The ABColombia report calls for Colombia to adhere to UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820. Colombia signed both these resolutions, which state that Governments must ensure sexual violence is on the agenda during peace talks, that there should be no amnesties for sexual violence crimes, and that women must play a major part in the peace process and in the construction of peace. Women’s issues cannot be dealt with ex-post, especially when mistreatment and abuse of women is deeply rooted in Colombian society. Women are being sacrificed for their country without their consent and their voices must be heard during the peace process.

The Audacity of Hope for Peace Amidst Devastation in Congo

In a move that raised hopes for a peace agreement to end nearly two years of insurgency in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rebel group M23 surrendered to authorities in Uganda. M23 has been the dominant rebel group fighting to seize control of the Congo’s mineral resources in the latest installment of the multinational war that has devastated the region since 1998. M23 stated that their movement would adopt “purely political means” to achieve its goals and urged its fighters to disarm and demobilize. Yet they were forced to end their rebellion in the face of military victories from the Congolese army, and crumbling under international pressure, particularly action from the United Nations “intervention brigade” and Rwanda’s alleged decision to stop its rumored military support for the rebels.

At the heart of the world’s longest-running conflict has been a battle over Congo’s abundant mineral wealth, as warlords, corrupt government officials, competing ethnic groups and corporations fight to control them. Congo has more than 70% of the world’s coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet’s diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite.While ten armed groups still operate and compete for access to mineral resources in Congo, M23 has been the most active group since April 2012 and represent the latest manifestation of this ongoing crisis. In April 2012, the rebels accused the government of failing to live up to the terms of their 2009 peace agreement, and took up arms in April 2012. This country has repeatedly witnessed decades characterized by patterns of violence, peace accords and continued violence.

Now that the rebels have abandoned their insurgency, the government will “make a public declaration of acceptance” and within five days, a formal peace agreement will be signed. The peace process in DRC is unique because due to years of nonstop war and abuse, sexualized violence has become normalized and impunity is the rule. Because the sex-subordination of women in society has been reinforced and defined by the conditions of endless war and war trauma in DRC, peacebuilding process must involve the participation of women.

Congolese soldiers interviewed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative displayed “extremely rigid and formalized gender roles in times of both war and peace.” Wartime sexual violence is linked in general to sex-subordinating attitudes such that wartime rape becomes part of the larger system of sex subordination as well as part of war itself. For a country that has experienced decades of war with very few intervals, the violent subordination of women becomes synonymous with the daily conditions of living in a war zone. Furthermore, the trauma of war and exposure to violence – seeing family members killed, being personally injured or raped, or forced to witness rape – increase the likelihood of perpetrating gender-based violence. According to researchers, 59 percent of men and 73 percent of women in DRC reported at least one traumatic event due to the conflict. What is being enacted on women in DRC’s war and homes is the result of a lack of relief from constant exposure to violence as well as an extreme conception of masculinity that is synonymous with war.

Dr. Denis Mukwege is one of the only surgeons in Congo performing surgeries to repair the devastating vaginal and reproductive damage done to victims of war rape. He has stated that he’s performed thousands of reconstructive surgeries, including surgeries to remove fistulas, brought on by unique brutality of war rape in DRC. He discusses how these vicious acts of rape and sexual violence are used as a weapon of war by both government and rebel forces.

In addition, Dr. Mukwege states that child soldiers who return home grow into men are not being taught any other way to behave and have learned to live only through aggression. Among men who were forced to leave home during the conflict, 50 percent reported committing an act of gender-based violence against their female partner. Furthermore, 800,000 people have been displaced since M23’s insurgency alone – a traumatic experience characterized by economic disenfranchisement and associated with a loss of masculinity, which has contributed to widespread spousal abuse. Within the context of war, the language of power is asserted by subordination, in this case gender-based violence predominately against women and girls (though men have also been systematically raped in DRC).

The status of women within society is a key factor in the prevalence of violence against them. Post-conflict DRC must involve dissolving the sex-subordination of women that has defined this armed conflict. A certain kind of masculinity gets forged in the crucible of war that is sustained by its contrast to a subordinated femininity. This conflict has normalized sex-subordination of women in society and re-establishing the rule of law is key for women’s peace, security and protection of rights.

US special envoy Russell Feingold described the enduring instability in the DRC as “one of the toughest problems in the world”, but said “it has never seen such sustained (international) attention.” In a country in armed conflict where current law rules marital rape is not a prosecutable crime and impunity for gender-based violence is rampant, the international community must step forward to establish a new rule of law. Congolese men, women and children have all suffered unimaginable traumas but the disproportionate impact of conflict on women demands calling for women’s engagement in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Abortion Ban Restricts Peace-Building Efforts in Central African Republic

On October 10, 2013, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution aimed at stabilizing the Central African Republic. The Council “reinforced and updated” the mandate of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA) while also calling for a political resolution to the conflict. Philippe Bolopion, the United Nations director for Human Rights Watch commented that “the Security Council is finally waking up to the human rights tragedy plaguing the Central African Republic. Broadening the human rights mandate of the U.N. mission is a good but insufficient first step.” The resolution singled out the rebel Séléka fighters as being responsible for what it called “extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence against women and children, rape, recruitment and use of children and attacks against civilians.” In the Central African Republic, coups and violent seizures of power have outnumbered fair elections since independence. Since the March 2013 coup that outsed President François Bozizé, Séléka fighters have held unchecked positions of power in the region – looting, abducting, raping and killing with impunity.

The resolution demanded Séléka rebels “lay down their arms immediately” and allow the unfettered flow of humanitarian aid into the country. Unfortunately, sending humanitarian aid to the Central African Republic will not go far enough to help those women and girls who have become pregnant during this armed conflict. The U.S. is the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid (including to the Central African Republic), and due to the abortion ban imposed on all U.S. foreign aid since 1973, women and girls who are impregnated in the mass war rapes taking place in the Central African Republic are denied safe access to abortions. The survivors of these brutal crimes are forced to bear the children of their rapists or die in childbirth, particularly because half of war rape victims are children themselves, too young to give birth safely. These abortion restrictions are supposed to apply only to “abortions [provided] as a method of family planning.” However, its interpretation was expanded to be an absolute ban on abortion and abortion speech, with no rape or life exceptions. President Obama has the opportunity to reverse this inhuman policy, and uphold the right to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions for of girls and women raped in war.

Women’s lives are at stake because of a foreign policy that discriminates against women by withholding live-saving medical care.  It also circumvents the Central African Republic’s own abortion law, which does allow abortions for rape victims – a law that was amended in 2005 to respond to the fact that women impregnated through war rape were dying after desperately seeking unsafe methods of abortion.

Rape survivors who become pregnant and are denied abortions face increased maternal morbidity and mortality. Research shows that without access to safe abortion services, rape survivors will resort to non-sterile or non-medical methods, leading to scarring, infection, sterilization, or death. Furthermore, up to 80 percent of rape victims in armed conflicts are girls under the age of 18, with documented cases of girls as young as eleven becoming pregnant. “Adolescents aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth—as are those in their twenties—and very young adolescents, under 15 years of age, have a fivefold increase in risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth compared with women 20 and older.”

This says nothing of the severe prolonged emotional trauma of the impregnated victim who is forced to bear the child of their rapists. These girls and women are often ostracized from their communities and many take their own lives – the result of a policy that fails to protect these innocent victims of heinous war crimes.

Denial of safe abortion services to women and girls raped in armed conflict is deadly and violates the special rights of war rape victims under the Geneva Conventions. Under the Geneva Conventions, all persons “wounded or sick” in armed conflict have the absolute right to “medical care and attention required by their condition.” No distinctions can be made on any basis other than medical need, and the Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sex. The Security Council has been assigned to investigate and report all violations of human rights in the Central African Republic,which will include the deployment of advisers who specialize in the protection of women and children. However, the U.S. abortion restrictions will thwart any U.N. efforts to address human rights violations in a fully comprehensive way if it does not address the deadly consequences girls and women raped in war are forced to suffer daily as a result of the U.S. policy.

Neither the Security Council advisors who will be deployed in the Central African Republic to focus on the protection of women and children, nor the Central African Republic’s own abortion law, which allows abortions for rape victims, will be able to save the lives of female rape victims who have become pregnant during this conflict. The enforcement of the “no abortion” provision is a violation of international humanitarian law and our obligation to war victims under the Geneva Convention. Angelina Jolie said in her June address to the Security Council, “Because the world has not treated sexual violence as a priority, there have only been a handful of prosecutions for the many hundreds of thousands of survivors. They suffer most at the hands of their rapists, but they are also victims of a culture of impunity.”

The abortion ban attached to U.S. humanitarian aid has influenced the treatment standards for impregnated victims of war rape globally. The Global Justice Center’s August 12th Campaign seeks to bring justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. It is the responsibility of the Security Council to address sexual violence in war zones but all countries, including the U.S., have the responsibility to act now to end medical discrimination against war rape victims.

Burma Refuses to Relinquish Rape as Weapon of War

The event was hosted by Secretary Hague and Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, and included speakers from 27 member countries who discussed the need to prevent and respond to sexualized violence committed under the cloak of war. They also highlighted the devastating effects that rape and sexualized violence wreak on individuals, families, communities, and entire nations.

By the end of the day, 113 member countries had endorsed what Secretary Hague called the “milestone” Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The declaration holds that sexualized violence in conflict is in direct violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and declares that the perpetrators should be pursued and arrested no matter where they are in the world. The declaration also calls upon signatory member states to do more than raise awareness to the issue and to provide better support not only to the victims but to national and international efforts to prevent and respond to sexualized violence in conflict.

But 80 nations opted not to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. One of them was Burma.

For many, Burma’s refusal to sign the declaration didn’t come as a surprise. Reports of sexualized violence committed by the army and police, particularly in Burma’s ethnic and border regions, have increased over the last two years, according to some advocacy groups. And Burma President Thein Sein has done little to address the issue, preferring to highlight gains made in other sectors, including the opening of the economy to global investment and his periodic release of political prisoners.

The international community, eager to praise these reforms, has neglected to call Burma out on its sexualized violence problem, ignoring the ingrained culture of impunity that has allowed sexualized violence to flourish for decades. The military regime that came to power in a 1962 coup has used rape, particularly against women in the ethnic and border regions, as a way to quell opposition movements and retain control. A weapon of war, the practice is typically employed to keep communities compliant by sowing fear and humiliation and punishing and interrogating those who would support opposition groups. Sadly, the Burmese military junta’s campaign of widespread and systematic sexual violence continues unabated today.

It’s understandable, then, that President Thein Sein and his new admirers would not want to tarnish fragile gains, but how much do these gains really mean in the face of continued sexualized violence toward women and girls in Burmese conflict zones?

Burma President Thein Sein speaks at Chatham House in July. (Chatham House)

This is precisely why Burma’s failure to stand with 113 other nations in signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was such a disappointment. More than just a squandered opportunity for the nation to demonstrate an honest and ongoing desire for social and political reform, it was a chance to turn the tide, to announce an end to the culture of silence and impunity that legitimizes rape and sexual violence in Burma.

Human rights groups in and outside of Burma were quick to condemn the government’s failure to sign on to the Declaration.

Zoya Phan, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK, said, “The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict in Burma must be stopped. If Thein Sein refuses to cooperate, then international legal action should be taken to prevent these crimes. For many ethnic women, rape by Burmese army soldiers is a daily fear, and justice seems to be just a distant dream.”

“The government should bear the responsibility of crimes perpetrated by its army. They should ensure justice for such crimes in accordance with the law,” Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, Central Committee member of the Myanmar Women’s Network, told the 2013 Myanmar Women’s Forum prior to the UN event.

The Burmese Diplomatic Mission to the UN in New York declined to comment by telephone and did not reply to email requests for an official statement on their failure to sign the declaration.

But it’s hard to fault the Mission for their non-answer; after all, they’re simply following President Thein Sein’s lead in ignoring the issue. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in Burma’s transition to civilian rule has been the government’s unwillingness to fully divest itself of the privileged status of the previous military junta. In fact, this lack of accountability is hard-wired into the country’s constitution, rendering the nation incapable of enforcing IHL against its military, as the Global Justice Center’s President Janet Benshoof has noted.

Ultimately, last week’s missed opportunity can be seen as less a statement on Burma’s disinterest in ending government-sanctioned sexualized violence and more an appraisal of Burma’s transition to democracy. To assent to the UN’s declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict would be to assent to accountability and to a new era of checks and balances for a government whose members seem more concerned with losing a seat at the table than addressing the issue being discussed at the table.

Perhaps this is only another hiccup on the road to reformation. Perhaps Burma will relent and commit to the mandates of the declaration. But, in the meantime, the girls and women of Burma will continue to be victimized without means of redress or protection, and the body count will continue to rise.

A version of this article was cross-posted with Women Under Siege.

First Things First: Constitutional Reform in Burma

On October 23, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, released the latest report on the Situation on Human Rights in Myanmar for the General Assembly’s sixty-eighth session. The report had been highly anticipated by civil society groups who are concerned with growing tensions in the turbulent nation.

Mr. Quintana, incidentally, had a closer look at that tension than he’d likely anticipated recently when, during an unpleasant trip to the Rakhine state, the lack of a government security detail led to him being accosted by an angry mob. (Burmese President, Thein Sein’s almost comical response was to insist that the mob had actually been trying to present the UN official with a letter and a t-shirt.)

It was of little surprise, then, that the Special Rapporteur’s update highlighted the urgent need for continued reforms. 2013 has seen a growing chorus of international approval for Burma’s incremental human rights gains but, let’s face it, when the forced relocation of entire ethnic villages into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps ranks among the less distressing human rights events of the year, things really haven’t improved much in Burma.

Accusations of political violence and discrimination have continued to plague the Sein administration; particularly harrowing have been the reports from Burma’s ethnic and border regions, where political opposition groups continue to be victimized by the state’s brutal military and police. Accusations of sexual violence, forced labor, human trafficking, the recruitment of child soldiers, use of prisoners as human mine sweepers, arbitrary arrests, extortion, land confiscation, denial and revocation of citizenship, and restrictions on movement, religion, and marriage, have been lobbed at the Sein administration from all directions.

That these atrocities continue despite 23 years of calls for reform indicates something’s not working. Even 2008’s new national constitution did little more than rebrand the brutal ruling military junta, who have effectively cowed the world into believing that Burma is ever on the brink of becoming overwhelmed with the reform process, prepared to revert to the hermit kingdom they once were. As a result, the timid international community is content to cajole the Burmese government into accepting piecemeal reforms that have done little to change a culture of intimidationimpunity, and deadly violence.

It seems more obvious now than ever, any real solution lies fundamentally deeper than reform at the symptom level. Comprehensive constitutional reform that divests the former military junta of its continuing grip on power in Burma by imposing civilian controls is the only option.

Mr. Quintana appears to agree. This week’s report includes numerous unambiguous statements on the need for constitutional reforms. Alongside calls for quotas to boost women’s participation in state and local decision-making and for an independent judiciary were denunciations of constitutionally-sanctioned impunity and discrimination. That Mr. Quintana, for the first time, pointed out specific enabling constitutional articles hopefully signals the UN has had enough of Burma’s half measures.

The futility of incremental reforms has been noted inside Burma, to be sure. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has seen its calls for an amended or completely redrawn national constitution gain momentum within the country recently and Burma’s multitude of ethnic minorities have begun to demand a seat at the table in an effort to help determine their own fate.

NLD leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has now asked the international community to help democracy activists in Burma to amend the Constitution; she urged world leaders, including the European Union and the United States, to continue to put pressure of the Burmese government saying, “Reform has gone as far as it can without changes to the constitution.”

This push has also been championed by women’s rights groups within Burma and around the world who urge fundamental reforms are needed to address Burma’s constitutional deficiencies, such as the lack of a substantial equality guarantee which effectively excludes ethnic women from political participation. The 2008 document even shockingly includes a provision proclaiming males should be appointed to “positions that are naturally suited for men.”

A multitude of official world bodies have also repeatedly highlighted the need for constitutional reforms. Until recently, though, most have done so with glancing blows, failing to connect on the most fundamental issue, the Burmese military’s constitutionally guaranteed stake in governing the country. Until this metric is fundamentally rewritten, there will be no accountability for a government that routinely eviscerates the basic human rights of its own citizens in order to maintain its grip on power.

With the UN now seemingly on board, the next steps on the human rights situation in Burma are clear: The international community must cease lauding President Thein Sein for plodding political and economic reforms calculated to insulate the ruling regime, and attack the fundamental dynamic that sustains a culture of bloodshed in Burma. They must insist on targeted constitutional reforms that will allow full and robust participation in Burma’s government by all of its peoples. Anything less at this late stage would amount to a tacit approval of the wholesale slaughter of innocent women, children and men.

Bringing Pres. al-Bashir to Justice

Controversy erupted on Tuesday, September 17th, when US officials confirmed that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir submitted a Visa request to attend the United Nations General Assembly this month. President al-Bashir announced this Sunday that he does, indeed, have plans to travel to the US and has already booked a New York hotel, although the US has not yet stated whether or not he would be granted a visa.

As President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir is an accused war criminal. He has two warrants of arrest for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March 2009 and July 2010.

On September 18, 2013 the ICC published a press release calling on US officials to arrest al-Bashir and extradite him to the ICC, should he travel to the United States. Human Rights Watch has also issued a statement asking UN Members to oppose al-Bashir’s visit to the Conference.

This is a turning point in deciding the future power of the ICC. Pres. al-Bashir would be the first visitor to the United Nations (and the US) with a standing ICC warrant for his arrest. To give background on this, in 2005, the Security Council voted for SCR 1593, to refer the atrocities in Darfur to the ICC, and to hold Pres. al-Bashir’s government accountable. The US abstained from the vote because it does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction over states not signed onto the Rome Statute (which includes the US). However, the US must still adhere to any Security Council Resolution that passes, including SCR 1593, which urges all states, including those not signed to the Rome Statute, to “cooperate fully” with the Court in bringing Pres. al-Bashir to justice. Accordingly, the US should immediately apprehend and extradite Pres. al-Bashir to the ICC if he steps foot on US soil.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers called the potential visit “hugely inappropriate.” In response, the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying that the US has no legal right to stop a member state from attending the UN Conference. In the Agreement Between the United Nations and the United States Regarding the Headquarters of the United Nations Sections 11, 12 and 13 effectively establish that the US is not allowed to hinder representatives of Members from travelling to the UN, regardless of their Government’s relation to the US, or the member’s status as an alien. The US is asked to grant Visas “without charge and as promptly as possible”. However, under Section 13 (f) of the same agreement, “The United Nations shall, subject to the foregoing provisions of this section, have the exclusive right to authorize or prohibit entry of persons and property into the headquarters district and to prescribe the conditions under which persons may remain or reside there.”

Because the UN Security Council referred the Darfur conflict to the ICC and requested all states to assist in bringing President al-Bashir to trial, the US would not be acting outside of its power as host country in extraditing him. In the past, the US has even encouraged other states to allow the transfer of war criminals to the ICC – such as when Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in to the US embassy in Rwanda.

An estimated  300,000 people died in the conflict in Darfur. The ICC holds al-Bashir allegedly criminally responsible for ten counts of individual criminal responsibility, including five counts of crimes against humanity (for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape), two counts of war crimes (intentionally directing attacks against civilians and pillaging), and three counts of genocide (genocide by killing, by causing serious bodily or mental harm, and by deliberately inflicting harsh conditions of life). Attacks against the civilian population of Darfur (largely compromised by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups) were lead by the Sudanese Armed Forces and their allied Janjaweed Militia. As the President of the Republic of Sudan and the Commander-in-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces since March 2003, al-Bashir must be tried for the crimes he had a role in organizing.

The Global Justice Center works to advance human rights, and in doing so, hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable. We recognize the dangers of inaction from the international community, and seek to end impunity.

One example of this is our Burma Initiative to challenge the amnesty clause in the Burmese constitution. Victims in conflict and postconflict countries, whether in Burma or Sudan, must not be denied access to justice through legal processes adhering to international law. In Syria, we have a recent example of the dangers of turning a blind eye to violations of fundamental international law, the chief among these being laws banning genocide and the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. These laws must not just be written on paper, but put into effective practice.

For there to be sustainable peace and rule of law, there must first be justice through international channels. President al-Bashir is not an exception to international laws. He must be brought to justice, and should he enter US territory, the US should surrender him to the ICC for trial.

Justice in Syria

All the talk this week will be whether the United States will launch air strikes on Syria, in the wake of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war. During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has committed egregious human rights violations, including the violation of one of the most important norms of international law: the ban of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians. President Obama emphasized that potential US strikes is about protecting this fundamental international norm, which is threatened by the Syrian government’s alleged gassing of its own people. Yet, Syria has long been in a state of unrest – and the Global Justice Center takes a look a few other areas in which Syria is violating international law, particularly when it comes to equal protection and rights for women.

Impunity

As has been evident throughout the conflict in Syria, neither the government nor the rebel faction shave been held accountable for their crimes – even when these crimes do not respect international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that government abuses were largest in scale. In its 2013 Annual Report on Syria, Amnesty International wrote that “the government took no steps to investigate the numerous allegations against their forces or to bring anyone to justice for alleged gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The government maintained a reign of impunity, including legislation giving members of the security forces effective immunity for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.”

The Global Justice Center is all too familiar with the dangers of governmental impunity through its work with the Burma Law Project. The Burma Constitution perpetuates injustice as a policy by giving complete amnesty to the military for its crimes, including systematic rapes of ethnic women. It also excludes women, just as 2012 Syrian Constitution. With the human rights violations mounting in Syria, including an alarming number of reported rapes and sexual crimes, it is clear that no matter how the conflict in Syria ends, perpetrators must be held accountable on both sides. The international community cannot allow yet another example of war crimes, especially gender-based violence, to be carried out with impunity.

In addition, according to Women under Siege, a journalism project founded by Gloria Steinem, sexual violence is and has been rampant in Syria throughout the conflict. It is perpetrated by both sides, without justice for victims (or, in many cases, even necessary medical care). Women Under Siege has been collecting reports of sexual violence in Syria to document the way rape is being used to terrorize and intimidate the Syrian people. With this data they have created a live, crowd-sourced map. The crimes documented went largely unpunished and represent only a small part of the whole, because sexual violence in Syria is largely underreported.

“With no clear future for Syria in sight, refugees are understandably cautious about who they speak to and trust with sensitive and personal information… It may be hard to put their trust in a stranger when, time and again, there has been little justice for victims of wartime rape.” – Lauren Wolfe, Director, Women Under Siege.

Gender Equality

According to data from the WEF Gender Gap Report on countries’ gender equality progress since the Arab Spring, overall the region’s score increased by a dismal 1.2% from 2010 to 2012. Syria, on the other hand, decreased by 5.3%. That’s right: Syria is moving backwards on women’s rights issues, mainly because of decreases in estimated earned income. In addition, in a list of 135 countries, Syria was ranked an abysmal #111 in the Gender Gap Index for “political empowerment” in 2012 by the report.

“[Syria]’s civil war has coincided with reduced political participation for women and sharply curtailed access to the country’s shattered economy,” wrote Max Fisher, Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, in an article.

But Syria is not only moving backwards; the basis on which it started never had equal opportunities for women in the first place.

“While the penal code no longer fully exonerates perpetrators of so-called honor crimes, it still gives judges options for reduced sentences if a crime was committed with “honorable” intent. The nationality law of 1969 prevents Syrian women married to foreign spouses the right to pass on their citizenship to their children or spouses,” Human Rights Watch stated in its 2012 World Report on Syria.

When this tragic and deadly conflict finally comes to an end, any future government in Syria must look towards building long-term stability. A major key to that is to have a government and a constitution that is representative. Women’s rights are not something that can be pushed to the side and fixed only after the country is considered “stable.”In reality, ensuring women’s rights is anecessary step to achieving long-term stability. There must be increased participation in the political process by women if the country is to fulfill the pledge in the 2012 Syrian Constitution of a multi-party system, replacing ade facto one-party system that has hindered democratic reform for the past several decades.

As the world waits to see if the US will strike and what the global fallout from such action will be, it is critical to examine the roots of injustice if Syria can ever hope to move forward.

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UN Expert Observers Not Enough to Combat Sexual Violence in Conflict-Ridden South Sudan

South Sudan no longer has the capacity to protect civilians in Jonglei. Neither do UN peacekeeping forces. The region’s conflict between militia groups has grown increasingly violent, and attacks are now targeting civilian communities, “including women and children, and possibly aimed at destroying their livelihoods and social and economic infrastructure,” says a United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISSReport from June 2012. According to Medicines sans Frontiers (MSF), there is also a rise of sexual violence against women and children within this conflict.

Within five months in 2012, MSF reported to have treated 96 victims of sexual violence from the conflict, including 25 victims of rape or attempted rape. Sexual violence is also underreported in the region and thus may be even more widespread than data shows (UNMISS Report Jun 2012).

With the current challenges facing the UN Mission in South Sudan, addressing sexual violence against civilians is especially important. The UN has begun implementing its Women’s Protection Advisors (WPA) program, and UNMISS is the first UN Mission with WPAs. The WPA initiative comes from UN Security Council resolutions 1888 and 1960, passed four years ago in order to address conflict-related sexual violence. A major responsibility of WPAs is reporting incidents of sexual violence for data collection (for the purposes of informing further Security Council action).

During June’s Security Council’s debate on Women, Peace and Security, several speakers lauded the UN’s deployment of WPAs in South Sudan as great progress for women’s security. Unfortunately, only six of the positions have been filled (the only WPAs deployed globally), and the three vacancies include the senior-level managing position within the office of the Special Representative to the Secretary General (SRSG).

Refugees International published a field report regarding its investigation into the implementation of the WPAs in South Sudan, finding that such vacancies are hampering the success of the WPA initiative due to lack of leadership. Refugees International recommends that the senior manager position be filled as quickly as possible, but it also notes that it is imperative that the recruitment process prioritizes finding a candidate experienced in gender-based violence response. Though the WPAs were meant to be individuals with expertise in conflict-related sexual violence, current recruitment focuses on hiring individuals from either the UN’s Human Rights roster or the UN’s political roster, neither of which are areas guaranteed to provide candidates with such vital experience.

In addition to these recruitment problems, Refugees International highlights the fact that WPAs are not trained in conflict-related sexual violence before deployment. Upon arriving in the country, the WPAs are trained on the relevant Resolutions but are not given any training specific to conditions in South Sudan. Given the complexity of the conflicts within South Sudan, this lack of country-specific training makes it even more difficult for the WPAs to be successful. According to the Refugees International reportUN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict began the process of developing WPA-specific training curriculum but needs to revive its efforts.

These problems of ineffective implementation have prevented the WPA initiative to be successful in South Sudan. This initiative is important for the Security Council’s role in extinguishing and preventing sexual violence in conflict. The UN’s Department for Peacekeeping Operations and the UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict should address these problems in order to effectuate successful WPA programs in both South Sudan and elsewhere.

For more information on Refugees International’s investigation and policy recommendations, see the full report at refugeesinternational.org.

A Step Forward in Libya: Treating Rape as a War Crime

A woman stood up during the conference and told the graphic and horrific details of the sexual torture she was subjected to for nine months. She, however, was not alone; there had been around 35 other women in the same detention center, all of whom were subjected to sexual violence. And these 35 women were also not unique in their experiences of sexual violence; International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated, “The information and evidence indicates at this stage that hundreds of rapes occurred during the conflict.”

This conflict was the Libyan Revolution of 2011. Because rape is viewed by most Libyans as an attack upon the honor of a family or tribe—rather than an attack against a woman’s body, mind, and autonomy–sexualized violence was used as a weapon of war by Gaddafi’s forces to obtain information and punish rebel communities. Rape was also used as a terror tactic to induce submission to the regime.

As Libya recovers from the violent Arab Spring and begins to rebuild its government and country, a bill that would treat rape during armed conflict as a war crime is being drafted. As the law currently stands, rape is already a crime under Libyan law. Convicted rapists face around 10 years in jail. Under the new specialized law, convicted rapists in armed conflict could potentially face a life sentence in prison.  Additionally, legislators have agreed that this new law should require compensation from the state to victims of sexual violence. The amount of compensation would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

While this bill is not yet law—it still must be passed by the general national congress of Libya—it is a positive first step toward ending impunity for sexualized violence in war. Such a law would make it possible to begin holding perpetrators of wartime rape accountable, including where those rapes were sanctioned by the government.

The Global Justice Center has been advocating for states to be punished for using rape as an unlawful weapon of armed conflict. The GJC strongly hopes that the Libyan bill will provide an example for countries like Syria and Burma, whose governments similarly authorize mass rape of ethnic minority civilians and rebel populations. Action must be taken around the globe to ensure that women are no longer systematically harmed through sexualized violence condoned by the governments that are supposed to protect them.