Abortion Access in Conflict
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.
GJC Staff Attorney Grant Shubin wrote an article in Ms. Magazine on the devastating effect of the Helms Amendment on women and girls in war zones.
Click here to read the full article.
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 Website, a 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.
By Martin Fowler
By the time Republican Jesse Helms ended his 30-year Senate career in 2003, his opponents and allies had long-since named him “Senator No.” From deriding civil rights reformers as “moral degenerates,” (noting their opposition to “the purely scientific, statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect,”) to fervently opposing AIDS research and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Helms did indeed oppose most progressive ideas. It was therefore no surprise that he found himself as one of the loudest voices of the anti-abortion backlash against the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
Helms - a college dropout and television commentator who grew up poor in North Carolina – had just been elected to the Senate when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v Wade decision. A product of the 1960s feminist movement, Roe v Wade considered state-level abortion bans and restrictions. In their 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court found that a Texas law criminalizing abortion violated a woman’s constitutional right to privacy – a decision since seen as a foundational victory for the US reproductive rights movement.
This expansion of women’s rights angered conservative senators – and Jesse Helms especially so. The years he had spent denouncing American liberal ideas and programs on North Carolina television – once lambasting Social Security as “nothing more than doles and handouts,” - should have provided the public with a hint of what was to come. Buoyed by the reignited anti-abortion movement, Helms wasted little time finding ways to challenge and oppose women’s advances in reproductive rights.
He soon sponsored, and Congress passed, a bill named the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. The Amendment, seeking to limit US involvement in overseas abortions, prohibited US foreign assistance funding of programs engaged in the provision of abortions as a “method of family planning.” Even programs that merely sought to “motivate or coerce,” someone to perform such abortions were banned. Helms had thus scored one of his early Senate victories by limiting women’s access to abortions – medical interventions the effects of which, he opined in his 2005 memoirs, were “another kind of holocaust.”
Undoubtedly a defeat for the reproductive rights movement, few could foresee the Helms Amendment’s devastating effects. While the inclusion of “family planning,” suggested that abortions in other cases – rape or incest, for example – would be allowed, the amendment’s interpretation by the Bush Administration disregarded “family planning,” thereby instituting a total ban on all foreign aid funding of abortions, an interpretation the Obama Administration continues.
43 years after “Senator No,” passed the Helms Amendment, its effects are still being felt. Despite international law establishing non-discriminatory medical care as a right, the US still refuses to provide abortions to girls and women raped in war – who are considered individuals seeking abortions for other reasons than “family planning.” This means that the Yazidi women sexually enslaved by ISIS, for example, risk death or an uncertain future in the face of the US ban.
Recognizing that #HelmsHurts, the Global Justice Center recently launched a White House petition to change the Helms Amendment; we ask President Obama to take steps through executive action to allow for US funding of abortions for war rape victims.
Say no to the #HelmsLegacy: sign and share the petitionand help women and girls around the world get access to the lifesaving medical care they deserve.
Check out a new video released by the Global Justice Center about the Helms Amendment and the violation of human rights.
The current administration's interpretation of the Helms Amendment is violating the human rights of women and girls raped in war zones by denying them access to abortion services. View our new text animation video explaining the Helms Amendment's impact on women and girls.
GJC Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan Published in Time on the Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions
GJC Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan's article "How Obama Failed Women Raped in War" was published in today's edition of Time.
Click here to read the full article.
To join, check out GJC's Social Media Toolkit here.
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.
Agenda, Janet Benshoof, Keynote Address delivered at The Third Annual Law Summit at the NYU School of Law, titled, “Women in Conflict: Gender, Violence, and Peacekeeping," on February 20th, 2015.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—June 27, 2016
[Windhoek, Namibia] – The African Caribbean Pacific (ACP)- European Union (EU) Joint Parliamentary Assembly (JPA) adopted a resolution on rape and sexual violence against women and children in armed conflict that recognized rape as an element crime of genocide when commmitted with the intent to destroy the targeted group.
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.
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.
The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) has admirably taken on the task of rethinking and retooling humanitarian action to meet the challenges facing the world today. In modern conflicts, the increased targeting of civilians, including the strategic use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, means that humanitarian action must be tailored to respond to victims’ distinct needs. In other words, because humanitarian needs in conflict are specific, we need specific and relevant ways to respond to them.
Importantly, this response must be grounded in the rights of war victims under International Humanitarian Law (“IHL” or the laws of war). This includes comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support, and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence.
However, while the nature and face of modern conflict has changed, the laws of war have remained mired in the antiquated models of warfare they were derived from; men fighting men on defined battlefields. In the context of modern humanitarian action, where civilians constitute over 90% of those affected by war and where women and girls are often specifically targeted, this has meant that women and girls are left behind.
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.
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.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - February 24, 2016
[NEW YORK, NY]– Today, the EU adopted its 2016 budget containing the first ever anti-Helms Amendment. The US Helms amendment currently imposes an abortion ban on all US foreign aid, including support for girls and women raped in armed conflict.
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.