Global Justice Center Blog

Over 50 Human Rights Groups Urge President Obama to Overturn Helms

Today, more than 50 human rights groups from over 22 different countries took action on behalf of women and girls raped in conflict by sending a letter to President Obama pressuring him to issue an executive order that would lift the Helms abortion ban. Among the organizations that have signed the letter are the Global Justice Center, Amnesty International, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Human Rights Watch, and the World Organization Against Torture. Groups have also signed onto the letter from conflict countries directly impacted by the abortion ban, including the West African Bar Association, the Iraq Women’s Network, the Syrian women’s League, and the Nigerian Medical Women’s Association. This letter is a testament to the pressure that is mounting on the United States to affirm the rights of female war rape victims as mandated under the Geneva Conventions.

At the United States’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that took place in May 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed the United States’ human rights record. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom formally recommended that the United States take action on an outdated abortion ban that violates the Geneva Conventions: the Helms Amendment.

The 1973 Helms Amendment is a huge obstacle in giving women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence the medical care that they need. These war rape victims are being denied lifesaving medical care, as the Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used to fund necessary abortions. Being the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, the U.S. is currently imposing its abortion ban on the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and the countries of conflict themselves.

With the systemic rape and forced impregnation of women and girls by extremist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram, it is vital that the U.S. overturn its abortion ban. The denial of abortions, especially in these circumstances, violates the rights of women and girls in conflict as mandated under the Geneva Conventions. These women and girls have the right to non-discriminatory medical care and freedom from torture.

The U.S. must respond to the UPR’s recommendations regarding the Helms amendment by this September. The Global Justice Center urges President Obama to execute an executive order to lift the abortion ban tied to U.S. foreign aid for, at a minimum, women and girls whose lives are endangered or who have suffered through rape and/or incest. Furthermore, the Global Justice Center encourages the President to affirm U.S. support for non-discriminatory medical care for women and girls around the world.

The clock is ticking. President Obama has less than two months left to respond to the UPR recommendations. The Global Justice Center urges the President to overturn the ban so that U.S. aid will serve its purpose, lives will be saved, and suffering will be alleviated.

Read the full letter sent to President Obama here.

Read GJC’s press release regarding the letter here.

July News Update: Coalition Calls on Obama to Lift Abortion Ban

Today, the Global Justice Center and over 55 human rights, medical, and legal organizations throughout the world, including in conflict countries, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to lift the abortion restrictions on US foreign aid. The abortion ban for women and girls raped in armed conflict violates their rights as guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions and has dangerous, even fatal, consequences.

The clock is ticking. President Obama has less than two months left to respond to the UPR recommendations. The Global Justice Center urges the President to overturn the ban so that U.S. aid will serve its purpose, lives will be saved, and suffering will be alleviated.

Read the joint letter to President Obama here.  

Read the Full Newsletter

One Year Since ISIS’s Declaration of the Caliphate: Sexual Violence Must be Stopped

Today marks exactly one year since ISIS declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. An NBC News article by Cassandra Vinograd and Ammar Cheikh Omar published this morning discusses the strength that ISIS has amassed during the past year. ISIS has maintained control and been strengthened by territorial expansion and the far-reaching influence of its ideology. Affiliates of ISIS have even sprung up around the world, for example in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance to ISIS.  It is even speculated that Boko Haram will soon declare a caliphate of its own.

There have been many attempts to curb ISIS’s power over the past year. However, the Iraqi military is not effective at fighting ISIS, and even though the United States has tried to weaken ISIS with airstrikes since last August, ISIS does not seem to be faltering. There are also hundreds of rebel groups that are currently fighting ISIS under the FSA, but they are not well organized and are lacking in resources, ammunition, and arms. Conversely, ISIS is extremely coordinated and well-resourced. In fact, “more people than ever are perpetrating violence in the group’s name.” The propaganda issued by ISIS is “infectious” and is successful at attracting fighters. So far the coalition forces have not been able to stop this trend, or ISIS itself.

According to Human Rights Watch’s April 15, 2015 publication “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systemic Rape,” ISIS has been committing war crimes against women and girls by systemically raping them, assaulting them, and subjecting them to sexual slavery. These women and girls are regarded as property and are forced to endure intense torture. The exact number of captive Yazidis is unknown due to the fact that the conflict is ongoing and many Yazidis have had to flee. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, roughly 3,000 Yazidis are still in captivity while other sources, such as local officials and community activists, believe that the numbers are much higher.

While it is important for the international community to be working towards the long term goal of weakening ISIS, there are steps that can be taken immediately to help the woman and girls who suffer daily under their reign of terror. For example, Yazidi women and girls are being systematically raped by ISIS and are being forced to carry the child of their rapist due to an antiquated US policy. It is crucial that President Obama overturn the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prevents any US aid from funding imperative, safe abortions to these women and girls who are in desperate need of relief. The international community should also be working to end impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence. For example, it is vital that the International Criminal Court recognize the gendered abductions of these Yazidi women and girls as genocide. Recognizing this as genocide will cause an immediate duty to act among states and send a clear message to the perpetrators of this sexual violence that it will not be tolerated. The women and girls living in Iraq and Syria cannot wait another day, and the US and international community cannot wait another year to take actions on their behalf.

Angelina Jolie Gives Speech on Sexual Violence at African Union Summit

On June 11, 2015 Angelina Jolie, a special envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, gave an address at the African Union Summit in Johannesburg. Jolie highlighted the sexual violence that women and girls in conflict zones are subject to due to “the near-total impunity that exists worldwide for crimes against women, in conflict zones in particular.”  

Impunity for the use of sexual violence is one GJC has been confronting head on. On April 15, 2015, one year after the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped, GJC sent a letter to the International Criminal Court urging the prosecutor to consider charging Boko Haram with genocide. Properly characterizing these targeted abductions as genocide will hold states accountable and encourage them to take action.  As stated by GJC President Janet Benshoof in an op-ed in PassBlue,“It will make clear Nigeria’s own obligations to stop this conduct and to prosecute it vigorously; it will send a message to other perpetrators, including those currently targeting Yazidi women and girls in Syria and Iraq, that genocide will not be tolerated; it will fulfill the prosecutor’s own commitment to fully prosecute crimes aimed at women and girls and to integrate a gender perspective into every stage of its work; and finally, it will trigger the international community’s responsibility to protect the Nigerian population.”

As more and more wars are being fought using women’s bodies, it is important that the laws of war apply to and protect women as well as men. When the laws of war were initially drafted, rape was not recognized as a weapon; however, it is now identified as a tactic to win military objectives. Global Justice Center’s “Rape as a Weapon of War” campaign recognizes the discrimination and suffering that women and girls face in conflict zones. GJC urges governments and international organizations to hold states where rape is being used as a weapon accountable for their actions.

As Jolie stated, “We need policies for long-term security that are designed by women, focused on women, executed by women.” With these policies, gender equality is achievable and we can see an end to impunity for sexual violence.