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.