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Entries in conflict (4)


Protecting Syria's Civilians: Another Discarded New Year's Resolution?


It's been just three weeks since the UN Security Council adopted its latest resolution on the conflict in Syria, re-authorizing cross-border delivery routes for humanitarian aid and promising -- once again -- to take "further measures" if the parties to the conflict do not comply with international humanitarian law.

In these three weeks, the Assad government has systematically ignored this warning. Instead, its forces have continued their relentless violation of international rules of war, among them the requirement to spare civilians, health personnel and medical facilities. 

On December 25, a suspected chemical weapons attack in Moadamiya drove civilians to the local hospital with symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic agents, including difficulty in breathing, bloody frothing at the mouth, muscular contractions and involuntary urination and defecation. Several patients have died as a result. Local documenters say the missile attack came from the Syrian government-controlled Al Mezzeh airbase. 

It's very likely that this suffering was caused by illegal chemical weapons, but it has not been possible to confirm which toxic agent was responsible, and how it was distributed. There's a reason for that. 

Chemical weapons attacks are notoriously difficult to substantiate. The debris they leave is hard to detect from satellite images. To positively identify a toxic agent, you need to analyze affected blood samples. But in Syria, and in particular in the Damascus suburb where the December attack occurred, the specialized medical equipment needed to conduct these tests is in severely short supply. 

What's more, it is exceedingly difficult to safely deliver blood samples from Moadamiya to health care facilities with the necessary infrastructure. Supplies to adequately preserve samples are virtually non-existent. With health care centers and personnel openly targeted -- at least 240 medical facilities have been attacked and 697 medical workers killed in the conflict, primarily by Assad government forces -- transporting blood samples has become very dangerous. The combination makes identifying toxic agents near impossible.

Further, government forces have recently turned their sights on border area hospitals in northern Syria that to some extent have served as referential hospitals. Physicians for Human Rights has received multiple reports that health facilities in 'Azaz and Hraytan, in the suburbs of Aleppo, were hit on December 25 and 26, further debilitating Syria's already fragile health infrastructure. 

How many war crimes does the Assad government need to commit for the UN Security Council to take more decisive action?

Some might say the December 2015 resolution did effect change. Last week, the Assad government agreed to allow humanitarian aid into Madaya, a rural area close to the Lebanese border where a six-month siege has caused countless deaths and unspeakable suffering. This aid is supposed to arrive today. Survivors, driven to starvation by their own government, report being reduced to eating leaves, insects, even their pets - and having to depend on a veterinarian and a carpenter for health care and surgery. 

However, the very fact that the Assad government is in a position to allow or deny humanitarian aid is because it is using besiegement as a weapon of war - in direct contravention of UN Security Council directives and the Geneva Conventions. In fact, the limited ceasefire agreement between Syrian government and opposition forces last year should, in principle, have brought humanitarian aid to Madaya months ago. Moreover, under international humanitarian law, organizations providing aid must have unfettered access to Madaya and the dozens of other besieged areas throughout Syria, with or without Assad's express permission. 

It has been nearly five years, 300,000 deaths, and four million refugees since the Security Council first called on the Syrian authorities to respect their obligations under international law. The three weeks since the latest Security Council resolution show the Assad government has no intention of doing so. 

Whatever solution Syrian peace talks may arrive at, world leaders must immediately focus on protecting civilians and improving conditions on the ground. Without concrete action to reduce the suffering of Syrian civilians, another UN Security Council resolution on this conflict will appear as empty as so many other New Year's resolutions.


Silence On Rape is the Biggest Obstacle to Prevention


I recently held a seminar on rape in war with military lawyers from across the world. We talked through a number of obstacles to prevention and elimination of sexual violence, but at the end of the seminar everyone agreed that the biggest of them all is silence. “We don’t ever get to have this conversation,” the participants agreed.

Unfortunately, this is particularly true in the countries most affected by sexual violence in war: not only is rape not talked about, but many of those who try to address this terrible crime are attacked, often violently. On October 25th, unknown men carried out an assassination attempt on Dr. Denis Mukwege, and succeeded in killing his body guard, Joseph Bizimana. Dr. Mukwege is known for his tireless work in defence of women victims of sexual violence in the Congo.

Silence also reigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This week, Amnesty International launched a briefing paper detailing the continued silence about the rapes in Republika Srpska, almost two decades after the war in Bosnia and Herzogovina ended. To the extent there is any attention to the widespread rapes during the 1992-95 conflict, it is focused on the perpetrators—though many are still at large. Meanwhile, the women and girls who suffered systematic rape and forced pregnancies are overlooked.

It is, in fact, a widespread phenomenon that insofar as authorities and the public at large pay any attention to rape and violence against women, this attention is focused on punishing the perpetrator. And it is, of course, important to apply criminal justice where intentional harm has been done to another person, whether physically or psychologically. However, punishment is only effective as prevention when it is seen to be applied. In the case of sexual violence and rape, only a sliver of perpetrators are ever investigated, prosecuted, convicted, and serving a sentence. For more than 97 percent of those who commit rape, it is therefore of little relevance if the law metes out 10 or 20 years of jail time to a very few: most will never spend a day behind bars.

An equally important and often woefully ignored part of guaranteeing justice is to make sure rape victims have access to the justice system in the first place, and that they receive meaningful reparations for the harm they suffered as part of the sentencing.

Neither of these issues is appropriately dealt with in Republica Srpska. Many victims of widespread rape are still, after almost 20 years, unable to talk openly about their ordeals due to post-traumatic stress disorder that has not been dealt with. The authorities have not addressed the stigma attached to sexual violence in society as a whole, and has done little to overcome harmful stereotyping about gender roles, which bleed into public perceptions about rape. As a result, many women say they were mistreated, rather than raped, and the silence surrounding sexual violence continues.

More to the point, perhaps, while the silence continues, victims do not receive adequate reparations for their suffering. “Reparations” is the term for the measures states are obliged to take to help victims overcome their ordeals, and they include both what we traditionally think of as “justice” (that is, investigations and court cases) as well as guarantees of non-repetition, compensation for the abuse, and rehabilitation. Most importantly, true reparations are meant to guarantee the victim that their suffering will never re-occur.

This—guarantees of non-repetition—is where justice for individual cases meets prevention as a whole. Unfortunately, this is also where our efforts are the weakest: if part of the reason rape happens is because we allow it to, that means that to issue a guarantee that rape will stop, we have to change. And that kind of fundamental change is incredibly hard.

The good news is that it is not impossible. There are conflicts where rape is rare, and there are relationships where violence is impossible. In my recent seminar, we talked about how to change the way our most immediate family and friends think about rape. If we all make sure the 10 persons we are closest to understand that rape is wrong and never the fault of the victim, we will have changed the world.

Hopefully, change will come soon to Republika Srpska and anywhere else where silence continues to reign.


Yes We Can! (End Rape in War)


Last Tuesday in New York, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK government will give £1M for the United Nations' efforts to end, punish, and prevent sexual violence in conflict. The donation is both commendable and necessary. Statistics on rape in war are notoriously unreliable and hard to compare and collate, but it is safe to say that civilians have been targeted for sexual assault in every conflict everywhere since forever. Most recently, news are surfacing about systematic use of sexual violence as torture in the protracted violence in Syria.

However, precisely because it would be hard to think of a conflict where sexual violence has not been used to terrorize civilian populations, it is valid to ask if this is a good investment. In other words, can we do anything useful to stop sexual assault in conflict, and, if so, is the United Nations the entity to do it?

To the first question, the answer is a resounding yes.

Sure, rape is a particular effective weapon in terms of terrorizing civilian populations, and so, from a pragmatic perspective, warring parties might to loath to give it up. But there is ample precedent for effective bans--at least on paper--of equally efficient and vicious weapons: land mines, cluster bombs, chemical weapons. So while it is the efficiency of rape as a weapon that has kept it in business for centuries, this can be no excuse to give up in advance on capping its use.

The reason that rape in conflict is completely avoidable is that the weapon is a human being, in most cases a man.

This, in fact, was for many years the main excuse for the action. "Boys will be boys," commentators and military commanders shrugged when confronted with the news that a particular platoon had raped civilians, as if men are genetically disposed to force sex on others. I have even heard well-meaning activists suggest increasing spousal visits for soldiers in active combat as a way to prevent rape in war, as if raping was an expression of sexual desire and need.

Of course, we know now that this is not true. Rape, like other sexual assault and sexual harassment, is not about attraction, desire, or sexual expression. It is about power, humiliation, and control. When we say that all men are genetically predisposed to have a pathological need to control another human being physically and emotionally it is as insulting as it is to say that all women are peaceful or weak. If I were a man, I would certainly resent the implications. Or, as Nobel Laureate Jody Williams said this week at the same event at which Mr. Hague pledged for the UK: "We need men to stand up and say: 'I don't want anyone to look at me and think I am capable of that.'"

Which brings me to the second part of my initial query: is the United Nations the best vehicle for preventing rape in war?

On the face of it, the track-record is not good. The United Nations Security Council has historically been notoriously reticent to address sexual violence in war. A 2000 resolution known mostly for its number (1325/2000) included calls to end impunity for rape and to prevent such atrocities. Still, it took almost 8 years before this abstract commitment was translated into something as ephemerally concrete as "let's start getting real information on what is happening." It took another 12 months plus before the Council thought to create a dedicated office to process the gathered information and coordinate scattered UN efforts on rape in war, and an additional many months before the office was at least partially staffed and funded. (It is this office the UK has pledged to support). Meanwhile, rapes continue, with the main discernible difference being that we now know about it.

At the same time, UN efforts, troops, and aid officials may be able to bring support and supplies where community efforts are stretched to the limit. In fact, it is not so much a question of identifying one key road to change as it is of accepting that we all have work to do. That is the thrust behind the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, launched this year in May by the Nobel Women's Initiative. The campaign asks each of us to make a pledge to help end rape in conflict. William Hague pledged £1M on behalf of the United Kingdom.

What will you pledge?


Time to involve women in post-conflict rebuilding


These past few months have seen many advances on women’s participation in post-conflict settings; at least on paper.  

In September, female world leaders gathered in New York to speak about the benefits of involving women in politics, in particular after war. In October, the UN Security Council called for increased participation of women in conflict resolution and peace-building. Just last week, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution spelling out state obligations to further women’s participation in all settings, in particular countries in political transition.

The reality, though, is starkly different. 

On 20 October, world leaders met with the transitional government of Libya to discuss donations and support for this post-conflict counntry. In the lead-up to the donor conference, civil society and UN experts expressed deep concern about the overwhelmingly male official Libyan delegation. Some reported a push from the Libyan government to keep female civil society representatives away too.

And as we approach the 10-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to be marked with a donor conference in Bonn on December 5, it is unclear whether the Afghan government will include women in its official delegation, and whether Afghan women’s groups will be allowed to speak and participate meaningfully. The case of Afghanistan is particularly ironic because a key justification for international intervention in the first place was the Taliban’s appalling record on women’s rights. 

Perhaps we should no longer feel surprised at the snail's pace with which promises on women in conflict are implemented. Even on rape in war, arguably the least controversial women’s rights issue, individual states as well as the international community are dragging their feet.  

There is no conflict in recent history where women and girls have not been targeted for sexual violence, whether as a form of torture, as a method to humiliate the enemy, or with a view to spreading terror and despair. Yet it took decades of reports on vicious sexual violence in conflicts across the globe before the UN Security Council set up an office to gather information and push for action. 

Some countries that have emerged out of conflict, such as Cote d'Ivoire and Bosnia and Herzegovina, do not adequately criminalize rape in their domestic laws. More generally, the vast majority of countries fail to prosecute and address both rape and violence against women. 

Women and girls who report sexual violence face stigma, ostracism and disbelief from the authorities who fail to follow up their cases, and from their own families and communities who blame the victims for the abuse.

Yet there is something about the current climate of change that inspires hope. There is certainly a gulf of difference between the Arab Spring revolutions and the Occupy movement sweeping through the North American continent.  For one thing, while the police have almost certainly used undue force on some of the Occupy participants in New York and elsewhere, demonstrators there need not fear for their lives.  This is not the case of those pushing for change in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and beyond. 

But the call for equality is a unifying element of the demands presented by the popular movements most everywhere. Therefore, regardless of where we are and whether we feel affinity for any of these movements, as we commemorate November 25, the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women, let us remind each other that equality means equality for women too.   

These past few months have been big on words and renewed promises on women’s participation, in particular in post-conflict settings. While it is incumbent on all of us to make sure these promises are kept, governments have a special obligation to ensure equality.  This is true whether the government represents a country recently out of conflict, still experiencing high levels of general violence, or a peaceful country merely contemplating financial support for change.  

Change is possible.  Change that secures equality is essential.  We just have to commit to actually making change happen.