War Rape: Rwanda, Bosnia, and Now Syria

The United Nations Security Council took an unprecedented step this summer. Pushed principally by the United Kingdom, the council passed its first resolution addressing what it calls “sexual violence in conflict.”

That’s a euphemism for an all-too-common problem in many parts of the world: Using rape as a weapon of wartime intimidation. In the human-rights world, it’s called war rape.

The Security Council resolution was a milestone because every other treaty and agreement under international human rights law refers to the rape problem only obliquely, if at all. And as a result, “despite the endemic use of rape as a weapon, no state has ever been held accountable for the use of rape as a prohibited weapon of war,” the Global Justice Center, an American human rights group, reported. The center added that global indexes of wartime injuries and deaths never mention rapes, even though military gang rapes often end up injuring or killing the victims.

The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 535,000 women were victims of war rape during the Rwanda Genocide in 1994, and 67 percent of them contracted HIV as a result. That finding set off advocates who tried to bring biological-weapon bans into the debate since HIV is a virus—given that no other laws or treaties directly addressed the problem. That tactic did not accomplish much.

Estimates of war-rape victims during the Bosnia war of the 1990s range from 20,000 to 50,000. After that became known, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia declared that “systematic rape” in time of war is a “crime against humanity.”

Nonetheless, Margot Wallström, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said only 12 individuals from that war have ever been brought to trial—even though judges from the criminal tribunal ruled that Bosnian Serb armed forces used rape as an “instrument of terror.” They declared that a “hellish orgy of persecution” occurred in various Bosnian camps.

Now, reporting from Syria indicates that war rape is rampant there, too. For example, an Atlantic magazine reporter wrote earlier this year that Syrian government soldiers hauled a jailed rebel soldier’s fiancée, sisters, mother, and female neighbors to the prison and raped them, one by one—right in front of him. That, the report said, was not an uncommon occurrence.

At the United Nations last year, Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide angrily declared that what happened during the Bosnian war “is repeating itself in Syria—tens of thousands of rapes.”


Photo Credit: Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com

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