Nearly 40,000 people have died already in Syria’s civil war, and close to 100 are still being killed each day. Homes, hospitals, water infrastructure, and sanitation systems have been destroyed. But one element of this ongoing brutality has been largely overlooked in the media: the appalling sexual violence being visited on the Syrian people by government and militia forces. Such use of sexual violence as a tactic of war is shocking—yet depressingly familiar.
Today, Nov. 25, marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the beginning of the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence. These awareness-raising campaigns are vital, both because, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeated time and again, women’s rights are human rights; and because, without accountability for sexual violence and other acts of severe violence against women and girls—which are often designed to humiliate and degrade victims and the groups with which they identify—security and development are impossible.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, has referred to sexual violence as the “silent scourge of war.” The sheer scale of the brutality, and the lack of accountability surrounding it, is nothing short of sickening. During the Bosnian War, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, many of them in camps specifically designed for the purpose. But this tidal wave of systematic brutality has resulted in only 30 convictions. All this took place in Europe within the past two decades.
Elsewhere the numbers are even starker. In the 100 days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, up to half a million women are estimated to have been raped, a staggering figure in a total population of only 6 million people at the time. Of the 14,200 cases of sexual violence recorded in neighboring South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 2005 and 2009, fewer than 1 percent were ever heard in court. It has been estimated that in some conflicts as many as 90 percent of cases of sexual violence go unreported because of stigma, weak legal and judicial systems, or fear of retribution. Gender-based violence constitutes a global epidemic that persists today in both conflict and nonconflict settings.
Against a background of near-total impunity, it is easy to see why those using sexual violence as a tactic of war today, in Syria and elsewhere, believe that they will never be held to account. Tragically, as these statistics show, they are almost certainly right.
It was partly to respond to this culture of impunity that the United States, under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, created the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which has been a cornerstone of this year’s American G8 presidency. The plan brings together departments and agencies from across the federal government to help countries that have been scarred by sexual violence hold perpetrators to account and start the process of reconciliation. For example, the departments of State and Justice will advise on necessary legal structures and equip judges to deal with criminal cases; the military will help train security and peacekeeping forces to stop sexual violence from being used as a weapon; and diplomats and development officers will reach out to affected populations to make sure that they know they have a right to redress.
In August, the United States’ Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally renewed the call to eradicate gender-based violence in every community around the world, emphasizing the need for governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and grassroots-level advocates to collaborate on implementing concrete solutions.
Next year, the U.K. takes over the presidency of the G8 from the United States. One of the British government’s top priorities is to complement and build on the U.S. National Action Plan and Gender-Based Violence Strategy by means of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Again, the focus is on accountability. One of the centerpieces of the initiative will be the creation of a team of experts in law, policing, medicine, psychology, forensic science, and the care of victims and witnesses. Capable of deployment alone or in support of wider international missions, the team will assist with investigation, evidence gathering and national capacity building. In the six months since the initiative was announced, more than 70 experts have already been recruited. The team will be ready for its first deployment before the end of 2012.
We need scarcely repeat that we have a long way to go. But, as the successful campaign to ban landmines and chemical weapons has shown, mobilizing global public opinion is critical to ridding the world of abhorrent weapons. The international community must therefore work together to expose the most odious weapon of all—sexual violence—by ensuring justice for its perpetrators and support for its survivors. Here, as on so many issues, Britain and the United States are in full agreement.