Sexual violence in Syria: acting on what we know

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The Syrian people were late in joining the Arab Spring and within months after they did civil unrest descended into war. As the years go by, the range of atrocities committed in Syria appears to defy those covered by international law. There are arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in detention, and use of civilians as hostages. The most reported incidents are use of chemical and explosive weapons in civilian areas, starvation of besieged populations and the targeting of hospitals, schools and markets to force surrender.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in comparison the use of sexual and gender-based violence has received little attention. This is in part because of the inherent difficulties in documenting sexual violence – chief among them is under- and delayed reporting due to reluctance of survivors to share experiences that could lead to rejection by their families and communities. It is also because other tactics of war, like aerial and ground bombardments, are more lastingly visible and more easily documented for that reason. By and large, documentation of sexual violence, in any context, relies on victim and witness testimony. Bombardments, on the other hand, are documented using supporting material such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery that corroborates witnesses’ accounts. Crucially, witnesses of bombardments can speak without fear of stigma or feelings of shame.

Challenges in documenting sexual violence explain why it has taken so long for comprehensive overviews of the situation on the ground to become public. While as early as September 2011 reports emerged of Syrian Government forces committing sexual violence during home raids, it is only in the last year that in-depth accounts on the extent and use of sexual violence in Syria were published. In 2017, investigative journalist Marie Forestier published a report on rape as a tactic of war by the Assad regime. On the occasion of the seventh year of the uprising, the Syria Commission of Inquiry published a report covering sexual and gender-based violence by a number of perpetrators, including detailed violations by Government forces and associated militias.

Together, these reports document the use of sexual violence since the 2011 demonstrations up to last year. They show that the use of sexual violence has changed – but not stopped – throughout the conflict. Initially, Government forces conducted mass arrests of demonstrators and their supporters in their homes and at checkpoints. Most of those arrested were men and boys. When the wanted males were not found, women and girls were arrested to pressure their male relatives to surrender. Female protestors and activists were also arrested. Sexual violence occurred from the moment of arrest and throughout detention. In Government detention facilities, women and men were raped to force confessions and to provide information, with men most commonly raped with objects. Some women were gang raped, others were raped repeatedly by different officers. On occasion, senior officers raped detainees and in other instances gave permission for their subordinates to do so. There is no reported instance of officers being disciplined for their acts.

But it would be misleading to speak only of rape. What has emerged is that sexual violence took many other forms including invasive body searches, groping, sexual insults and humiliation, threats of rape of relatives, beatings and mocking of naked detainees, forcing naked detainees to serve drinks, electrocution of genitals, genital mutilation, forcing relatives and other detainees to watch rape. All of these are sexual violence. Importantly, there is now also a mass of information identifying a large number of Government detention facilities where these different types of sexual violence were committed, with some prisons – for example, branches 215, 235, 251 and 285 –  registering a range of sexual violence acts against women and girls and men and boys.

Forms of sexual violence, and the types of perpetrators, have transformed since 2011. As the conflict escalated, populations moved across the country along support lines and in 2012 Government forces resorted to air power. These resulted in decreases of ground operations and the need to cross checkpoints and, consequently, less arrests. On the other hand, the protraction of the conflict has allowed for extremist groups, most notably ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, to emerge. In areas under their control, sexual and gender-based violence takes other forms. Women’s freedom of movement is severely restricted as is their access to education, which together with poverty have contributed to increased numbers of forced marriage of adolescent girls. Those who infringe these groups’ dress codes, including young girls and pregnant women, are punished with beatings and lashings. Women accused of adultery are stoned in public and homosexual men and boys are thrown off buildings. ISIL has committed genocide against the Yazidis largely through the use of sexual violence against women and girls.

So what now? After seven years, there is information detailing the extent and use of sexual violence across Syria. Apart from information on types of sexual violence and when and where it occurred, there is also information on who endured it, why they were targeted, how sexual violence was used, and who perpetrated it. This would not have been possible without the survivors who had the courage to share their experiences. Telling their story is, however, but a first step. Eventually these efforts are geared towards accountability processes, including criminal justice.

The Security Council refusal to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court has resulted in frustration over the absence of criminal proceedings and indirectly prompted the General Assembly to create a new Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Crimes with the mandate to gather information and prepare criminal files for eventual prosecutions. This is a massive task. As it endeavors to fulfil it, the Mechanism must look beyond bombardments as intentional and indiscriminate attacks and ensure its work also covers less visible violations, including sexual violence. Similarly, national jurisdictions investigating suspects in their territory now have the tools to inquire deeper into allegations of sexual violence and potentially bring alleged perpetrators to justice.

This piece has been cross-posted in the ATHA/Harvard Humanitarian Assistance website.


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