How women and girls who survived Boko Haram have gone from one nightmare to another in Nigeria

Bama Hospital camp

Women in Bama Hospital camp in north-east Nigeria, December 2015. (Gbemiga Olamikan)

While there has been international outrage following Boko Haram’s abduction of women and girls in north-east Nigeria, there has been little awareness or condemnation of the abusive behaviour of the Nigerian armed forces – despite the fact that they have been committing war crimes and potential crimes against humanity against Boko Haram survivors.

This blog highlights some of our findings in a recently released Amnesty International report, “They betrayed us”, as well as related developments since. The report documents how thousands of women and girls in north-east Nigeria who lived under Boko Haram’s brutal rule have since been subjected to gendered forms of violence and abuse by those responsible for protecting them.

Attacked instead of protected

In 2014, Boko Haram took control of large swathes of north-east Nigeria. From early 2015, the Nigerian military intensified its operations against the armed group, and has since recaptured much of this area. The military then established so-called “satellite camps” for internally displaced people from areas that had been under Boko Haram control in the key towns they recaptured.

By mid-2016, over 200,000 people were living in these camps; many thousands more have arrived since.  However, many of the IDPs had not chosen to come to the satellite camps at all. While some were fleeing Boko Haram, others had fled after the military indiscriminately attacked their rural communities, opening fire, burning down homes, and ordering everyone to leave. Some told us they were hoping to be rescued from Boko Haram when they were attacked by the military. Others told us that they had been taken to the camps by the security forces against their will.

The forced displacement across scores of villages do not appear to have been sufficiently targeted to be in line with any imperative military reasons and the violent nature in which they were conducted suggest they did not appear to be designed to ensure civilians’ security. Instead, these acts appear to constitute a war crime.

Families separated

The military subjected everyone arriving in the satellite camps to a “security screening”. Many (in some locations, almost all) men and boys perceived to be of “fighting age” were arbitrarily detained and taken away to military detention facilities where thousands remain. One result was that the satellite camps have been made up of disproportionate numbers of women and their dependents, with few civilian men.

Confined and left to die

In the satellite camps, women and their dependents have been denied information on their loved ones in detention and subject to severe movement restrictions.

From late 2015 until mid/late 2016, when humanitarian aid finally scaled up, thousands of people – mostly women and their dependents – died from lack of food, water and healthcare while confined in the camps. By confining people to camps in such conditions, those responsible may have committed the war crime of murder.

While the food security situation has improved in most of the satellite camps since mid-2016, there are still massive gaps in assistance provided, and women face gender-based discrimination accessing assistance and livelihood opportunities.

Sexual violence

Members of the military and the allied militia have subjected women and girls in the satellite camps to sexual violence. Women who were near-starving were often forced to be the ‘girlfriends’ of the soldiers or militia members in order to access food. Even now, sexual exploitation continues to thrive in a context of impunity, near-confinement and deprivation.

The coercive circumstances that soldiers and militia members created and took advantage of negates any consent that may have apparently been given by women succumbing to be their ‘girlfriends’. Those responsible thus committed the war crime of rape even where physical force was not used or threatened. In some cases, women who refused sex were also raped by security forces using physical force or threats.

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New supplements to the International Protocol on documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict for Iraq, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Cover_Myanmar_Burmese supplement.jpgOnce hidden and unspoken, reports of sexual violence now feature prominently in daily media dispatches from conflict zones around the world. This visibility has contributed to a new emphasis on preventing and addressing such violence at the international level.

Promoting the investigation and documentation of these crimes is a key component of the international community’s response. However, this response requires thoughtful and skilled documenters.  Poor documentation may do more harm than good, retraumatising survivors, and undermining future accountability efforts.

Recently, the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI) and international anti-torture organisation REDRESS, with the funding support of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), have launched a series of country-specific guides to assist those documenting and investigating conflict-related sexual violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

The guides (available in English, Burmese, Tamil, Sinhalese, Arabic and Kurdish on the REDRESS and IICI websites) complement the second edition of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, published in March 2017 by the FCO.

The Protocol aims to support practitioners to document appropriately by providing a “set of guidelines setting out best practice on how to document, or investigate, sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity, act of genocide or other serious violation of international criminal, human rights or humanitarian law”. It is a tremendous resource for practitioners, covering theoretical, legal and practical aspects of documentation.

However, as the Protocol itself makes clear, documentation of conflict-related sexual violence is highly context-specific. Each conflict situation and country has individual legal and practical aspects that must be considered alongside the Protocol’s guidelines.

The guides aim to fill this gap by addressing the context for and characteristics of conflict-related sexual violence in the three countries. They address legal avenues for justice domestically and at the international level, specific evidential and procedural requirements and practical issues that may arise when documenting such crimes.

The publication of these guides on the three different countries highlights some interesting comparisons and contrasts.  Although the background to and most common forms of sexual violence differ from country to country, the motivations for the violence have parallels. Similarly, the stigmatisation of survivors is a grave concern in each country, influencing all aspects of daily life for them and the way that institutions and individuals respond to the crimes committed against them.

In all three countries, a landscape of almost complete impunity prevails, and in many situations survivors, their families and practitioners face significant threats to their security – often from state actors (e.g. police, military, state security). This harsh reality is borne out by the fact that although the drafting of the supplements relied heavily on the experience and input of local practitioners, due to security concerns, very few were able to be individually acknowledged for their contributions.  Continue reading

Human Trafficking as a Gendered Phenomenon: CEDAW and a missing jigsaw piece – Part II

In the first part of this blog, we provided a summary of our article “Human Trafficking as A Gendered Phenomenon: CEDAW in Perspective in which we argue that the CEDAW Committee is an important actor whose voice should be heard when discussing States obligations towards the elimination of trafficking and that Article 6 of the Convention needs further clarification/development.

Since publication of our article we have continued to ask ourselves how and why trafficking is divorced from the issue of violence against women within CEDAW’s framework. This posts sets out part of this brief history as a prelude to our article and as part of the history of women’s rights advocacy on these issues. We hope that others can elaborate on the schism between Article 6 and violence against women, and the ongoing lack of a GR on human trafficking.

Gender-Based Violence Against Women

Last year, the CEDAW Committee updated General Recommendation No 19 on violence against women in its General Recommendation No 35 (2017). This GR has garnered much attention for both its content and for its procedure with over 100 women’s groups, NGOs and stakeholders contributing to its promulgation.[1] The Recommendation, which acts as authoritative guidance on the Committee’s interpretation of the Convention’s provisions in relation to violence, acknowledges that despite advances in the field since GR19, gender-based violence against women remains pervasive in all countries of the world and it manifests in a continuum, in a range of settings.[2] The updated substantive statement on gender-based violence against women is a reminder of where we have come and where we still have to go to eradicate violence, and make the right to live a life free from violence a reality.[3]

GR 35 however does not however deal with the issue of human trafficking of women and girls. While trafficking has been mentioned in a number of the Committee’s General Recommendations (GR 26, 28, and 35) the Committee has only done so in passing, instead commenting in its GR on migrant workers that the phenomenon of trafficking could be more comprehensively addressed in its own GR on Article 6. It has remained a mystery to us as to why the Committee has remained interpretatively silent on an important substantive article, leading us to question why Article 6 and violence against women have become separated and whether the Committee has always taken this approach.

An Archaeological Dig

It is well known that the Convention did not include a substantive article on violence against women and that instead GR19 marked an important step in the Committee’s interpretation of the Convention to make explicit the link between violence and discrimination. An analysis of the CEDAW Committee’s session minutes indicates that at the time of drafting GR19, Article 6 (trafficking) formed an integral part of that discussion. GR19 was adopted at the eleventh session, and it was and still is a landmark statement on gender-based violence. It provides an article by article approach setting out how the different articles of the Convention interact and relate to violence against women.

Interestingly, the minutes of the 10th and 11th sessions seem to indicate that originally violence and trafficking were to be considered together in one general recommendation.  The report mentions an anticipated discussion of Article 6 of the Convention and that members were asked to consider the report of the Secretary General on Violence against Women in all its forms, which contained the report of the Expert Group Meeting on Violence against Women, held in Vienna in 1991. We then see that a member (anonymised) expresses concern over the lack of coordination of the CEDAW Committee with the Expert Group and the Commission of the Status of Women. Different experts voiced their consideration at the risk of duplication. One member asked if “it was perhaps necessary to have two separate recommendations: one on violence and one on article 6”.

The report then records that GR19 was adopted as a response to the Expert Group Meeting on Violence against Women and that comments of the Working Group on Article 6, would be picked up at a later session. Ms Bustelo and Ms Aouij volunteered to prepare draft general comments for the next session. At the 12th session, the Working Group recommended that the work should be continued. The minutes of the 12th session thus further indicate that there has been long-standing work on a General Recommendation on Article 6 yet it is unclear from the later minutes what happened and why this GR has not come to fruition. This mystery is underlined further by the Committee’s own statement in the GR on migrant women that there should be a separate recommendation in relation to Article 6 and trafficking.

Conclusion

The work of the Committee continues today and is phenomenally important to women’s rights advocates. The Committee’s work on gender-based violence against women as a form of discrimination together with its specialised status in interpreting human rights norms and obligations in relation to women has been significant and influential. In the context where regional and international courts and tribunals have yet to grasp how trafficking is a gendered phenomenon CEDAW’s interpretative expertise is welcome, and in our view, long overview. Understandably, the Committee has many competing issues to deal with, and we recognise that Article 6 presents particular theoretical and political challenges.  However, the seriousness and pervasiveness of the violations of women and girls’ rights who suffer from human trafficking and exploitation in prostitution demands the Committee’s specialised and expert action. The enactment of GR35 forms another historical moment for the Committee, and for us another reminder that more has to be done to tackle trafficking against women and girls.

[1] ‘The CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation 35. A renewed vision for a world free of gender-based violence against women’, available at http://ehrac.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/EHRAC-Winter-2017-WEB.pdf.

[2] ‘CEDAW General Recommendation 35 draws an explicit link between gender, discrimination and conflict-related violence against women’, available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2017/09/12/cedaw-general-recommendation-35-draws-an-explicit-link-between-gender-discrimination-and-conflict-related-violence-against-women/

[3] ‘CEDAW General Recommendation 35 on violence against women is a significant step forward’, available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2017/09/06/cedaw-general-recommendation-35-on-violence-against-women-is-a-significant-step-forward/

Malian suspect at ICC: New opportunity for accountability for sexual crimes

After Jean-Pierre Bemba’s conviction was overturned, the new Malian case at the ICC offers an opportunity to successfully convict a suspect for sexual crimes. Focusing on a gender analysis of crimes will be essential, as gender was at the center of armed groups’ strategy.

Few women in northern Mali believed that this day would come.  One of the chiefs of the Islamic police of Timbuktu during the jihadist groups take over of the north of the country in 2012-2013 appeared before the ICC last April. The prosecution alleges that Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud is responsible for rape and sexual slavery, torture, persecution, outrages upon personal dignity, passing of unlawful sentences, and attacking religious and historical buildings.

If the charges of rape and sexual slavery are upheld after the confirmation of charges hearing planned in the fall, it will be a not-to-be-missed opportunity to secure a conviction for sexual crimes as well as to focus on the gender dimension of some international crimes. Gender was indeed at the center of the Islamist militants’ strategy to secure their grip on Timbuktu and to subjugate its inhabitants. Meanwhile, it is the first time that a suspect is appearing before the Court on the charges of persecution on gender grounds.

In the sixteen years it has been operating, the ICC has deplorably failed to convict a single accused for sexual violence. In a recent setback earlier this month, the Court acquitted the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including rape.  In two other previous instances, accused were also acquitted.

Yet, in 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor committed to better integrate a gender perspective in all its work and to improve prosecution of sexual violence.  The Al Hassane case and the context in which crimes were committed in Timbuktu offer an opportunity to demonstrate this commitment.

Al Hassan was a member of Ansar Eddine, an Islamist group seeking to impose Islamic law across the country. Alongside Tuareg rebels and other jihadist groups including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, they launched an offensive on northern Mali and took control of Timbutku between April 2012 and January 2013.

During this period, Islamist armed groups imposed a strict application of Sharia law. Men and women were not allowed to talk to each other outside of their families, music was forbidden, and shopkeepers were arrested and tortured for possessing tobacco. Jihadists imposed cruel punishments including public flogging and amputation. While these practices and destruction of mausoleums have caught the world’s attention, sexual crimes have been kept secret because of the stigma and the cultural taboo attached to them.

Women of Timbuktu were sexually harassed, forcibly married and raped. Women who were not fully covered were commonly harassed and beaten on the street by members of the Islamic Police or the so-called morality police, the Hisbah. They chased and arrested people considered not in compliance with Sharia law. During their detention at the police station, women were routinely tortured, sexually abused and in some cases raped.  Armed men controlling the city also kidnapped women after allegedly “marrying” them, detained them in their homes or abandoned houses to rape them repeatedly, and sometimes gang raped them.

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Women challenge sexism in U.S. and Canadian guest worker programs through bold and innovative NAFTA labor petitions

In July  2016, UFCW Canada and Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM)  filed petitions under NAFTA’s labor side agreement alleging sex discrimination in recruitment for the Canadian  Seasonal Orange tiger liliesAgricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the U.S. H-2A and H-2B agricultural and low wage visa programs. In early 2018, CDM filed a supplement to its petition, arguing that sex discrimination is pervasive in recruitment for professional visa programs as well as low wage visa programs.

Because of sex discrimination in recruitment, less than 4 percent of the workers who participate in U.S. and Canadian agricultural and low wage guest worker programs are women. While working conditions in guest worker programs are rife with human and labor rights issues, they still represent economic opportunity for women who would like to participate.  Moreover, women who are excluded are forced into migration through informal channels, leading to the risk of violence, human trafficking, and even worse working conditions.

These two bold and innovative petitions highlight in a tangible and human way the bifurcation of global migrant labor markets.  Global migrant labor markets bifurcated based on gender exclude women from economic opportunity based on gender stereotyping. Discrimination in recruitment and treatment of women in the global migrant labor market is the norm, not the exception.

My forthcoming article in the Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal discusses and compares the facts and claims raised in each petition under applicable legal frameworks in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC). The article explores possible outcomes of the petitions given the nuances and political environments in the Canadian and U.S. cases and the current state of relations between the Government of Mexico and its North American neighbors. Finally, the article places sexism and gender stereotyping in North American guest worker programs in an international context, discussing other examples of sexism in the global labor market and existing norms in ILO Conventions and CEDAW Recommendation No. 26 on Women Migrant Workers.

Row of flowers and sidewalkIn the Canadian case, the article argues that the Governments of Canada and Mexico should renegotiate international agreements that form the SAWP to implement the recommendations of the Mexican Council on the Prevention of Discrimination. In the U.S. case, the article argues that the Government of Mexico should pursue the establishment of an Evaluative Committee of Experts (ECE) under Article 23 of the NAALC if the U.S. does not enact and enforce meaningful reforms to eliminate sex discrimination in the H-2A and H-2B visa programs.

This article is the direct result of the supportive research community that has grown up around the IntLawGrrls blog. I first presented it as part of a wonderful panel at the IntLawGrrls 10th Birthday Conference in Athens, Georgia in March 2017.  Moderated by Jaya Ramji-Nogales and featuring Karen Bravo, Deepa Das Acevedo, and Urvashi Jain, this panel focused on exclusion – whether the exclusion of transgender children from schools in India, of persons from their fundamental humanity through slavery and human trafficking, of women from the Hindu temple at Sabarimala, or of women from economic opportunities represented by international guest worker programs.  I am grateful to my fellow panelists, to IntLawGrrls, and to the Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia Law School for a transformative experience.

Olga PedrozaMy article is dedicated in part to Olga Pedroza of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year. Olga was my boss when I worked as a farmworker intern at Southern New Mexico Legal Services during law school. Olga introduced me to a world I never imagined, where migrant farm workers sleep on sidewalks in El Paso to catch 4:00 a.m. school buses to ride hours away to pick chiles, tomatoes, and onions in Southern New Mexico.  It was because of Olga that I sat in a renovated chicken coop in Artesia, New Mexico, talking to a farmworker who told me that he and other farmworkers did not deserve any better. After her retirement from Southern New Mexico Legal Services, Olga served as a Law Cruces City Councilor for 8 years. Olga was a tireless and lifelong advocate for the excluded. She will be missed.

Exporting Censorship: How U.S. Restrictions on Abortion Speech and Funding Violate International Law, Part 2

GlobalJusticeCenter_GagRule

Part 2: The Global Gag Rule and Freedom of Association

This is the second of a two-part post illustrating how U.S. abortion restrictions violate the ICCPR’s requirements for lawful restrictions on the freedom of speech and association, which is examined in more detail in the Global Justice Center’s recent brief. Although the Helms and Siljander Amendments (discussed in Part 1) also violate the freedom of association in various ways, this post focuses on the Global Gag Rule and its unique effects on the freedom of association.

The Global Gag Rule Strikes Again

Over one year has passed since the Trump administration announced it was expanding the Global Gag Rule (Gag Rule) (also known as the “Mexico City Policy” and now “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance”) to cover all U.S. global health assistance funding—a significantly larger amount of foreign aid than previous iterations. The expanded Gag Rule (an executive branch policy) prohibits foreign NGOs that receive U.S. global health assistance funding from “perform[ing] or actively promot[ing] abortion as a method of family planning,”[i] and from using funding from any source (whether foreign or domestic) to carry out abortion-related activities, including counseling, referrals, advocating for increased access to abortion, or lobbying to legalize abortion. By continuing to prevent foreign NGOs from using any of their funding for these activities, U.S. policy violates international law protecting the freedom of association by preventing work and advocacy on a particular human right.

The Right to Freedom of Association Includes Access to Funding

ICCPR Article 22 guarantees the right to freely associate with others, including an association’s right to carry out all its statutory activities. As described in detail in the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association’s 2013 report, the right to access funding and other resources is essential to associations’ existence and effectiveness, and is thus also protected by Article 22. International law does not distinguish between sources of funding, and recognizes that associations have the right to seek funding from domestic, foreign, and international sources alike. Like those on freedom of speech, restrictions on the freedom of association are only permitted where they are provided by law, serve a legitimate aim (to respect the rights or reputations of others or to protect national security, public order, public health or morals), and are necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to achieving that aim. The Gag Rule exemplifies how U.S. restrictions on abortion speech, activities, and funding violate the ICCPR’s requirements for restrictions on the freedom of association. Continue reading

Exporting Censorship: How U.S. Restrictions on Abortion Speech and Funding Violate International Law, Part 1

GlobalJusticeCenter_WhiteHousePart 1: The Helms Amendment and Freedom of Speech

This is the first of a two-part post exploring how U.S. restrictions on abortion-related speech, activities, and funding violate U.S. human rights obligations under the ICCPR. Although much attention is rightfully paid to the devastating impact of the reimposed Global Gag Rule, the Helms and Siljander Amendments (which have been permanently in place since the 1970s) often command less consideration. These restrictions are discussed separately here in order to illustrate their unique effects on freedoms of speech and association. However, Helms, Siljander and the Global Gag Rule all fall short of the ICCPR’s requirements and therefore violate freedoms of speech and association in complex ways, as examined in more detail in the Global Justice Center’s recent brief. This post explores how the Helms and Siljander Amendments fail to meet the ICCPR’s standards for lawful restrictions on the freedom of speech. Part Two will focus on the Global Gag Rule and its violation of the freedom of association.

The Helms Amendment (first enacted in 1973) provides that no U.S. funds “may be used to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” In practice, U.S. government agencies have interpreted and applied the Helms Amendment as a total ban on abortion speech and services, despite the Leahy Amendment’s attempt to clarify that counseling on pregnancy options should not be considered “motivation.” U.S. application of Helms also does not include exceptions for rape, incest or life endangerment (unlike the Global Gag Rule), even though these exceptions are often covered by other legal protections (such as international humanitarian law).[i]

U.S. Restrictions on Freedom of Speech Violate International Law

Although experts and advocates have highlighted the harmful effects of abortion restrictions on global health, little attention has been paid to the legality of U.S. abortion speech restrictions, especially under international law. ICCPR Article 19(3) only allows for restrictions on the right to freedom of speech where they: (1) are provided by law; (2) serve a legitimate aim; and (3) are necessary and proportionate to achieving that aim. U.S. abortion speech restrictions fail to meet each prong of this test.

First, for a restriction to be adequately “provided by law,” the Human Rights Committee (HRC) has explained that it must be accessible to the public, be formulated with precise language that allows individuals to regulate their conduct, and not allow “unfettered discretion” to those charged with its execution.[ii] Continue reading

A Handshake and the Right to Bodily Integrity

Recently, France’s highest administrative court upheld a ruling denying citizenship to a woman who has been married to a French national since 2010. Media outlets reported that the woman cited her “religious beliefs” as a reason for not shaking hands with a male official during the citizenship ceremony. As a result, she was denied citizenship due to the government’s assessment that she was “not assimilated into the French community.” According to the civil code of France, the government has the right to deny citizenship on grounds of “lack of assimilation, other than linguistic.”

There are a number of cases in France and other European countries that are using this concept of assimilation to take away a privilege or penalize those that are perceived as not assimilating. There are arguments supporting both sides of the debate but I thought it may be interesting to use a rights framework to examine these types of cases.

If you are advocating for the woman in this case, a major argument would be that individuals have freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, along with many other domestic and international law instruments. The challenge with this argument is that countries have different histories that lead them to a divergence in the understanding of freedom of religion. For example, in the United States, freedom of religion was loosely based on a concept of pluralism. You can argue that it is not completely the case in practice.  Nonetheless, children in U.S. schools are taught that some immigrants to the United States came to practice their religion freely and openly and this is one of the positive aspects of living in the U.S. This concept remains to be an integral part of American education and understanding. In some other secular countries, governments adopted a definition of freedom of religion that involved relegating religion to the private sphere—essentially practicing freedom from religion in the public sphere. This is mainly due to historical relationships with religious institutions. The history is even more complex than this summary, which highlights the difficulties in advocating a position based a freedom of religion argument alone. Therefore, putting this religious freedom argument to the side for now, I started thinking about the concept of the body and the rights of a person to her or his own body. Continue reading

INVITATION TO BOOK LAUNCH

BOOK LAUNCH

The African Foundation for International Law  and the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University, kindly invites you to the launch of ‘International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives’ and a Panel Discussion at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Date:    May 7, 2018

Time:   18:00-20:00

Venue:   Erasmus University, International Institute of Social Studies,  Rotterdam,  The Netherlands.

Event details and a flyer with link to registration can be found here: The Hague2018.

                          The event is free and open to the public. Reception to follow.

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. Continue reading