As a result of the continuing civil war in Syria, more than 191,369 Syrian lives have been lost, while more than 2.5 million people have sought refuge outside the country. Appalling mass atrocities have been committed by both sides, including evidence that sexual violence is being used, in yet another conflict, as a weapon of war.
In interviews and data collected by international organizations, shocking patterns of sexual violence have emerged. The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has consistently found that the pattern and practice of sexual violence in Syria committed by government forces and affiliated militia meet the standard of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Commission of Inquiry has collected several reports confirming sexual violence during house searches, following arrests, at checkpoints, and in detention. Women and children tend to be the most vulnerable to such attacks, but men suspected of supporting the opposition are often subject to sexual violence as a means of interrogation and humiliation.
In neighboring Iraq, which has been drawn into the conflict, there have also been horrific reports of sexual violence perpetrated by the extremist Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Days after taking control of Mosul in Iraq, reports quickly emerged of mass rape, kidnappings, forced marriages, and sexual slavery of women by ISIS militants. In a joint statement from Baghdad, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, emphatically condemned the explicit targeting of women and children and what they called “barbaric acts” of sexual violence by ISIS against Iraqi minorities.
Despite the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, much remains unknown about the magnitude, patterns, and causes of such violence. This is due in large part to chronic under-reporting of sexual violence during conflict. Women who are raped are sometimes forced into marriage in order to “save family honour,” and in some extreme situations, male relatives may commit an “honor killing” in an attempt to eliminate the “shame” brought upon the family. The risks of stigmatization and reprisal therefore impose a culture of silence that prevents women and children from reporting crimes of sexual violence because they have very little to gain and a great deal to lose. But such evidence is critical to future prosecutions of sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law.
New and innovative initiatives are being developed to support the documentation of sexual violence that may be used to deter or hold perpetrators accountable. A journalism project named “Women under Siege Syria” is a promising step in this regard. Using virtual maps, it allows survivors, witnesses, and first responders to anonymously pinpoint the location of the assault via email, Twitter, SMS, or directly to the website. So far, 238 reports have been posted online. The resulting composite reveals the brutality and pervasive nature of sexual violence in Syria. Shocking accounts relay experiences of sexual abuse during house raids, gang rapes in detention centers, and sexual enslavement. Needless to say, verification of these reports is difficult, particularly as the Syrian government refuses access to journalists and aid workers. However, the reporting itself represents an important step in building the trust needed for victims to share their traumatic stories, providing more evidence that might support future prosecutions.
Technology is also being used to support gathering the forensic evidence that would corroborate witness accounts. A new app, MediCapt, under development by Physicians for Human Rights in collaboration with Datadyne and InformaCam will allow health care providers to use their mobile phones to document and transmit evidence of sexual violence.
MediCapt allows doctors to fill out a digital medical form with information such as which parts of the body show signs of assault, together with photographs of any injuries, while noting whether the victim was pregnant or tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease. Data about the perpetrator can also be recorded, such as what language they spoke and whether they were armed or belonged to a militia group. The app is currently being tested in the Democratic Republic of Congo to help law officials build cases against perpetrators of sexual violence.
At a more abstract level, a new international protocol for investigating and documenting sexual violence launched at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June represents substantial progress towards bridging the divide between documentation and prosecution. The protocol provides practical steps for interviewing witnesses, photographing and sketching crime scenes, and collecting personal data from survivors. It also encourages doctors and nurses, who are often first responders in conflict, to collect the forensic medical evidence needed to support prosecutions. This may be particularly vital in Syria and Iraq, where contextual information of sexual violence is becoming available alongside contemporary efforts to document and gather evidence on the ground.
The protocol in itself is an important advancement towards ending impunity for sexual violence, but it is only a first step. But in the longer term, confronting and ending sexual violence and holding the perpetrators to account requires a more fundamental shift – the inclusion of women and girls on equal terms with men in conflict prevention and resolution, and in peacebuilding.
Harshani Dharmadasa is a Strategic Litigation Fellow with the Open Society Justice Initiative. She supports human rights litigation to secure legal remedies for human rights abuses and promote effective enforcement of the rule of law.