When rape is a tool of war

Editorial, Normal

The National, Thursday, May 19, 2011

By Kelly Askin
THE raw courage demonstrated by Eman al-Obeidy in persisting in telling her story of alleged repeated gang-rape and torture in Libya is helping to change the dialogue in Libya and the Middle East about the use of sexual violence as a weapon of repression.
Since Obeidy burst into a hotel filled with journalists in March and told them of being raped by loyalist militia, Muammar Gaddafi’s supporters have deployed a range of vile tactics in a bid to undermine her that are painfully familiar. They called her a drunk, a prostitute, a pornographer, a liar, mentally unstable – impugning her honour and that of her family.
When those tactics failed, they implied it was all somehow her fault, claiming she was scheduled to meet one of the men she said attacked her. Others threatened to sue her.
They are no doubt frustrated and surprised that the ways commonly used to silence women had not silenced Obeidy, who had been tenacious in her desire to tell her story. She is fortunate that her family is supporting her, reportedly rejecting offers of money, property or security if they would only denounce her.
In other cases, survivors of such treatment had found themselves shunned by their families and communities because of the resulting social stigma.
Rape has, historically, been used as a tool of war.
Beyond Libya and the Middle East, rape and sexual violence had been used in conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Guatemala and Bangladesh to sow terror and destruction.
It is hard to speculate on the scope of this sort of sexual abuse in Libya, or whether it is being deployed in a systematic way while the armed conflict is under way – there have only been a small number of reports so far.
But, al-Obeidy did put her attack into a familiar context: She told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that her captors “would say: ‘Let the men from eastern Libya come and see what we are doing to their women and how we treat them, how we rape them’.”
The intentional, calculated use of rape as a strategy of oppression is for some a favoured way to stigmatise and demoralise not only the victim but entire families and communities.
The international community had recognised this.
Since the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the brutal conflict in the Balkans where about 20,000 women were raped, newly established international war crimes tribunals had repeatedly recognised various forms of sexual violence as war crimes and, in some cases, instruments of genocide.
When committed on a widespread or systematic basis, which is almost always the case in conflict situations, they may amount to crimes against humanity. This, at least, delivers some measure of justice to the victims.
Nowhere has this need been more hideously manifest than in  Congo, which has been wracked by conflict since the 1990s.
Last year, the United Nations recorded about 11,000 rapes, but the true figure was believed to be much higher. It was enough to prompt the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict to call the country “the rape capital of the world”.
Justice is being delivered now in eastern Congo, where the Open Society Justice Initiative had supported the development of mobile gender justice courts that can hold court sessions in remote towns and villages in the east of the country where many of the atrocities have occurred.
Last month, the UN security council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, which was investigating reports of attacks on civilians and other violations of international law. – CNN