As the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman reminds us, women have played a very prominent role in the Arab Spring. While we celebrate their activism, we need to be mindful that this in and of itself does not secure women’s rights as part of the change taking place in the Middle East. In August I was asked to write a piece for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom‘s fall newsletter about rape as a weapon of war in Libya. In the interim between when I wrote the piece and when it was published, Gaddafi has been ousted. It is interesting to note that the rumors about Viagra like drugs that made such a splash when they first circulated have dropped from sight. We may never know if they were true. But as I point out in the article, reprinted with permission below, the real issue is the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Rape as a Weapon of War in Libya: New Permutations on an Old Theme
Earlier this year, reports began to surface alleging the use of Viagra-like drugs to encourage Libyan troops to rape women as a tactic in their fight with Libyan rebels, leading the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to call for a complete investigation of the charges and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say that she was, “deeply concerned” about the changes.If indeed the allegations prove true, they would represent a new variation on an old tactic and not only should those who committed these crimes be prosecuted, those who made the drugs available should be prosecuted as well. While pharmaceutical companies try to sell their little blue pills with advertisements showing couples exchanging knowing looks while they walk through fields of flowers, the potential abuse of these drugs as weapons of war is all too easy to believe.
Neither Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have been able to verify the reports however, so there is also the disturbing question of whether false rape charges are instead the weapon in question. Regardless of whether impotency drugs have been used and whether women have been raped or whether allegations of such rapes are being trumped up and used as a political and military tactic, the truth remains that rape is a weapon of war and women’s bodies continue to be used as the battleground in wars of male supremacy, wars that don’t take place on actual battlegrounds but instead are fought in cities and towns and in refugee camps where women and children, the most vulnerable civilians, become the collateral damage of war.
In Iraq, the number of honor killings rose dramatically after the U.S. invasion and more recently, in Tehran, women protesting the government have been attacked. In Congo, women in refugee camps are gang-raped with impunity. In Burma, the army uses rape as a weapon of terror in their fight with Shan forces. In Bosnia, there were mass rapes, in Rwanda too. In the U.S. military, female soldiers are more likely to be attacked by male soldiers than by any enemy.
These are the dots we need to connect. We are horrified every time we hear such reports. How could such a thing happen? And more importantly, how can it keep happening time and time again? While each and every instance of these abuses is horrific in its own right, we need to understand that they are not one time incidents but rather the systemic and perpetual violation of women and we need to insist that we address the underlying problem and not just its manifestations. Where there is conflict and where there are military forces, there is rape and sexual abuse.
Reports of the use of Viagra (and similar drugs) in Libya are disturbing and the International Criminal Court’s quick investigation into the allegations is significant for several reasons. A bit of history provides the context for more fully understanding the issues involved.
The ICC came into being in 2002 as an independent body (contrary to popular belief, it is not part of the United Nations) to investigate and prosecute war crimes. Of particular importance, the ICC recognizes rape and sexual assault as a war crime, allowing for the first time, a global standard for the prosecution of one of the most heinous weapons of war and the one that impacts women and girls the most severely. Over time, as militant forces come to understand that they will be held accountable for the use of rape as a tool of war, one would hope that understanding will act as a deterrent to such crimes.
The Rome Statute, which established the Court was signed by 148 countries. Seven countries voted against it, including the U.S. and Libya.
It is therefore supremely ironic that the U.S. pushed for the ICC’s prosecution of Libyan war crimes. But make no mistake, the U.S. does not consider itself bound by the jurisdiction of the ICC which would leave it quite obviously vulnerable to prosecution for such things as what happened at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and also the rape of servicewomen within the ranks of its own military.
If the charges cannot be substantiated by human rights groups, then the issue that needs to be investigated is the issue of false allegations for political and military gain.
Regardless of whether rape itself has taken place or whether instead false allegations of rape have been made, we must insist that what has occurred not be isolated and treated as a singular event but rather as a part of the pandemic war against women that is a systemic part of the global wars for power and domination. We also have to insist that the rules apply to all. The arrogant assumption of different standards of human rights based on might speaks directly to the root cause of why these crimes take place and until we are willing to confront that duplicity, they will continue to occur.
–Lucinda Marshall, 2011
Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
About the International Criminal Court
US “Hypocrisy” on Libya and International Criminal Court
U.S. continues Bush policy of opposing ICC prosecutions
Rape Reporting During War
Last week I had the privilege of sitting in on a Senate hearing held by Sen. Barbara Boxer on Women and the Arab Spring. The need for U.S. support of UNSCR 1325 as well as the importance of the U.S. finally ratifying CEDAW came up. Boxer voiced her support for CEDAW and promised to work to get it through the Senate. This is a huge boost for it’s passage and hopefully the U.S. will soon join the rest of the world in supporting this crucial tool for women’s human rights.
Note: If you have not already seen it, I highly recommend Abigail Disney’s amazing film series, Women, War and Peace on PBS, which can also be viewed online. The series makes a very significant contribution in raising awareness about how war impacts women and how women can and need to be involved in peacemaking.