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Spoils of War: The International Response to ISIS’ Sexual Violence

The increased vulnerability of women and children to rape is a horrific consequence of war that dates back to antiquity, when women were considered property and therefore spoils of war. Despite the fact that it is forbidden under international law, sexual violence persists today as an alarming new threat to international peace and security.

Security Council resolution 1820 (passed in 2009) declares that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” Nonetheless, extremist groups that have emerged since then, such as Daesh (commonly known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria, rely on these tactics more than any previous group to gain power.

So far, the international community has watched helplessly, struggling to muster an effective response.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, addressed the issue on a panel on April 14th. After briefing the Security Council on a newly released report documenting sexual violence committed against women in conflict zones in 2014, the organizers screened a documentary on the subject produced by BBC Arabic.

The report identifies 13 conflict zones across 19 countries in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East where women are subjugated and abused by militias, rebel groups and other non-state actors, and in some cases also by national armed forces. It focuses on the need to counter violent extremist groups that use sexual violence as a tenet of their ideologies and vital part of their strategies.

“We understand governments and traditional non-state actors [such as rebel groups comprised of local militias], and know how to deal them even when they are unpalatable,” said Ms. Bangura. “But,” she continued, “over the last two years, we’ve seen the rise of trans-border groups who have institutionalized sexual violence.”

Diplomacy generally dictates that the United Nations and other stakeholders respond to threats with economic sanctions, travel bans and other “sticks” that, while imperfect, have proven relatively effective in influencing behavior. In this case however, the transnational composition of these groups—Daesh counts 100 different nationalities among its members—and their utter disregard for international law and human rights norms are confounding this approach.

“We don’t know where their bank accounts are and [while] we know they are very organized, we don’t understand their strategy, [so] we have no tools with which to address them,” admits Ms. Bangura. Moreover, referring to Daesh’s social media prowess, she lamented they are “way ahead of the game” in using “our modern technologies to implement their medieval ideologies.”

Within the territories they control, Daesh has wreaked particular devastation among communities of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as targeting LGBT individuals. The Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan have suffered tremendously. Since August 2014 over 5,000 girls, some as young as nine years old, have been kidnapped and subjected to rape, physical abuse and humiliation multiple times per day. Their captors threaten to kill them if they do not convert to Islam.

In accordance with a fatwa declaring it permissible to buy, sell or give non-Islamic women away as gifts, the girls are sold in slave markets where they are priced according to their age and looks. One girl bled to death just shy of her 14th birthday because of the repeated rapes she endured over the course of being sold five times.

Her story and others like it were conveyed by Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi Parliamentarian who flew to New York to participate in the panel discussion with Ms. Bangura in hopes of raising awareness. With desperation in her eyes she implored the United Nations, the media, students—anyone with a voice—to help. “ISIS continues to kidnap and rape with impunity and no one is doing anything about it,” she said.

Although ransom payments funded by private families as well as by the Kurdish government have secured the release of some 300 girls and others have escaped, thousands more remain captive today.

Echoing her concerns, Ms. Bangura made clear that sexual violence in conflict is an issue of international peace and security and therefore must be mainstreamed into all U.N. and Member State discussions on terrorism and extremism at every level, including military strategy, if it is to be adequately addressed.

Despite this harsh reality, the discussion was not without glimmers of hope. Nareen Shammo, a young Yazidi activist and former journalist, is the subject of the documentary Slaves of the Caliphate. The film follows Ms. Shammo as she tries to track the captives via their mobile phones and negotiate their release on behalf of their families. Her fortitude is remarkable, as is the resilience of the girls she helps.

Hope also shines through the realization that states, civil society and international institutions do have some capacity to alleviate at least a bit of the ongoing suffering and prevent its recurrence, albeit only if adequate resources can be mobilized. The report recommends increasing medical and psychiatric services for victims, employing more women as peacekeepers and advisors and ensuring that peace agreements explicitly include injunctions against sexual violence.

Of course, broader efforts to promote gender equality and work with peaceful countries to strengthen and enforce existing laws that protect women and children would also have a positive effect.


Image credit: From Slaves of the Caliphate