The impunity of sexual violence in armed conflict and peacetime — Azrul Mohd Khalib

NOVEMBER 5 — When the term “human security” was first coined by Dr. Mahbub ul Haq in his essay published in UNDP’s 1994 edition of the Human Development Report (I actually have a pretty badly beaten up and water damaged copy of this report), the seven areas of threats were outlined: economic, food, health, environment, community, individual and political.

Back then, this shift from the outlook of traditional security focusing on the state to non-state actors, namely societies, groups and individuals, was and perhaps still is considered a contentious issue.

With realists accusing proponents of human security that this was a dilution of security as understood through the lenses of the state, military power and the geopolitics of the post-Cold War era. Debates, heated arguments and occasional fistfights have broken out on the sidelines of seminars and conferences.

So, what I wanted to share in this article deals with one of the schools of thought under human security, namely “Freedom from Fear” specifically focusing on gender based violence.

Of late the recent armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Sudan have highlighted the incidents of rape and sexual violence in those areas as being unprecedented and unique in their scale.

Wartime rape has never been limited to a certain era or to a particular part of the world, and has almost always been present in every armed conflict whether international or internal. It is used to punish, torture, extract information, degrade, and intimidate women or members of their family and community. Women who are raped are often also murdered or left to die by their attackers.

Rape by combatants has been considered and treated as part of the process in ongoing armed conflicts between rebel forces and government counterinsurgency forces. It occurs in this context in order to punish a group of civilians for perceived sympathies with armed insurgents, and to demonstrate the soldiers’ domination over civilians.

For example, in South America, members of an army unit searching a village for suspected militants gang-raped at least six women, including an eleven-year old girl and a sixty-year-old woman. One of these women was told by her rapist, “We have orders from our officers to rape you.”

Rape during interrogation by counterinsurgency forces in some countries is committed in order to get information or frighten and intimidate an individual into complying with the wishes of her captors. Arrested for alleged insurgent activities, Maria, twenty-nine years old and pregnant, was raped by eight of her captors, once with a machine gun.

Because rape is a sex-specific type of abuse, it generally functions like other forms of torture to intimidate and punish individual women. However, it has also been committed with the intent of impregnating its victims aimed at destroying the identity of an ethnic group. We saw this during the Balkan conflicts.

Over the past two decades, examples of rape being “utilised” in this manner can be seen in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Timor Leste and Sudan.

Local health centres in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu province estimate that 40 women are raped in the region every day. In Sudan, Human Rights Watch reports that women and girls live under the constant threat of rape by government soldiers, members of the Government-backed militia, rebels and ex-rebels. Basically anyone with a gun.

Current armed conflicts see countless thousands of women, girls and even infants have been raped by combatants of Boko Haram, the Islamic State and of countless other state and non-state armed bodies involved in the battlefields and conflicts of Syria, Iraq, Myanmar and Nigeria.

In 2008, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for Resolution 1820 describing rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security. The Security Council noted that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” 

The resolution demanded the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians.”

The Security Council recognized that rape as a weapon of war can be a threat to international security, in Resolutions 1888 and 1960.

Despite these being much needed resolutions striking a blow at the culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence in conflict zones and allows rapists to walk without fear of punishment, the reality can be very different.

It has been two and a half years since Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Chibok. They are today either dead, raped or have become brides to Boko Haram fighters. Although some have escaped or been released, many of them may never see home again. The perpetrators will very likely never be brought to justice and punished for their crimes.

Thousands of Yazidi women, girls and children have been raped, imprisoned and sold into slavery and captivity by Islamic State militants in Iraq resulting in a flourishing of sex trafficking along the border of Iraq and Syria.

Will the perpetrators or their leaders be brought to justice? Will Abubakar Shekau or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ever be made to answer for the crimes that they and their men have committed on the countless thousands of women and girls?

It is sobering to realise that the perpetrators of rape during time of war and armed conflict may rarely or never even be brought to justice.

But as we know, this elusiveness of justice regarding sexual violence exists in peacetime too.

Consider the situation here in Malaysia.

On average, there are 3,000 rape cases reported every year in Malaysia and only two out of every 10 cases are actually reported. Fifty per cent of all sexual assaults cases involve children below the age of 16.

Every 35 minutes, there is one girl or woman being raped somewhere in Malaysia.

According to the Home Ministry’s official statistics, 28,471 rape cases were reported from 2005 to July 2014. Out of which, 16 per cent, or 4,514 cases were brought to court and only 2.7 per cent, or 765 suspects were found guilty.

There is a hypocrisy that exists when we deal with rape whether in war or peacetime. Women and girls who survive sexual violence often are told that they had it coming or brought it upon themselves. In armed conflict, rape is considered an inevitable effect of sending off men to fight. Basically, that despite legal measures or public calls condemning sexual violence, it is nevertheless tolerated or treated less seriously.

It is time that we end such hypocrisy.

Ending the impunity regarding rape and sexual violence cannot begin during armed conflict. By then it would be too late.

We need to start now by amending, strengthening and enforcing laws which criminalise rape and sexual assault.

We need to educate law enforcement and uniformed services such as the military and irregulars like Rela.

But most importantly we must educate men and tell them that there is never an excuse for rape.

Rape is rape. Rogol tetap rogol, tiada alasan.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessary represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Related Articles

Up Next