THE BLOG

Strategically Change Tactics -- Document Rape as a War Crime

When a man is shot to death, that is a crime. But when a woman is raped by security forces, that amounts to a war crime, according to the Geneva Convention's Chapter 32, Rule 93. So if investing in a strategy to better articulate why the international community should care about what is taking place in Syria, then why not make the case by starting from a stronger point? Treating rape as a war crime is not just a human rights concern; its documentation means that Syrian civil society will take on the 'weapon of war' by owning the the process of accountability.


New Diaspora TV Program NEEDS to Share Women's Narrative

On January 1st in Washington, D.C., a group of Syrian Americans will launch a new Arabic TV program to educate the masses on the Syrian crisis. The goal is to call the American public into action. If this program aims to call the Syrian Diaspora and others into action, then both Arabic and English stories need to highlight the inhumane practices against women through eye-witness accounts. Describing alleged war crimes in both Arabic and English over local media leads to documentation, which leads to and snowballs into the layers of evidence needed to present at the International Criminal Court to indict Assad, his network, and other thugs.

By participating in larger non-Syrian group efforts to document the series of alleged war crimes, including systematic rape of Syrian women, both short-term and long-term goals are achieved. First, the international community receives more evidence to rebut Russian and Chinese arguments to steer clear of interfering with Syria's autonomy. We know that the argument for autonomy is code for "no Western interference." Second, if the goal is to prepare for a post-Assad society, then why not be strategic and ensure that political asylum cannot be an option for thugs?

Issues, rather than cultural identity, will galvanize the international community. Building on this theme, human rights as well as women's rights groups cut across the ethnic and the sectarian noise that paralyzes coalition building among Syrian opposition groups. For example, women's rights groups like "Women Under Siege" led by Lauren Wolfe. There is no better combination of a physician and Syrian activists to map out the incidences and reports in their crowdmapping project. As a result, Women Under Siege connects non-Syrians to the realities of the Assad regime exacerbated by the lawlessness of Syrian Armed Forces. Realities include: 1) the alleged use of rats and mice as torture during sexual assault; 2) over 1,500 women allegedly raped in prison; and 3) about 70 percent of sexual attacks against women and men allegedly have been committed by Syria's Armed Forces.

Unfortunately, the predominant headlines in the American and British press obsess about the possible use of chemical weapons because it is a war crime.  On December 6th, an entire panel on Syria held by the annual Foundation for Defending Democracy focused on the possibility of chemical weapons rather than on the tragedy of systematic use of rats to sexually assault women.  The ironic point is: chemical weapons use is a potential, not an inevitable, incident. Rape, as a war crime, has apparently already been systemically committed.  A post-Assad era of reconciliation is inevitable. So why not prepare for the inevitable need for holding the regime accountable for crimes that have been committed, rather than those crimes that have not yet been committed? Speculation about potential crimes does not lead to documentation.  Lack of documentation does not lead to legal action.

Diaspora's Role in Media

So if the Syrian diaspora wants to coordinate an action plan towards Syria, why not be more strategic and alter its tactical approach in its outreach effort? Shift the strategy from assessing sectarian interests, and envision what a post-Assad society should rectify -- namely the alleged war crimes perpetrated against Syrian civil society. No matter who or what assumes power, activist groups will work towards holding war criminals accountable. As such, diaspora groups should support activist groups by aiding in committing victims' narratives to paper and voicing over all media outlets. Tweeting about rape, torture, and injustice is not enough. More solid tactics include encouraging victims to testify on television and radio.

At a Syrian Diaspora media panel in Chicago, the mostly male attendees tried to explain why there continues to be underwhelming official coverage of rape carried out by both Assad regime forces as well as a few militant groups in Syria. Yet, it is cultural relativism to argue that, "... well, Arab society and media do not like to discuss matters of rape so publicly," as expressed by some attendees. To this I must respond: No sane person, or country, believes that systematic rape is acceptable. No father feels comfortable discussing his daughter's rape. She was humiliated. Nonetheless, last time I checked, fathers are not required by law to attest to his daughter's rape in order to document it. But fathers can support their raped daughters by standing behind them when they testify.

Ironically, at the same time, the panel expressed frustration with how major English media outlets do not cover Syria as much as the issues of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Conversely, one could argue that the same frustration exists with Arab media outlets as well. Hanin Ghaddar, Managing Editor of NOW Lebanon, works in both English and Arabic media and compares how content differs between English and Arabic media. She pointed out how Arabic media outlets consistently downplay rape stories of Syrian women even though such stories fit within the violent crimes category. Yet, in contrast to English news media, Arabic news media have more leeway in showing violent footage. Ironically, media censorship does not restrict an Arab news channel from showing body pieces or bloody limb fragments. But, somehow, it is considered distasteful to showcase detailed testimonials by rape victims.

To be fair, I asked my predictable question on Syrian civil society's effort to document alleged war crimes, like rape, at one of the regularly scheduled Syria events held in D.C. The answer I received this week was better than last month: a Council of Free Judges, who have defected to Turkey, have formed to document the incidence of rape.

Diaspora TV programs need to encourage victims of the alleged war crimes to participate rather than arguing on their behalf. Therefore, the strategic action plan to remove those that have lost legitimacy from power is achieved by elevating the raped woman's voice so that evidence overwhelmingly indicts Assad and his accomplices as war criminals.