Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Post Arab Spring: Syria’s Challenges to Protection and Accountability

On January 31, 2013, the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) co-sponsored a panel discussion at the Washington College of Law with the American Red Cross as well as the American Society for International Law’s Women in International Law Interest Group entitled “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Post Arab Spring: Syria’s Challenges to Protection and Accountability.”

Moderated by WCRO’s Director, Susana SáCouto, the panel included: Rafif Jouejati, English Spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria (LCC) and Director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a nongovernmental organization managing short-term relief efforts and long-term capacity building in Syria; Blake Peterson, Special Advisor at the US Department of State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, which monitors atrocities committed in conflicts and is charged with advising the Secretary of State on effective responses to such atrocities; and Laila Alodaat, a Syrian human rights lawyer and board member of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, a multi-lateral project dedicated to providing legal and technical assistance to those documenting human rights violations in Syria.

A crowd of 90 students, activists, and concerned professionals listened to accounts of brutal rape and sexual violence that has been perpetrated against Syrian women during a conflict that has already claimed approximately 65,000 lives. Sexual violence has been widely reported, although exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint given:

1) the cultural stigma that frequently attaches to victims of sexual violence, making them reluctant to come forward;
2) the nature of this type of violence, which often happens behind closed doors, without leaving obvious signs of physical violence (as opposed to the physical destruction of buildings and the deaths of civilians); and
3) the fact that systems that usually document occurrences of rape in any society—including medical systems that provide assistance to victims and justice systems that adjudicate such crimes—have been disrupted by the conflict and are, therefore, not functional.

Recounting unimaginable experiences of gang rape and sexual torture, Rafif Jouejati described the ways in which rape is being used as a tool of war to terrify and drive out civilians from their communities. Jouejati went on to outline efforts she and her colleagues are making to empower the women of Syria, build up the capacity of civil society, and change the views of Syrian society to equate a woman’s honor with her accomplishments, character, and actions rather than her sexual purity. These actions include demanding 50% participation of women in all peace negotiations and society-building fora to ensure women’s voices are heard and their key role in the revolution is not forgotten.

Blake Peterson discussed the challenges of gathering evidence of gender and sexual based violence and the role of cell phone cameras and other amateur devices in capturing photos and videos of conflict-related crimes. Peterson detailed both the advantages of such voluminous evidence as well as the challenges of using videos that are largely unverified and uncorroborated in criminal prosecutions against the alleged perpetrators. Additionally, Peterson discussed possible transitional justice mechanisms that might play a role in holding perpetrators accountable for gender and sexual-based crimes, including the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission or a hybrid or internationalized criminal tribunal, or referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) (with jurisdictional and political hurdles making the ICC unlikely). Countering the proposition that it is too soon to discuss such transitional justice issues prior to a settlement of the conflict, Peterson delineated steps that could and should be taken now, including documenting atrocities, training Syrians on how to document effectively, and educating civil society about possible transitional justice approaches.

Speaking to the issue of whether domestic or international justice mechanisms should be pursued, Laila Alodaat detailed several legal challenges that stand in the way of domestic accountability for gender and sexual based violence in Syria, including the sanctioning of honor crimes that permit a victim’s male relatives to kill her for being raped and bringing “dishonor” on her family; the definition of rape, which is narrow and which permits a rapist to avoid prosecution for rape if he marries his victim; and a system of immunity for all government personnel. Explaining that such obstacles must be addressed through a process of amending Syria’s constitution, she made clear that there is a long road ahead for proponents of domestic justice for these horrific crimes. Yet, the creation of an ad hoc tribunal could also be problematic, according to Alodaat, given the great expense and relatively small number of cases tribunals like the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) have completed and the fact that the people want to see direct perpetrators of violent crimes prosecuted, not just their commanders. Drawing on the use of the gacaca system in post-genocide Rwanda as an alternative justice process rooted in local dispute resolution traditions, Alodaat suggested such an approach may be workable in Syria.


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