UN’s New Sexual Violence Declaration – A Step Forward? Maybe Not.

Image Courtesy: smh.com.au

Image Courtesy: smh.com.au

With the Syrian conflict raging, the world awaits the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York next week. What’s on their agenda? A new declaration to end sexual violence.

In a joint report, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague and Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Angelina Jolie claim that a declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict will be presented to the United Nations on September 24th.

Image Courtesy: news.uk.msn.com

Image Courtesy: news.uk.msn.com

According to the report, the Declaration will give every country in the world an opportunity to show where it stands on this issue. It’s main components include a pledge not to allow amnesties for sexual violence in peace agreements, so that the perpetrators of these crimes can be held accountable, a new International Protocol by the middle of 2014 to help ensure that evidence produced can stand up in court and more survivors can see justice, and to place the safety and dignity of victims at the heart of investigations into rape and other sexual crimes in conflict zones. Lastly, its signatories will promise to put protection from sexual violence at the forefront of all their conflict and humanitarian work, and to help strengthen the capacity of countries most at risk of this violence.

For the first time, the countries endorsing this declaration will agree that sexual violence is indeed a war crime and is also in complete violation of the Geneva Conventions and their first protocol, established in 1977 which relates to the protection of victims in international armed conflicts.

In fact, in June 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, highlighted the importance of collective action against crimes of sexual violence.

“Preventing sexual violence in conflict is our joint responsibility.  It must be part of our work in many areas, from peacekeeping and political missions, to mediation, ceasefire agreements, security-sector reform, justice-sector reform and the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said.

“Those who hold power and influence have a special duty to step forward and be part of a global coalition of champions determined to break this evil,” he added.

Now let me pose a question, how many of you think this plan will actually be effective?

Firstly, the inclusion of a pledge to stop amnesties for sexual violence in peace agreements is almost laughable. A pledge by definition means, a solemn promise or undertaking. It is not a signed contract, it is basically a verbal commitment to something. How can victims of sexual violence place their faith in a mechanism that lacks any basic foundation? This declaration is basing its success on the good faith of the member states of the UN. What it fails to recognize, and naively at that, is that nation states act in terms of their own vital national interests. Good faith is rarely a consideration.

Secondly, the fact that this declaration like all UN-proposed declarations are non-binding, allows countries where rape is rampant to still escape prosecution. If they simply do not ratify the declaration, isn’t amnesty in some sense granted to them anyway? How can the UN esure enforcement? How can the UN ensure that countries comply with the proposed declaration? These are questions that need to be answered.

I do not discredit the nobility involved in putting forth such a declaration in the first place. However, states need to take responsibility first. States need to be made to comply with international law. Rules do not matter if states are always breaking them.

What do you guys think? Is this declaration a step forward? How can the UN ensure that states comply with this newly proposed declaration? What else needs to be done?

We have a voice, lets use it.

Update: 113 Countries Sign Pledge Against Sexual Violence

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Syria’s War Fought Unjustly

Image Courtesy: www.independent.com.mt

I recently came across an article on the Vanity Fair website: Syria’s Unspoken Crimes. It struck me particularly because of how rape was being used, as a “deliberate tactic to terrorize and subjugate combatants and civilians“. This case is particularly special because usually you hear about wars being waged by a foreign enemy. However, the war in Syria is largely a civil war and the atrocities being committed on the people are often committed by their own government. President Bashar al-Assad’s army itself has been charged with some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity, over the past year.

In university I read a book by Michael Walzer entitled “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations”. He explained that every war is judged twice. The first kind of judgement is adjectival in character. For example, we say a particular war is just or unjust. The second judgement is adverbial, where we would ask ourselves if a war is fought justly or unjustly.

At this point in time, why the war in Syria started is irrelevant but, how it is being fought is of great concern. It should be understood that there are two types of people in a war, the combatants and the civilians and the state exists to defend the rights of these members. Whether it be by luck or sheer patriotic duty, combatants are thrust into war through possibly no choice of their own and forced to give up their basic rights to life and liberty.

Civilians on the other hand, still rely on the state to protect their fundamental rights of liberty and life. In the case of Syria and  the epidemic of rape, these rights are being grossly violated. According to Walzer, a legitimate act of war is one that does not violate the rights of the people against who it is directed and state-sponsored rape certainly cannot qualify as a legitimate act of war.

Rape is a crime in war as in peace, because it violates the rights of the woman who is attacked. Rights, especially a civilian’s rights cannot be set aside, nor can they be balanced in a utilitarian sense against this or that desirable outcome. Simply put, a soldier cannot rape an innocent woman as a means to get information of insurgent or rebel activity that she may or may not be involved with.

Rape should not be used as a means to an end. It may seem that during a war, all rules are thrown out the window and in Syria’s case this may in fact be true. However, wars are largely rule governed. Just because a country is at war does not exempt them from complying with international law, it does not excuse their immoral behavior and it certainly does not make it OK to rape innocent civilians.

What do you guys think? Is a woman’s right to life, security and liberty less important if she is in a war zone? Who should be held accountable if such violence is state-sponsored?

We have a voice, use it.