Sexual violence as a tactic of terror

Sexual violence during armed conflict is not a new phenomenon. It has existed for as long as there has been conflict.

The confluence of crises wrought by violent extremism has revealed a shocking trend of sexual violence employed as a tactic of terror by radical groups. Egregious forms of conflict-related sexual violence have been perpetrated by extremist groups in Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Syrian Arab Republic, including rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced pregnancy and forced abortion, including as a form of religious and ethnic persecution. Conflict environments that are conducive to extremism, such as in Libya and Yemen, will also require close attention.

The analysis of such horrific scenarios demonstrates that sexual violence is not incidental, but integrally linked with the strategic objectives, ideology and funding of extremist groups. It is used to advance such tactical imperatives as recruitment; terrorizing populations into compliance; displacing communities from strategic areas; generating revenue through sex trafficking, the slave trade, ransoms, looting and the control of natural resources; torture to elicit intelligence; conversion and indoctrination through forced marriage; and to establish, alter or dissolve kinship ties that bind communities.

Sexual   violence   by   extremist   groups   arises   from discrimination   and dehumanization based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnic and political or religious identity, in particular the subordination of women and girls. Indeed, the same ideology and objectives that motivate Boko Haram to abduct women and girls in Nigeria also spur ISIL to enslave women and girls in Syria and Iraq. ISIL releases “pamphlet” of female slaves, which clarifies the position of Islamic law in ISIS`s interpretation on various relevant issues, and states, among other things, that it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with non-Muslim slaves, including young girls, and that is also permitted to beat them and trade in them.

Common to such cases is the assault on women’s rights and bodies that presages the advance of extremist groups. As these groups harbour aspirations to statehood, the control of women’s reproductive capacity is vital to nation building and to raising a generation in their own image. For this reason, “marriage bureau” have been established in areas under ISIL control to encourage women to marry fighters and “bride prices” have been paid by armed groups in Yemen on behalf of fighters.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that modern communications technology has been exploited in the service of an ideology at odds with the modern world: social media has converted brutality into a form of propaganda to incite, radicalize and attract recruits.

Countering extremism, and the flow of funds and fighters to these groups, must include efforts to empower women and address the spectrum of crimes of sexual   violence that   extremist   groups   propagate. At   the   same   time,   deeper engagement by and consultation with the community will be required, including with traditional and religious leaders who must help to break the silence surrounding sexual violence, counter religious justifications for violence and redirect the shame and stigma to the perpetrators.

Classical counter-terrorism efforts have been notoriously gender blind. The organizing by the UN Security Council of a high-level meeting on foreign terrorist fighters, held in September 2014, marked an emerging recognition that members of extremist groups enslave, rape and forcibly marry women and girls. The Council adopted resolution 2178 (2014), in which it called for the empowerment of “youth, families and women” as part of an overarching strategy to prevent the spread of terror. It is critical that the international community deepen its information base on the nature, scope and objectives of sexual violence carried out by radical groups in order to define appropriate measures, in   consultation   with   women and affected communities. At the same time, counter-terrorism measures by governments, security forces and allied groups must respect fundamental human rights and the commitments made by states to end sexual violence in conflict.

It`s time to recognize that sexual violence is not only used as a tactic of war, as noted in UNSC resolution 1820 (2008), but it is also constitute a tactic of terror. Accordingly, efforts to prevent and address sexual violence should be closely and strategically aligned with efforts to prevent violent extremism. At the same time, it is necessary to include the issue of sexual violence in the face of rising extremism into the work of relevant Security Council sanctions committees, including the Al-Qaida, ISIL and other terrorist organizations Sanctions List, as part of the criteria for the imposition of targeted measures. Finally, it is necessary to continue to employ all means at UNSC disposal to influence parties to conflict to comply with international law, including by referring matters to the International   Criminal   Court.   Referrals   should   apply to individuals who commit, command or condone, by failing to prevent or punish, sexual violence, in line with the modes of liability under international criminal law (see S/ 2015/203).

Due to the fact that, sexual violence is used as a tactic to displace populations and half the world’s 59.5 million forcibly displaced (19.5 million refugees, 1.8 million asylum seekers and 38.2 million internally displaced persons) are women (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHC R global trends: forced displacement in 2014” (Geneva, 2015) is it quite important to consider conflict-related sexual violence as a form of persecution that is grounds for the recognition of refugee status for individuals affected or under threat, as sexual violence is not only a risk faced by displaced persons but also a tactic that has been used to induce displacement.

Thus, in modern era the world is witnessing sexual and gender-based violence not only as a war strategy but also as a central tactic of terror. Women and adolescent girls in conflict-affected countries face a heightened risk of falling victim to sex and labor trafficking and account for most victims of human trafficking overall (see S/2014/693). Set against this, reintegration support, including shelters and economic livelihood programmes,   should be made available to individuals released from situations of abduction, forced marriage, trafficking and sexual slavery, as survivors and their families often face social and economic marginalization.

One more critical determinant of success is fostering inclusive national ownership, which implies efforts to struggle against this crime by the reflection   the   need   to   address   conflict -related   sexual violence in all justice, security sector reform and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration initiatives, including as they relate to corrections and police capacity.

Moreover, the surge in violent extremism and the urgency of addressing it do not negate the need for sustained   resolve   and   resources to combat protracted conflict-related sexual violence in other settings of concern.

The positive thing is that the era of silence has been replaced by international recognition that the shame of sexual violence resides not in the victims but in the perpetrators and any party that condones or conceals their conduct. All those factors and recommendations, however, have yet to translate into sufficient material changes women`s lives around the world.

Najiba Mustafayeva

Expert in International Law
Research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies

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