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Sexual- and gender-based violence in Syria: Documentation and justice

Sexual- and gender-based violence has rightly gained attention as a notorious dimension of the conflict in Syria. Documenting these crimes is important, but unfortunately they are especially difficult to prosecute. The standard of evidence to hold perpetrators accountable often requires medical and legal expertise while testimony and prosecution requires the overcoming of stigma and social pressures. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre recognizes these unique challenges and is prioritizing training and documentation around sexual- and gender-based violence.

Deserved attention has been drawn to sexual- and gender-based violence in Syria. A chilling report by Human Rights Watch from last June described the regime’s rampant use of rape and other sexual violence against men, women, and boys in and around the city of Homs, including first person accounts from survivors. Also notable is an International Rescue Committee report from last month that cited fear of rape as a primary reason Syrian families fled the country. Notably, the opposition has been quick to highlight crimes of rape committed by the regime, and in doing so inform Syrians of real dangers, but also to fan the flames of fear and generate further backlash against the regime. The IRC report drew global media attention and was picked up in newspapers from Los Angeles, to London, to Istanbul. Earlier this month, the US State Department went on the record noting the gravity of this problem.

First-person written records, videos of survivor accounts, and third-person witness retellings of sexual- and gender-based violence in Syria have proliferated.  These kinds of reports have helped to spread awareness about the nature and scope of violations. The organization Women Under Siege  draws on social media sites including Youtube and Twitter in order to aggregate publicly available information on such crimes, then translates and analyzes the reports. The group’s work was featured in a story by NPR earlier this month. These kinds of accounts and documentation are vital. They establish a general recognition that rape and other crimes are occurring. Moreover, publicly exposing this violence gives solidarity to survivors, helps reduce the stigma associated with the crimes, and encourages others who have experienced similar violence to speak out. Such attention could also dissuade others from committing sexual- and gender-based violence.

But more is needed. In general, reports and documentation of sexual- and gender-based violence in Syria have been “unverified.” That means that some material, while authentic, is difficult to reliably corroborate and includes individual accounts, anecdotes, anonymous reports, and videos with little context. Documentation aimed at producing court-admissible evidence could entail forensic work, professional medical and psychological reports, and systematic documentation that can establish the prevalence of sexual- and gender-based violence within a given area over time. Timing is also important, as it becomes more difficult to gather forensic evidence as time passes.

Some of these challenges can be met by mobilizing health workers to train those documenting sexual- and gender-based violence. Physicians for Human Rights is a group of medical professionals working to apply their medical and forensic skills to fight human rights violations. PHR has worked around the world and, in addition to applying their considerable knowledge directly, they offer training for human rights workers and investigators to help them produce high quality documentation and evidence. Such training is a valuable tool, especially where the documentation of sexual- and gender-based violence is concerned.

Successful prosecution of sexual- and gender-based violations also means overcoming discrimination and antagonism. Insofar as discriminatory laws and gender-biased norms were social facts before the outbreak of violence in Syria, such realities will frustrate efforts to seek post-conflict justice. However, public awareness campaigns that expose the scope of sexual- and gender-based violence can help in this respect.  In any transitional justice framework, charges of rape, sexual assault, threatened sexual violence, and other sexual- and gender-based violence must be prosecuted and perpetrators held accountable.

In our ongoing efforts supporting the documentation of sexual- and gender-based violence, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre is supported by our Board’s Chairperson, Laila Alodaat, a Syrian lawyer and expert in human rights. Laila has lectured on sexual- and gender-based violence and has been involved in the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross for over a decade. Laila is providing valuable assistance in the SJAC’s efforts to reach out to NGOs and Syrians to train and collaborate in the documentation of sexual- and gender-based violence.

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