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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict Zones

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict Zones

“For decades – if not centuries – there has been a near-total absence of justice for survivors of rape and sexual violence in conflict. We hope this Protocol will be part of a new global effort to shatter this culture of impunity, helping survivors and deterring people from committing these crimes in the first place.” — Rt. Hon. William Hague MP, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

As SJAC has noted before, sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) is widespread in conflict zones all over the globe, and Syria is no exception.  Women and men in Syria have been subjected to sexual, physical, and psychological assault and abuse while in detention, during home raids, or even while walking on the street.  When SGBV is committed as part of a broad pattern of violations, as is almost certainly occurring in Syria, it can constitute a crime under international law: namely, a war crime, a crime against humanity, or genocide.  The effects of SGBV on individual victims and entire communities have had a dramatic impact on the Syrian people’s sense of security, and they have been a major force in driving families out of the country and into refugee camps in neighboring countries.

SGBV can be difficult to document due to the lack of evidence available following the violence, the stigma often associated with the violence, and victims’ corresponding reluctance to disclose.  In Syria, women in particular are hesitant to disclose sexual violence due to cultural, social and religious beliefs related to marriage and sexuality.  Moreover, even where SGBV in conflict zones has been documented, the incidents have systematically been ignored or downplayed in post-conflict justice mechanisms and courts.  Perpetrators of SGBV in conflict zones have rarely been held accountable for their crimes.

Last month, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, co-chaired the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.  The gathering was held in London and brought together 1700 delegates and 129 country delegations to focus on ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict.  Meetings were held on a wide range of issues related to sexual violence in conflict, including conflict prevention, international justice, women’s rights and participation, men and boys, and children affected by conflict.  The Summit corresponded with the launch of an International Protocol on the Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, aimed at establishing international standards for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict zones.  The Protocol uses current best practices to provide guidance to investigators, activists, national policymakers, prosecutors, counselors, and medical professionals.

SJAC is in the process of integrating many of the best practices from the Protocol into its own polices, methodology, and operations manual for documenting SGBV in Syria.  Other organizations documenting SGBV in Syria and in other conflict zones should make use of this comprehensive document to further our shared goals of documenting SGBV and holding perpetrators of these crimes accountable.