It’s time to prosecute – sexual violence by Da’esh in Iraq and Syria

Last month, the United Nations Security Council met for its annual open debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). In their statement to the Security Council, the Permanent Representative from Iraq called for assistance strengthening their capacity to address sexual violence perpetrated against women and children by Da’esh.

This year marks the sixteenth anniversary of the first WPS resolution, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325. UNSCR 1325 emphasised “the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls”.

There are now a total of eight WPS resolutions, many of which focus on prevention of, protection from and ending impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. The most recent, UNSCR 2242 reiterated the need for the “implementation of relevant obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” It also affirmed “the primary role of Member States to implement fully the relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security”.

International campaigns such as Stop Rape Now have sought to bring attention to sexual violence in armed conflict. But these gendered crimes are often being perpetrated outside the jurisdiction of institutions willing and able to bring the perpetrators to justice. In 2014, Angelina Jolie and William Hague launched the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with projects to aid in the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict. Despite advances at the International Criminal Court, these crimes are often still overlooked.

In Iraq and Syria, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to end impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. Da’esh have used sexual violence as a weapon of war, constituent of genocide and in crimes against humanity. Since 2011, over 30 000 people have travelled from 89 countries to fight with Da’esh and other extremist organisations. Many of those people come from countries where war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are outlawed under domestic legislation.

If countries prosecuted their own nationals for these crimes we would finally go some way to achieving justice for the victims, ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, and implementing the WPS agenda. In countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity are outlawed in domestic legislation.  Finland and Sweden have already bought cases against their nationals.

Sexual violence can be prosecuted as a violation of the laws or customs of war, Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions, the Fourth Geneva Convention, or both Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions.  In Australia, war crimes and violations of the laws and customs of war are criminalised in the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 (last updated in 2009) and the War Crimes Act 1945 (last updated in 2010). These two acts have been incorporated in Division 268 of the Criminal Code Act 1995.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognises rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilisation and other forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity if the action is part of a widespread or systemic practice.

Da’esh has indeed developed a widespread and systemic practice of sexual slavery and rape. There is dedicated infrastructure for the enslavement, trafficking and rape of women and girls. Investigations have uncovered a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them. Da’esh has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by their own court system. They have published an entire doctrine codifying their practices. In order to comply with this doctrine, women are forced to take oral contraceptives to ensure they are not pregnant while being raped.

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The principle of complementarity of the International Criminal Court obliges States Parties to investigate and prosecute the crimes outlined in the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute is integrated into Australian law with the International Criminal Court Act 2002  and the International Criminal Court (Consequential Ammendments) Act 2002.

For sexual violence to be considered “a constitutive act with respect to genocide,” it needs to have been committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The United Nations Human Rights Council has published a damning report, outlining Da’esh’s ongoing genocide of the Yazidis. Genocide has been a crime under Australian domestic law since 2002, when the federal government finally passed the Genocide Convention Act 1949.

Friday 25 November marks the beginning of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. It will be marked by the launch of the ‘prosecute; don’t perpetrate‘ campaign, calling on the Australian government to investigate and prosecute Australians who have perpetrated these crimes. It is high time we used our own laws, to investigate and prosecute our own citizens for sexual violence perpetrated by Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. Today is the most pertinent day to turn our minds to ending impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. These laws exist; we know the crimes have been perpetrated. Now we need to develop the political will to allocate the resources, investigate individual cases and prosecute them.

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