Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Rape; an all too common weapon of war

The Central African Republic is the latest casualty. Sadly mentioned only in passing by the much of the media - with the very honourable exception of excellent work by Alex Thomson of Channel Four News - the country is disintegrating, verging on a genocidal disaster, continuing to pay for the crimes of colonialism, post-colonial excess, corruption and exploitation.

Seleka rebels

The country has been a desperate case for years of course and has been pretty much forgotten by the rest of the world. It suffered under the flamboyant, cartoonishly self-indulgent, grotesquely bloody, regime of ‘Emperor’ Bokassa and, as coup has followed coup, its government has barely improved since. A failed state, scarred by corruption, instability and violence - both within the country and overspill from neighbouring conflicts - with hundreds of thousands of people displaced. It has amongst the lowest healthcare professionals-to-population ratios in the world, with just three midwives to every 1,000 live births and 0.5 doctors to every 1,000 people.

Violence begets violence and the latest conflict sprung up in CAR last December. Séléka, a disparate coalition of rebel groups, took on and deposed François Bozizé's government, himself imposed by a French-backed coup. This coalition has now disintegrated and both the UN and the French - who have dispatched troops - warn the country is on the verge of genocide as Muslim and Christian militias confront one another.

With this violence comes a horribly ugly feature that seems to occur all too frequently; rape as a weapon of war. A Human Rights Watch study in May reported this:

‘I was in my house, where I live with my younger sister … when many Seleka fighters entered the quarter. I am 33 years old and my sister is 23. She was eight months pregnant when they raped us on March 25. They were shooting in the air in front of our house. Two armed men entered the house, threatened us, and forced us to get undressed and lay down on the ground. … They both raped us, one after the other. They were shouting bad words in Sango and in Arabic. One of them was shouting the Arabic word charmouta (prostitute in Arabic) while raping me. Then, they left the house. Our neighbor took us to the community hospital, where my sister lost her baby the day after.’

Another witness report read:

’I was at home with my children when a large number of armed men arrived in pick-up vehicles in front of my house. Three of them came into my house, pointed their rifles at me, tied me up in front of my children, and raped me. After they had raped me, they looted my house and left. I’m now alone with my children. My husband abandoned me the day after the rape. I feel pains in my body.’

It all sounds horrifically familiar. South of the Central African Republic is the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which has been raped and pillaged literally, figuratively, metaphorically and continually.

A study earlier this year found 12 per cent of Congo’s female population had been raped, with roughly 1,152 victims suffering every day - 48 victims every hour. Women are not the only targets; children, men, even babies, are not safe. To read the detailed reports by human rights’ observers is a glimpse into a level of violence one would hope had been left in mediaeval times. It's a dehumanised state; a country broken after two hundred years where excessive, gratuitous, tortuous, casually brutal violence has been a daily norm. Under the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, a slave who failed to collect sufficient levels of rubber would lose their hand; now militias threaten rape, disfigurement by machete and, what Anthony Burgess would call, ’ultraviolent’ death.

King Leopold II's violent legacy

Reports of rape as a weapon of war now emerge from most of the world’s war zones and violent hotspots; Syria, Afghanistan, Mexico, Egypt. 

The horrific attacks in India – it is in fact the anniversary of the fatal attack on the 23-year-old medical student who was targeted on a bus by a gang as she returned home – have focused attention on attitudes towards women there, only too late for too many victims.

Demonstrations in India calling for action to tackle rape

It is worth taking time, at this point, to pause and salute Foreign Secretary William Hague, who, with the high profile support of Angelina Jolie, is pressing the world’s governments and the UN to focus more on these horrors.

In The Times last year Mr Hague wrote (£):

’From Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo we have seen rape used as a terrifying weapon of war. Inflicted systematically and sometimes to order from the highest levels, it is as much a means of waging war as are bullets or tanks. And more often than not it is carried out not by invading armies but by one group against another: deliberately to destroy, degrade, humiliate and scar political opponents or entire ethnic and religious groups.

’The number of victims involved is utterly chilling. In Rwanda alone, up to 400,000 women are estimated to have been raped in the 100-day genocide of 1994. The vast majority of victims are women and children, but men are often targeted too.

‘Guilt lies with those who commit these crimes, but the shame falls on the whole world. For we have failed to act in a concerted way against this problem and have allowed a culture of impunity to develop. The shocking truth is that very few perpetrators have ever been put on trial for rape in conflict and even fewer have gone to prison. In wartime Bosnia, up to 50,000 women were raped, but only 30 men have ever been convicted. Given this record, the government forces and militia committing rape in Syria today probably expect they will simply get away with it.’

It's a thankless task. And it won't be an election winning issue but it’s the right thing to do and needs applauding and supporting. Certainly, Hague, as foreign secretary, has confirmed he is a thoughtful and able politician, with the gravitas of age and experience, a long way from the baseball cap of leadership.

Next year London will host a summit on this painful issue; the UN is throwing its weight behind the campaign. It won’t succeed. These awful crimes will tragically continue. But Hague and his campaign may start to make a difference, to send the message that such violation isn't an acceptable battlefield tactic of terror, to help start holding those committing these crimes responsible. We can but hope it becomes the exception rather than a normal aspect of war – or, indeed, a common feature of a destabilised state.

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