Skip to main content

When rape is a tool of war

By Kelly Askin, Special to CNN
Eman al-Obeidy's accusations of rape once again spotlights the use of sexual violence as a tool of war, says Kelly Askin.
Eman al-Obeidy's accusations of rape once again spotlights the use of sexual violence as a tool of war, says Kelly Askin.
  • Kelly Askin says Eman al-Obeidy has bravely told story of alleged gang rape by Libya militia
  • She says Gadhafi loyalists have tried to impugn her character. She hasn't backed down
  • She says rape tool of war to stigmatize, demoralize; used widely in Balkan war, Congo
  • Askin: Since world has recognized this, women can at least hope for measure of justice

Editor's note: Kelly Askin is senior legal officer for international justice at the human rights organization Open Society Justice Initiative. She is an expert on war crimes against women, served as a legal advisor to the judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda from 2000-2002 and has also worked on post conflict justice in Congo, East Timor and Sierra Leone.

(CNN) -- The raw courage demonstrated by Eman al-Obeidy in persisting in telling her story of alleged repeated gang rape and torture in Libya is helping to change the dialogue in Libya and the Middle East about the use of sexual violence as a weapon of repression.

Since Obeidy burst into a hotel filled with journalists last week and told them of being raped by loyalist militia, Gadhafi supporters have deployed a range of vile tactics in a bid to undermine her that are painfully familiar. They called her a drunk, a prostitute, a pornographer, a liar, mentally unstable -- impugning her honor and that of her family.

When those tactics failed, they implied it was all somehow her fault, claiming she was scheduled to meet one of the men she says attacked her. Others threatened to sue her.

They are no doubt frustrated and surprised that the ways commonly used to silence women have not silenced Obeidy, who has been tenacious in her desire to tell her story. She is fortunate that her family is supporting her, reportedly rejecting offers of money, property or security if they would only denounce her.

In other cases, survivors of such treatment in this region of the world have found themselves shunned by their families and communities because of the resulting social stigma.

Rape has historically been used as a tool of war. Beyond Libya and the Middle East, rape and sexual violence have been used in conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Burma, Guatemala and Bangladesh to sow terror and destruction.

It's hard to speculate on the scope of this sort of sexual abuse in Libya, or whether it is being deployed in a systematic way while the armed conflict is under way -- there have only been a small number of reports so far. But al-Obeidy did put her attack into a familiar context: She told CNN's Anderson Cooper that her captors "would say, 'Let the men from Eastern Libya come and see what we are doing to their women and how we treat them, how we rape them.' "

How one voice can tell the story of an entire movement

The intentional, calculated use of rape as a strategy of oppression is for some a favored way to stigmatize and demoralize not merely the victim, but entire families and communities.

The international community has recognized this. Since the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the brutal conflict in the Balkans, in which an estimated 20,000 women were raped, newly established international war crimes tribunals have repeatedly recognized various forms of sexual violence as war crimes and in some cases instruments of genocide.

When committed on a widespread or systematic basis, which is almost always the case in conflict situations, they may amount to crimes against humanity. This, at least, delivers some measure of justice to the victims.

Nowhere has this need been more hideously manifest than in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been wracked by conflict since the 1990s. Last year, the U.N. recorded some 11,000 rapes, but the true figure is believed to be much higher. It was enough to prompt the U.N.'s special representative on sexual violence in conflict to call the country "the rape capital of the world."

Justice is being delivered now in eastern Congo, where the Open Society Justice Initiative has supported the development of mobile gender justice courts that can hold court sessions in remote towns and villages in the east of the country where many of the atrocities have occurred.

In February, I watched as hundreds of villagers in Baraka clapped and cheered as a mobile court handed out sentences on four army officers found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity for their part in a mass rape attack in the smaller settlement of Fizi on New Year's Day. The court sentenced the leaders to 20 years imprisonment.

The Congolese judges, prosecutor, defense counsel and lawyers worked tirelessly for nearly two weeks to adjudicate this joint trial in a remote village without access to running water or regular electricity. Millions more await justice, but this trial has given a glimmer of hope for the future .The raped women in Congo still live in mud huts, still struggle daily to survive, and many will still be rejected by their husbands. But now they have received something fleeting but incredibly precious: justice.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, which is now investigating reports of attacks on civilians and other violations of international law.

If Gadhafi and his supporters are found to be responsible for not only failing to protect women like Obeidy, but also for policies that explicitly or tacitly encouraged, or simply ignored, the use of rape warfare, she could find herself receiving some measure of justice for the heinous crimes allegedly committed against her.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kelly Askin.