Skip to main content

Where is 'red line' on rape in war?

By Lauren Wolfe, Special to CNN
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 1433 GMT (2233 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lauren Wolfe: Obama says world set "red line" on chemical weapons that can't be crossed
  • She asks: Why does world have no such red line on abhorrent weapon of mass rape?
  • She says in Syria and Congo, rape is "normalized," doesn't draw threat of intervention
  • Wolfe: U.S. should rethink ties to Rwanda, which backs Congo militia known for atrocities

Editor's note: Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. She is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and blogs at laurenmwolfe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Wolfe321.

(CNN) -- I remember a chalk line drawn on blacktop by a group of kids at recess when I was young. The message was clear: This is the line you do not cross. If you stepped over it, you would face the wrath of those kids in whatever game we were playing. Now turn that line crimson and color it toxic. This is the adult version of "do not cross."

This is the infamous red line.

We first heard about it in terms of Syria a year ago. President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would cross a "red line" that would have "enormous consequences." As chemical weapons were deployed in Syria in August, Obama's tripwire was triggered. Then Obama told reporters: "First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

Lauren Wolfe
Lauren Wolfe

When Obama says "the world" did it, he was indicating that much of the world long ago decided chemical weapons were an abhorrent thing to unleash in war. More than 160 countries signed a treaty attesting to this view.

But why has "the world set" this one line in the blacktop, and not others? The United States and its allies ignore the violation of treaties all the time. They ignore the use of other terrible weapons in global conflicts daily. As someone who grew up wondering why we intervened in Bosnia but not Rwanda, as someone who directs a project on rape in war, I want to know: How do we decide what suffering matters enough to get a red line?

At the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege project, we've been keeping a live crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria. I've personally reported multiple stories of rape in which women were hung by their wrists or burned. We've also documented how hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in 16 years of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yet Congress is not debating whether to intervene in Congo. It is not struggling over what to do about the rape and torture of women and men in Syria or anywhere else. Why? Here's one gut-wrenching answer:

"People divide their understanding of militarized violence into normal and not normal, acceptable and not acceptable," says Yifat Susskind, executive director of women's human rights organization MADRE.

Susskind argues that violence against women has been "normalized," especially in Africa.

Rape as a tool of war in Syria
Syrian refugees at risk for rape

"World leaders, like representatives in Congress, have turned a blind eye to the violence in DRC for a simple reason: It does not disturb their preconceived notions about where violence is normal," she says.

If this statement makes my heart hurt, I'm not sure I can imagine what it means to the people of Congo.

I spoke to Eve Ensler, the founder of V-Day. She conceived of the City of Joy, which empowers survivors of sexualized violence, and built it with the women of Congo. Just returned from there, Ensler says she witnessed a kind of dismay about the recent U.S. response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

"Although the Congolese I spoke to felt great empathy for the Syrians, they felt confused by the U.S.'s immediate and overwhelming reaction when -- after 16 years and 8 million people dead -- they have been waiting and demanding that the U.S. stop supporting Rwanda," she says.

Ensler and others have long argued that the United States reconsider its relationship with Rwanda, which they say supports the rebel militia M23, one of the main perpetrators of atrocities in Congo. They are pushing for the opposite of military intervention -- they want a political intervention based on human rights violations.

"For how many years have we been banging on the doors of the White House, saying thousands and thousands of women have been raped?" she asks.

Unlike the obvious effects of chemical weapons use, the fallout of rape is often invisible: It doesn't always leave marks, and it is so heavily stigmatized we don't see how it psychologically, and physically, tears women apart.

With chemical weapons, gases seep in an indiscriminate cloud and infect whoever is in their path. They've been called "weapons of mass destruction in slow motion," says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Lewis argues that "the goal is to have a world in which people don't settle for disputes with violence," but he recognizes that "we're a way off" from such a day.

"We still need to prevent a world that uses the very worst weapons," he says.

But "worst" is subjective.

"There's a hierarchy of sensation around weaponry," Ensler says. "But in my mind chemical weapons and mass rape are both weapons of mass destruction."

You could argue that the United States gets involved in wars based on careful geopolitics. You could argue, as many do, that the United States intervened in Bosnia because there was a politically viable solution on the table. You could say we stayed out of Rwanda because it was "messy." It's a nasty kind of calculus, this business of deciding the red line of intervention, of what kind of pain matters most. Ultimately, however, it may not be as complicated as it first appears.

"Do the people at risk matter to the people in power?" Susskind asks. "Does intervention serve the political aims of the powerful? In that calculation, human rights fall far behind."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lauren Wolfe.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT