World leaders continue to do a high-wire dance on the red line of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are prohibited for good reason. But, not all weapons are created equal. Take rape. Rape is an unlawful weapon during conflict, but how many states can you name that have been challenged for use of rape as a prohibited weapon?
Rape does not cause mass causalities in isolated, well defined incidents. Rape cannot seep over borders. Rape is, instead, a normalized aspect of everyday life, “acceptable” in ways that chemical weapons are not. Why do you think that is? Sexualized violence, particularly, in militarized zones where the weaponization of men’s bodies is more blunt and obvious, still appears to not “count” for much. Despite long-standing awareness of wartime atrocities caused by the use of rape, there have been no secret heads of state meetings or widespread international tensions caused by rape in conflict. In the past two decades, because of places like Darfur and Bosnia, we’ve begun to openly discuss the role rape plays in war, and see its pervasive and long-lasting effects. We cannot claim ignorance or silence anymore. Which leaves us with will. We lack the will to stop thinking of the rape of children and women during war as unavoidable collateral damage, the price that mainly women, physically, pay for men risking life doing war business. As it is, our attention comes to in a distasteful, vaguely pornographic way, in the sense of fascination with horror or atrocity propaganda, only after the fact when the reality of rape survivors is pitiless, overwhelming and undeniable.
There is no shortage of “after the fact.” The twentieth century was a prolonged era during which we engaged in unprecedented levels of human misery caused by the industrialization of war. Until recently, historians of military conflict sidelined rape in their post-war assessments. Take World War II, our last undisputed “just war.” It involved the rape of tens of millions: the sexual torture of Jewish women in concentration camps, the rapes of “every German female from 8 to 80,” as Russia took over, the sexual enslavement of women all over Asia by Japanese forces, the rape of French women by Americans, on and on and on in an infinite loop Russians raped German women, Germans raped Jewish women, Japanese men raped Chinese Women, American men raped French women. That was WWII. Pick any militarized zone or war you can think of though. Vietnam, the Spanish Civil War, Guatemala, Bosnia-Herzogovinia, Croatia, Burma, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Mexico, Libya, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eygpt, Syria. What did you learn about these facts when you studied the history of these wars? I’d warrant you couldn’t fill a Chinese cookie fortune with it.
In modern warfare civilians are far more likely to suffer than harm than military combatants. I’m not sure how the definition of “combatant” doesn’t evolve accordingly. People who are raped are victims, yes, but they are more than that. When men weaponize objects or animals for rape and then weaponize themselves, rape victims – whose bodies are fully engaged – become combatants. Several UN Resolutions recognize rape as a prohibited weapon of war. Law, military, civil rights, state security and human rights experts have long agreed on the effects of rape in militarized regions. The pain, shame and life-altering effects felt by victims, male and female, are not the central purpose of rapes. Rape is a profoundly destabilizing weapon that rends the fabric of societies long after “war” has ended. It is employed as a weapon, whether it is strategically or not by commanders, for ethnic cleansing, as a way to disintegrate communities and humiliate men, either by impugning their masculinity, as a crime of property or to “feminize” them. Sexualized violence is a security issue that some people have a hard time thinking of as legitimate, despite ample evidence to the contrary, It remains “cost-free.”
Additionally, consider this: Biological warfare is also a crime against humanity. So, what is the HIV virus when transmitted through rape in war? A biological agent used in contravention of international regulations? Reporting on the subject in her 2004 book, The Right to Survive: Sexual Violence, Women and HIV/AIDS, Françoise Nduwimana documents first person accounts, such as this one, and their effects:
“For 60 days, my body was used as a thoroughfare for all the hoodlums, militia men and soldiers in the district.… Those men completely destroyed me; they caused me so much pain. They raped me in front of my six children.… Three years ago, I discovered I had HIV/AIDS. There is no doubt in my mind that I was infected during these rapes.”
Nduwimana, and many other sources, provide compelling evidence that perpetrators of rape had the clear intent of infecting the people they raped. Biological agents are prohibited weapons. Does how they are delivered matter? Is it the “mass” aspect that is important? The ability to kill people one at a time over a long period more important than killing many all at once. War is incoherent, I know.
Consistently and firmly confronting sexualized violence in war is an important deterrent. It would challenge norms that legitimize rape, something we grapple with in peacetime and everyday life. Addressing rape as a prohibited weapon makes visible the numbers of women, children and men killed, maimed, infected and injured by sexualized violence. Addressing rape as a prohibited weapon also means that victims would have additional avenues of seeking justice, since many are too scared, shamed and humiliated to testify. In the wake of sexualized wartime violence people are left to deal alone with HIV infection, forced pregnancy, child-bearing, child-rearing costs for children born of war rape, forced marriages, ostracization and more.
In a massive effort to document these crimes, the Women’s Media Center Women Under Siege Project maps reports of rape in militarized zones and gathers accounts from witnesses, including in Syria during the past two years. But, while we are now able to garner better information about rape by counting survivors, we are still unable to know how may women and children and men have been raped to death. Estimates of the numbers of women raped in armed conflict are only of survivors. Post-conflict remediation still often glosses over solutions that serve the needs of millions raped or addresses directly the societal disintegration that can result.
“The failure to treat war rape like other illegal weapons or war tactics removes the central protection of the laws governing the conduct of war from rape victims, mainly women and girls,” explains the Global Justice Center, in a report on how the rule of law fails women. “Victims’ rights to accountability and reparations for their injuries from the use of illegal weapons is separate and in addition to their rights to accountability.
In whose world is the rape of millions and millions and millions of women an unimportant side-effect? Only someone whose worldview intrinsically strips women of their full humanity and equal right to justice. These rapes failed to be considered significant enough, “unjust” enough, to change the moral equation of war. This is so patently absurd that it’s difficult not to respond by just laughing at how pervasively misogynistic our international standards for behavior, and justice, are.
We don’t have a red line for rape in war. That’s a choice we make as a society, based on who counts and what we think of as important enough. But, consider this: last year, 26,000 people serving in our armed forces were sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers, sometimes their commanders. If our military leaders promote a culture where this level of sexualized violence occurs, over decades, unabated, how can we expect them to challenge rape as a prohibited weapon in the course of conflict? How can we expect our diplomats to?
Some red lines aren’t metaphors, but are drawn in blood.