What the UK can do to stop sexualized violence in Syria

By — November 15, 2012

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague addresses the group at Wilton Park on November 15. Next to him is to actress and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie. (UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I twisted around in the passenger-side seat in a red compact to Heathrow yesterday to trade ideas with a colleague. In the back of the car was Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, the executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network. We wondered aloud whether our discussion on Syria in the last few days at Wilton Park, a stygian but elegant castle on the English South Downs, might have any real-world impact.

After Sanam was dropped off at Terminal 3, I turned to our driver, who’d been silent the entire ride, and apologized for talking ceaselessly during the trip.

“Actually, I want to tell you something,” he said. “I am Syrian.”

He went on to relay stories about the war and his family, all living in Damascus. The first thing he said brought tears to his eyes. It was about a friend who had told him the story of a neighbor. The neighbor had described being stopped in his car at a Syrian checkpoint on the road from Zabadani to Damascus. He said army officers told him to leave his daughter with them. My driver said he knew no other details than this, that the man had been given a horrific choice to make: leave his daughter behind, or his wife and other children would be killed in front of his eyes.

The man made a decision, the driver said. He left his daughter at the checkpoint and drove on.

“Every time I am asking myself, How can this be?” the driver said. “I keep hoping it is not true.”

Terrible to imagine, but his story echoes that of others we have posted on our map of rape in Syria, unfortunately. It aligns with one of the patterns we’ve discerned in documenting these attacks on Syrian citizens.

This chilling story came to me on the heels of handing concrete recommendations to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on what might be done to stop ongoing sexualized violence in Syria.

The meetings Sanam and I had been a part of this week covered everything from prevention to prosecution to early warning signals of sexualized violence in conflict around the world, not just in Syria. In fact, Syria was a bit of a last-minute addition to a packed agenda.

I’d been invited on behalf of the Women's Media Center to Wilton Park to brainstorm on what the international community can do to stop rape in war. Sponsored by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the conference had participants from G8 member states, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN officials such as the head of UN Women, and representatives of Amnesty, the ICRC, the International Rescue Committee, London School of Economics, and many other organizations.

I’d been asked to present WMC’s Women Under Siege’s findings on sexualized violence in Syria. But I couldn’t help myself—with all the power, expertise, and purpose assembled in that room, I found myself appealing for us to come up with concrete recommendations on what can be done. We all know the UN Security Council is stuck right now on referring Syrian human rights violations to the International Criminal Court because of a diplomatic impasse with Russia, but there has to be something else, right? Hague was joining us the next day—could we not urge him to do something specific?

The room responded immediately. We would convene a special group to do exactly this. Here is what we came up with and presented to Hague yesterday:

Provide resources.

  • Urge the UK and the G8 to provide immediate funding to existing humanitarian responses that focus on sexualized violence, with a particular emphasis on ensuring that women have access to safe mechanisms for medical and psychosocial services, reporting, and legal aid.

Urge Russia to intervene on sexualized violence.

  • We ask you to make diplomatic overtures toward Russia on intervening with the Assad regime specifically about the use of sexualized violence with a view toward ending it. We believe it would be important to emphasize the ongoing use of tradition and culture that puts women and girls who have been sexually violated at risk of honor killings and forced marriage.

Call for ICC referral.

  • We call on the UK to support and to encourage other G8 members to support a Security Council referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. In addition to the provisions within the Rome Statute, UN SC Resolutions 1820, 1888, and 1960 clearly prioritize the need to address and end sexualized violence in armed conflict and this alone is enough to trigger a referral from the council.

Leverage NATO and the OSCE.

  • Through the UK’s NATO ambassador, we urge you to seek a window of opportunity to create a relationship with Russia on ending sexualized violence in Syria. Russia has expressed interest in collaborating on UN Resolution 1325 to engage women in a peace-building process.
  • We ask that you make similar overtures through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Review EU sanctions.

  • Review and refine EU sanctions; evaluate the socioeconomic effects as well as the efficacy toward ending the conflict, black-marketeering and criminality, peaceful transition, and accountability. Sanctions are facilitating the creation of an illegal black market and increasing the risk of the trafficking of women for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Such trafficking of Syrian women has already been documented.

Support civil society politically.

  • We ask that you work with international civil society initiatives that are aimed at raising the profile of Syrian women’s perspectives and voices.

Hague received our recommendations well. Now it’s up to him to figure out what he and the other G8 countries can do as the UK takes up the G8 presidency in 2013. That’s in six weeks. That’s six weeks in which more Syrian women, men, and children will continue to die and suffer the devastation of rape and torture. That’s six weeks in which eight of the world’s most powerful countries can consider what they will do to stop this. They can’t say they didn’t know.