What is the United States' Role in Addressing Sexual Violence in Libya and Syria?

Patricia Haslach
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
Toronto, Canada
February 8, 2013

As prepared

First, I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak on sexual violence in the recent conflicts in Libya and Syria and how women are playing an instrumental role in the transitions of their own countries. It is a pleasure to be here today, representing the United States Government on this important topic.

Sexual violence in our international community is not just a health concern, not just a social issue, and not just a criminal justice issue. It is an attack against human dignity that undermines transitioning states. As the driving force for self-preservation, human dignity is rooted in the right to live a life free from violence or the threat of violence. Syrians and Libyans have the opportunity to rebuild their nations—and they must—but this starts by protecting each of their citizens—men, women, boys, and girls—from fear and from harm.

Sexual violence has profound, cyclical implications on the vitality of civilians and national stability. The act physically, mentally, and emotionally impacts the individual, but its effects can undermine communities. If incidents of rape and sexual assault go unaddressed by a country’s legal and judicial institutions, a culture of impunity will take hold and deny all civilians – not only survivors – a dignified life. Ultimately, this robs nations of their chance for stability and prosperity. A country that fails to include the voices and talents of all of their citizens cannot reach its potential. In particular, if women are excluded from transition processes, chances are that key issues – from sexual violence to children’s education to community reintegration of demobilized fighters – will be underemphasized and de-prioritized. We need an approach to transitions that is more inclusive and more attentive to the connections between sexual violence and community security and stability.

Frequently, we hear that women primarily speak about incidents of sexual violence solely with other women, if at all. They fear that speaking out about sexual violence will be perceived as a distraction from the political progress, when in fact, it is precisely through support for survivors that these nations can work through recent events and begin a process of recovery, reconciliation, and growth. We must work to provide safe space for women to speak about incidents of sexual violence in their communities. Security sector reform must emphasize increasing the role and the number of women serving as police officers, investigators, lawyers and judges. The issue of sexual violence is as critical as political questions surrounding the transition.

We are all too aware of the thousands of women who were raped by Qadhafi’s forces in his brutal and futile attempt to keep control of Libya. Even today, State Department officials at the regional Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs have noted that during visits to Washington, Libyan women reported feeling unsafe in certain areas of Libya due to the lack of security and that others have been raped in detention facilities.

The International Rescue Committee recently released a report highlighting that many female and male refugees from Syria in neighboring countries cited sexual violence as a main reason to flee, raising questions about whether the fear of rape displaces as many people as the actual act itself. For instance, Syrian women report that rapes are being committed by multiple perpetrators in public and private, often in front of the victim’s family, to set a horrifying example for those who would defy the Assad regime.

Much of the discussion around sexual violence focuses on the individual victim rather than their social ecology. Not enough thinking and policymaking has identified the challenges that sexual violence poses for those that depend upon these survivors for their livelihood. Circumstance is not always taken into account. We must improve prevention and care for survivors and their dependents to ensure the stability of the family, neighborhood, and community.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know the full scope and extent of sexual violence in Libya and Syria, as is the case in many conflict-ridden areas where reporting is sparse. There are few quantitative reports that document an exact number of incidents in either country, but we must consider this data, such as that collected by Women Under Siege, in light of ongoing uncertainties in verification. According to al-Arabiya, 4,000 rape cases have been reported throughout the Syrian revolution, 700 thereof in prisons or detention centers, against women and men. The actual number, however, is thought to be much higher.

A similar problem exists with evidence collection for specific incidents. Even with electronic documentation such as through cell phones and YouTube videos, which has been a hallmark of recording the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, it is still difficult to accurately capture the necessary evidence of sexual violence in these countries.

Even with limited data, we know that sexual violence is a serious problem. It isn’t only an outcome of difficult and violent circumstances, but it is a tactic of violent actors. One critical way to ensure that sexual violence is treated as a serious problem for policymakers is to include women and survivors in political processes. But we know that road is not an easy one.

Women were on the frontlines of the Arab Spring, but after the revolutions they found themselves excluded from decision-making. Recognizing this, Libya’s leaders followed Tunisia’s example and required a 1:1 ratio of men to women on the party lists for the General National Congress. During the elections, news outlets reported that the campaign posters of female candidates were defaced and that female voters were subject to intimidation by extremist elements. But the women still turned out and they won 33 of the 200 seats in the new interim Libyan Congress.

On the cover of the New York Times on July 8, 2012, three young Libyan women were pictured walking down the street in Benghazi waving ballots in their hands. Minutes before, security officials had opened fire as opposing factions attempted to burn ballots. The courage of these women and countless others are a testament to the necessity of female participation in the critical transition phases within these nations.

In the face of these successes as well as setbacks, the world must continue to do more. But how? How can we bring discussions of sexual violence that are often whispered on the political sidelines to the forefront of policymaking? How can we best prepare for political transitions inclusive of women while atrocities are still occurring? What lessons have we learned from Libya that can be applied to Syria?

In December 2011, President Obama launched the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, which lays out a comprehensive, whole-of government approach that marshals the government’s expertise and capacity to emphasize the need for women’s participation, protection, prevention. This initiative represents a fundamental change in how the U.S. will approach its diplomatic, military, and development support to women in areas of conflict. It is not just a question of women’s rights, it is a matter of ensuring an effective foreign policy.

The U.S. is not alone in this charge. In May 2012, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced Britain’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and has been galvanizing support for the work among other G8 nations, the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU, and the OSCE. Addressing experts at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hague stated:

“Many hundreds of thousands of survivors live with the stigma, shame and burden [of sexual violence] in many countries around the world. And their ranks are being added to all the time, including in Syria, where the number of refugees who have reported being raped is truly shocking.”

He emphasizes that men and boys are also victims of this kind of violation. The British have created a 70-member U.K. Team of Experts that has the capacity to deploy to affected areas, including their current post along the Syrian border, to train local medical professionals to treat survivors and preserve evidence for prosecution. The Australian Civilian Corps has already begun to provide human resources to support the initiative.

The Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has been working closely with the U.K. Stabilization Unit as part of this initiative and looks forward to a collaborative partnership on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I echo William Hague’s words when he says that “we must shatter the culture of impunity for those who commit rape and sexual violence in conflict and extend the hand of support to survivors.” It is a war crime and must be treated as such.

Looking at the cases of Syria and Libya, the United State Government is working to provide 1) direct services to survivors, 2) combat the culture of impunity through accountability measures, and 3) support female participation in political and civic affairs. These activities create a positive feedback loop that has preventative qualities.

With regards to direct services for survivors, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State is helping to fund an NGO in Jordan, which works in the Irbid, Ramtha, and Mafraq governorates, and in Za’atri camp, to reduce risks faced by vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan that are either registered or unregistered. The program focuses on women and girls who are survivors of gender-based violence. Over 110,000 refugees will be provided with case management and referral to specific services, individual or group psychosocial support.

USAID is addressing the needs of women and girls in Syria through humanitarian assistance programs that offer reproductive health care and provide female sanitary materials as part of relief commodity packages. In addition, USAID is providing $400,000 to the UN Population Fund to help address women’s health needs including emergency obstetric care and $1.1 million for to other implementing partners for protection activities inside Syria, including training for community responders in psychosocial support and child protection.

To decrease impunity that often follows sexually violent crimes, the United States is one of over 40 nations party to the Syria Justice and Accountability Center – an independent, multilateral organization that is charged with documenting human rights abuses, coordinating transitional justice and accountability efforts among Syrian and international groups, and educating the Syrian and international community about transitional justice broadly in Syria. The issue of sexual violence is becoming a major topic of discussion as Board members nominated Syrian lawyer and gender-based violence expert Laila Alodaat as Board Chairperson in January 2013. Moreover, the Board agreed to prioritize outreach to the Syrian Opposition Coalition to provide them with technical expertise on transitional justice. SJAC is currently connecting with the international human rights organization, Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, at the Hague to discuss potential collaboration. This organization has previous experience working in conflict countries such as the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan and Libya.

To promote the UN’s work on increasing accountability for war crimes, the United States continues to bolster the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which addresses gender-based violence. Our political support highlights the importance of the Commission and the importance of its access into the country.

On the political participation front, recently, a group of Syrian women leaders met in Doha to develop a charter for women in a post-Assad Syria. This charter puts forth an ambitious and inclusive vision and is gathering support throughout the opposition.

In August 2012, CSO and the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSDS), a Syrian NGO, co-facilitated a two-day workshop for Syrian women presently living in Gaziantep, Turkey. The workshop theme was discussing a new way forward in Syria specifically developing the women’s vision for a new Syria. Female university students debated the meaning of a civil state and discussed ideas for reforming the education and health care systems in Syria with older women activists, including a long-time political prisoner. Following this workshop the Center was able to obtain funding from USAID, through an implementing partner, for their women focused project – Women for the Future of Syria project. Women involved with the project are now pressing the Syrian Opposition Coalition to include greater gender parity in the Coalition and the future provisional government.

On his last visit to Istanbul, Turkey in November 2012, CSO’s Assistant Secretary Rick Barton participated in a roundtable discussion with Sunni Arab, Christian, and Kurdish women in which they expressed their concern that they would be underrepresented in the traditional political process. Above all, they requested training in leadership skills, political participation, media engagement and civil society administration. Leaders of the Free Syrian Women’s Organization based in southern Turkey are pursuing job training to provide employment opportunities for women who will eventually be returning to Syria.

CSO has conducted 39 trainings on planning, civil administration, media, and security, for 329 Syrian activists in Istanbul, of which 20 percent have been women. These women have been active in nonviolent protest activity in places like Daraya (in the Damascus suburbs), they are leading humanitarian relief efforts in northern Idlib, and prosecuting legal cases in Aleppo. CSO continuously meets with activists to obtain new, gender-balanced information on specific needs that, if fulfilled, can support the political transition.

In the case of Libya, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. produced a video encouraging Libyan women to vote and seek elected office in July 2012. The video aired on six Libyan television networks, was mentioned in local newspapers, and posted on the two largest Libyan Facebook pages with a total fan base of 300,000. After the video’s release, voter registration among eligible women nearly doubled.

In October 2012, the International Information Programs Bureau launched AlAmreekania, an Arabic-language Facebook community dedicated to engaging women on human rights issues and public diplomacy topics. To date this community has more than 46,000 members.

The common theme that I have found among many of the stories shared today is the profound resiliency of survivors. Sexual violence is an attack on human dignity, and yet, so many are still able to stand up and demand their rights and space for participation in countries that are grappling with transition. I believe that the two go hand-in-hand: the dignity of a survivor is a truly motivating force for the growth of his or her family, community, state, and country. There is still much work to be done, but I commend you all for your attention and action as we see Libya and Syria grow in their inclusion of women into the political process and the stand against sexual violence.

Thank you.