Day Five | Holding foreign fighters accountable for sexual violence

Sexual violence YT video

Susan Hutchinson

As the security situation continues to deteriorate in Syria and Iraq, Western nations are being forced to reconsider the issue of what to do with their nationals stuck there since the war with ISIS. When Turkey invaded northern Syria, the Kurdish authorities who had been managing the prisons holding ISIS fighters, including those who are foreign nationals, said they could no longer prioritise the management of these prisons. Many of those prisoners are responsible for perpetrating gross sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But the Kurds are now facing another genocide of their own.

Too often, conflict-related sexual violence is considered a problem too difficult to resolve because it occurs in another country, by people from another country, against people from another country. But we have a unique moment in time to help end impunity for conflict related sexual violence. An estimated 40,000 foreign fighters from 89 countries travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS. Many of the source countries are State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, obliging them to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in their own domestic court systems. 

We needn’t wait indefinitely for the big boys of the UN Security Council to refer these crimes to the International Criminal Court. Countries like Australia have incorporated these crimes into their own domestic criminal code and have an obligation to investigate and prosecute their own nationals for the sexual violence they perpetrated as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide while fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We have the jurisdiction and the competent authority; all that remains is the political will and investment. 

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, ‘prosecute; don’t perpetrate’ released a short, animated video (above) explaining why and how we need to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. We made it with sketches and graffiti from an incredible Afghan artist and professor, Shamsia Hassani, who does a lot of beautiful work on women’s rights. 

There are countless incredible women from conflict-affected countries defending women’s rights. Nadia Murad has been fighting for years for justice for survivors like her, not just of trafficking and sexual violence, but of genocide as well. She has shared her story countless times, but so far not a single ISIS fighter has been prosecuted for sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. The time has come for us to take up the baton, to fight for women like Nadia, to make sure she receives the justice she deserves, and all the women like her. 

Investigating and prosecuting these crimes would be the responsible thing to do from the perspective of the rules-based international order. It would be the responsible thing to do if we wanted to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. It would be the right thing to do if we wanted to take action against gender violence. It would be far more responsible than leaving perpetrators in Syria, Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere to continue wreaking havoc on the world. It is also more responsible to ensure they are securely imprisoned within our own borders under the auspices of our own security agencies rather than in extremely unstable countries recovering from the conflict with ISIS.

When Yazidi activist Ameena Saeed Hasan bemoaned the UN Security Council’s inaction during a debate on trafficking of persons in armed conflict, she told of a Yazidi girl who had phoned her, begging, “if you can’t free us, bomb us”. “Where is the justice?” Ameena asked aghast by the total inaction of the international community. 

Today is the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. As part of our activism this 16 Days, we can help women human rights defenders like Ameena and Nadia. We can work to ensure our governments meet their obligations to investigate and prosecute their own nationals who perpetrated sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. 
Susan Hutchinson is the architect of the prosecute; don’t perpetrate campaign to help end impunity for conflict related sexual violence. She is also a PhD scholar at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. Her research focuses on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Susan regularly blogs for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter and BroadAgenda. She is a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security and the Australian Arms Control Coalition.

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