Special Representative Bangura to Brief on Sexual Violence in Iraq and Syria
Tomorrow afternoon (25 August), Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura will brief Security Council members in consultations on her 16 – 29 April visit to the Middle East . Bangura visited Iraq and Syria as well as neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey which host Syrian refugees. No outcome is expected following the consultations.
Spain has tried for several months to have Bangura brief on her Middle East mission but these attempts were met with resistance by Russia. It seems Russia did not want Bangura to brief during the monthly Middle East meeting which, they argued, should remain focused on the political issues in the region. Several Council members pointed out that sexual violence should not be sidelined as a women’s issue or a humanitarian issue, arguing that it is a central political issue that has been a component of the Iraq and Syria conflicts. A compromise was reached this month that Bangura would brief in consultations under the “Middle East” agenda item, but not during the regular, and public, Middle East briefing.
Bangura will share her discussions with survivors and witnesses that affirm previous findings that sexual violence is being committed strategically, in a widespread and systematic manner, and with a high-degree of sophistication by most parties to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq—both state and non-state actors.
Regarding government actors, most Council members are aware that sexual violence by security forces or pro-government militias has been characteristic of the Syrian conflict from its inception. Bangura is likely to report that in Syria sexual violence occurs during house searches, in detention and at checkpoints. Fear of rape has been one of the factors driving displacement from Syria. There is an increased vulnerability of displaced women and girls to sexual exploitation, such as human trafficking and forced marriage.
The fear of rape has also led to refugee and internally displaced persons communities’ adopting negative coping mechanisms that affect women and girls, such as early marriage and removal from school. In Iraq, there have also been reports of sexual torture in government detention centers. Concern has also been expressed about the conduct of Shi’a militias, allied with the Iraqi government, during their military operations to liberate areas from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Last week, on 20 August, Bangura participated in a Council briefing on security sector reform. She said a response to conflict-related sexual violence must include engagement with the security sector at the highest political and military levels, particularly in settings where the security services may have been involved in the commission of sexual violence. In this regard, Council members will be interested in the details of Bangura’s meetings with both Syrian and Iraqi officials, particularly whether her office has been able to secure commitments from these governments to take concrete action to address sexual violence.
Regarding non-state actors, Council members expect there will a discussion of sexual violence in the context of violent extremism, with a particular focus on ISIS. Bangura is likely to detail how ISIS uses sexual violence in Iraq and Syria to achieve tactical objectives, dispelling the notion that sexual violence is just an incidental by-product of conflict. Sexual violence has been institutionalised by ISIS to increase recruitment by promising male fighters access to women and girls, to populate a new “Caliphate” through forced pregnancy, to terrorise communities into compliance, displace populations from strategic areas and generate revenue through trafficking, slave trade and ransoms. In this context, the sexual enslavement of Yezidi women and girls for over a year now in Iraq by ISIS is likely to be raised. Bangura is also likely to call for the engagement of religious leaders in addressing the stigma around sexual violence by noting how the Yezidi spiritual leader called for his community to support, not ostracise, women who have been abducted and released by ISIS—a practice that Bangura is likely to suggest other religious leaders could embrace. Bangura will also likely reiterate her call that the UN and member states ensure that the protection and empowerment of women are at the heart of any counter-terrorism response so that such efforts do not exacerbate the vulnerabilities that women and girls face in Iraq and Syria.
Some Council members are keen to hear more from Bangura about a regional approach to addressing sexual violence in conflict, and how such an approach could be coordinated with UN actors. Bangura is expected to share the initial concept of a seven-point strategy for the Middle East region that will broadly seek to fill gaps in the existing response by improving protection, access to services, and accountability.
Finally, some members may raise issues covered in the 24 August Arria-formula meeting on the targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons (actual or perceived) by ISIS. But given the focus on both state and non-state actors in tomorrow’s meeting, any mention of violence against LGBT persons is unlikely to be only ISIS-specific. The March 2015 Secretary-General’s report on conflict-related sexual violence noted the targeting of LGBT individuals by armed groups for the first time—as a form of “moral cleansing” in Iraq and in the context of checkpoint stops and detention in Syria (S/2015/203).