Investigating conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes—lessons from Iraq and Syria

In the lead-up to UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, experts discuss what it takes to document and investigate conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes and pathways to justice for the crimes committed in Iraq and Syria.

Date: Thursday, October 26, 2017

Seventeen years since the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution 1325, which calls on parties in conflict to uphold women’s rights and respond to violations, impunity for conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to undermine peace and security.

As the UN Security Council prepares to meet in New York for the annual Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security later this week, a side event co-sponsored by UN Women, the Government of Canada and Justice Rapid Response (JRR) on 25 October, convened human rights experts and investigators to discuss the importance of quality and timely investigations of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence.

The speakers, including two experts deployed to investigate sexual and gender-based crimes in Iraq and Syria, shared their experience on what it takes to investigate such crimes, the challenges and obstacles of documenting evidence, and pathways to justice.

Catherine Boucher, Legal Advisor for the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, opened the panel, acknowledging that “Over the decades there has been a dramatic shift in the way the world views sexual and gender-based violence. It is not inevitable; it is a crime that must be investigated, prosecuted, and punished.”

UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri added, “The women, peace and security agenda is clear. There has to be zero tolerance for violation of women and girls’ rights. We are all here today because we are part of the movement demanding justice for sexual and gender-based violence being committed in Syria and Iraq, including the rape of women and men in government detention centers in Syria, and sexual enslavement of women and girls and the targeting of sexual minorities by the Islamic State.”

UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri speaks at the Documenting, Investigating and Prosecuting Conflict-related Sexual and Gender-based Violence: The Case of Syria and Iraq event in New York. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann
UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri speaks at the Documenting, Investigating and Prosecuting Conflict-related Sexual and Gender-based Violence: The Case of Syria and Iraq event in New York. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann

Since 2012, as part of a partnership initiative, JRR and UN Women have deployed SGBV experts in support of the work of the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria, the Office of the High-Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) fact-finding mission to Iraq, and other justice mechanisms, to ensure that sexual and gender-based crimes in Syria and Iraq are documented and prosecuted.

While numbers of rape and sexual assaults are notoriously difficult to confirm, sexual violence against women and girls has been a core component of the armed groups’ ideology and economic strategy in Iraq and Syria.

The two JRR experts, Rabiaa and Serena [1] highlighted the challenges they face in their critical job. The most important challenge, they suggested, is persuading survivors to engage. “There is a cultural stigma attached to these kinds of violations that make it difficult for people to engage,” explained Serena.

Rabiaa, a member of the UN Women-JRR Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Justice Experts Roster. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann
Rabiaa, a member of the UN Women-JRR Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Justice Experts Roster. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann

“The most important aspect of our job is safety and making the survivors feel comfortable. Sometimes [the survivors] call me at 2 a.m., but I don’t mind. As long as they feel comfortable and safe,” added Rabiaa.

The JRR – UN Women partnership has resulted in a Justice Experts Roster comprised of 217 experts from over 70 nationalities, who are specifically trained to investigate and document SGBV as an international crime.

“Our experts do the critical work of bringing crimes to light, as shown by the work in Iraq and Syria,” Deputy Executive Director Puri says. To date, SGBV investigators have been deployed for 69 missions, to document sexual and gender-based crimes in a number of hot spots and countries in post-conflict contexts.

“We are very proud of our partnership with UN Women. We share the ability to provide very highly specialized, well-trained expertise from all over the world to ensure that investigations of SGBV wherever they occur are as good as possible,” shared JRR Executive Director and event moderator Andres Vamos-Goldman. The large pool of experts coming from different countries and regions allow for investigators to be assigned to appropriate cases, where they can draw upon their legal, as well as cultural and linguistic expertise.

The event also premiered a short documentary film, Evidence of Hope, featuring two SGBV investigators deployed by UN Women-JRR to the UN investigations in Syria and Iraq, and four survivor-witnesses they met during their work. The film examines their brave efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. 

The discussions came on the heels of recent announcements by the UN of new investigation mechanisms for the international crimes committed in Iraq and Syria. In September 2017, the UN Security Council established an investigation team to support Iraq’s domestic efforts to hold the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide (S/RES/2379). In December 2016, the UN General Assembly established an international, impartial and independent mechanism to assist in the investigation of crimes committed in Syria (A/RES/71/248).

These new efforts will build on the evidence collected through the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria, and the fact-finding mission of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights to Iraq.

Notes

[1] The full names of the investigators have been withheld as per request, as the investigators are part of active investigations.

Justice now: an interactive experience
Justice now: Ending impunity for sexual and gender based violence

This interactive infostory explores the various paths to justice, gives voice to survivors’ stories and looks at the critical role that investigators play in ending impunity for sexual and gender-based violence crimes. Read more »

In Focus: Women, peace and security
In observance of International Women's Day, participants march from the centre of Monrovia to the Temple of Justice, home of the Liberian Supreme Court, where they staged a peaceful sit-in protest against gender-based violence.  Photo: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

UN Women highlights the voices and experience of women building and sustaining peace, rebuilding their communities and mobilizing for justice and equality. Read more »

Planet 50–50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality