Rape as Weapon of War Is UN Focus After Libya Woman’s Plight

Iman Al-Obeidi
Hotel employees and foreign journalist surround Iman Al-Obeidi, right, who said she spent two days in detention after being arrested at a checkpoint in Tripoli, Libya, and was sexually assaulted by up to 15 men while in custody in Tripoli. Photographer: Jerome Delay/AP

It took a video going “viral” of a Libyan woman being dragged from a Tripoli hotel -- shouting that she’d been raped for two days by 15 men -- to put a face and name to a weapon of war that dates back at least to the founding of ancient Rome.

Defying social norms that can turn rape victims into outcasts, Iman al-Obeidi went public with her story. Her allegations of torture at the hands of soldiers loyal to Muammar Qaddafi spread fast via Facebook and Twitter.

“Iman is publicly hailed as a hero in Benghazi, and there are discussions about changing attitudes,” Arafat Jamal, the United Nations refugee agency’s co-coordinator for Libya, said in an interview from Benghazi.

The worldwide attention given to Obeidi’s plight helped secure the 29-year-old law graduate safe passage to Romania and shine a spotlight on a horror that dates back to the earliest armies and continues in war zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Congo, at least 121 women were raped over a period of three days in June as government troops pillaged their village, the UN human rights office said last week. Local medical reports say 248 women were raped between June 10 and June 12 in attacks unleashed in the Sud-Kivu province, Agence France-Presse reported.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today the U.S. was “gravely disturbed” by reports of the latest mass rapes. The UN estimates that about 15,000 women and girls a year are victims of rape in the Congo conflict.

UN Women

The one-year-old United Nations women’s agency, UN Women, unveils today its first report drawing attention to sexual violence against women as the International Criminal Court investigates allegations of mass rapes in Libya.

“Very significant advances in international law in the past two decades have, for the first time, made it possible to redress sexual violence crimes,” according to 165-page report by the agency led by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. “However, prosecutions are rare.”

A female rape victim of the 1994 Rwanda genocide described in the UN report how she regretted seeking justice by testifying in her country’s International Criminal Tribunal. The woman, who was unnamed in the report, was cited as saying that no good came from the attention: she received no apology, her fiancé left her and her house was attacked.

Unreliable Numbers

Proving systematic rape during conflict is problematic. There is a risk of either underestimating the extent because of social sigma or overestimating it because of wartime rumors.

Qaddafi is “capable of such acts,” said Karim Mezran, a political-science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Bologna, Italy, and a researcher at Rome’s Center for American Studies. “Whether he did carry them out is another issue.”

For women in Libya, coming forward may entail the risk of being murdered by their own families in so-called “honor killings,” which remains one of the deadliest forms of violence against women and is practiced by closed patriarchal communities across the globe in places such as Kurdistan and Pakistan.

“It is very difficult for a woman to openly discuss this issue, and expect to receive support,” Jamal said. “The social taboos surrounding the topic certainly play a part.”

War crimes investigators said they do have evidence implicating the Libyan regime and showing it purchased anti-impotence drugs as a way to implement it.

Qaddafi Implicated

“We are getting some information that Qaddafi himself decided to rape, and this is new,” Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, told reporters in New York on June 8.

“The rape is a new aspect of the repression,” he said. “That is why we had doubts at the beginning, but now we are more convinced that he decided to punish using rape.”

Aid agencies such as Doctors without Borders and Amnesty International have found no first-hand evidence in Libya that rapes are systematic and being used as part of war strategy. Amnesty said its investigations in eastern Libya, in Misrata and along the Tunisian border have not turned up significant hard evidence supporting allegations of rapes by Qaddafi’s forces.

“This does not mean the allegation is incorrect, only that Amnesty International has not been able to obtain conclusive evidence,” said James Lynch, an Amnesty spokesman for the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Deeply Concerned’

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said June 16 that the U.S. is “deeply concerned by reports of wide-scale rape” in Libya. “We are also troubled by reports of sexual violence used by governments to intimidate and punish protesters seeking democratic reforms across the Middle East and North Africa.”

In 2008, the U.S. overcame resistance from China, Russia, Indonesia and Vietnam to claim a 15-0 UN Security Council victory for the first resolution to recognize conflict-related sexual violence and say rape and other such acts can be considered war crimes.

The UN Human Rights office said the effectiveness of the resolution would have to be measured in places such as Congo. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was asked to report yearly on the implementation of the resolution, under which violators could be hit with UN sanctions.

Three years on, the latest evidence indicates sexual violence hasn’t diminished and, if anything, is a much more entrenched and pervasive problem than previously thought. Last year, Ban appointed a special envoy on sexual violence during armed conflict, Margot Wallstrom, who has called Congo “the rape capital” of the world.

War Crimes

A recent study suggest the UN may be underestimating the extent of rape in the Congo conflict.

Every day, 1,152 women are raped in the DRC, making it the worst place in the world to be a woman, according to a report published in the June edition of the American Journal of Public Health. The estimates, which dwarf UN figures, are based on a 2007 national survey of 3,436 women.

As many as 1.8 million Congolese women have been raped in their lifetime and about 400,000 in the past 12 months, the report estimated. That is a 26-times the UN figure of 15,000 rape victims in the same 2006-2007 period.

More than 387 rapes that took place during a three-day attack in eastern Congo last year may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, the UN said today in a separate report released today in Kinshasa, the capital.

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