Women in Syria are increasingly subjected to systemic gender-based violence from parties on all sides of the conflict. In March 2018, the United Nations (UN) released a report entitled, “I lost my dignity: Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic.” The report was based on interviews with survivors, their relatives, defectors, healthcare professionals, lawyers, and other members of the affected communities. The report focused on the perpetration of sexual violence from March 2011 through December 2017. In 2018, the film, “Silent War”, directed by Manon Loizeau, shared survivors’ direct accounts of the violence. The film, along with the report, reveal that Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is responsible for intentionally weaponizing sexual violence to collect information on opposition forces.

In 2004, the Syrian Arab Republic ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN CAT). However, in 2011, fifteen school children were arrested and tortured which led to nonviolent protests in Dara’a. Those peaceful protests were met with violence, which sparked the non-international armed conflict between Assad’s Regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and later, other rebel groups that have emerged since the war began. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions defines the law of non-international armed conflict. Assad is violating international law as he continues to order the use of sexual violence as a psychological weapon to torture men, women, and children in Syria.  

The systematic perpetration of rape, torture, and humiliation happens in detention centers, private homes, and in plain view at government checkpoints. Assad’s government forces have used sexual and gender-based violence to attack the civilian population. As a means of manipulating dissent and opposition, the regime’s forces were ordered to sexually abuse detainees in at least fifteen detention centers.  

In heartbreaking accounts, survivors describe entering a protective dissociative state, astral-projecting their souls to other realms in an instinctive attempt to keep them safe during an attack, only to struggle to retrieve them later on. But in the grand scheme, women are not the true targets of these attacks; they are just collateral damage used to pain the men they belong to. It is as if these women are merely possessions to be ruined — a cosmology that allows for the desecration of a subhuman object without moral intervention.

Survivors of the detention centers, when released, do not return to a culture that accepts them. Many women were excommunicated, divorced, or were subject to “honor killings” because of the sexual abuse and violence they were subjected to while detained. In a culture that condemns survivors of rape and sexual abuse as undignified and worthless, there is little access to counseling or therapy.  In the film, one survivor explained that when women are arrested, they wish for death because “[they] are raped by the Regime and then punished by society.”

Under Common Article 3, “persons taking no active part in hostilities, including members of the armed forces who have laid down their arms . . . shall in all circumstances be treated humanely . . . and the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons”: a) murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture; b) taking of hostages; c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment; d) the passing of sentences and carrying out of executions without judicial guarantees and judgment by a regularly constituted court. The Assad Regime’s systematic and psychological use of sexual violence and torture against civilians clearly violates Common Article 3. The only difficulty in enforcing Common Article 3 is the absence of clear winners in the complicated conflict.

Torture has evolved into a jus cogens peremptory norm in international law. Assad’s Regime can deny that it used sexual violence as a means of torture; however, by denying it, Assad continues to reaffirm the absolute prohibition of torture. Thus, if and when we finally see an end to the conflict, Assad will have nowhere left to go as he will not be able to escape the responsibility of states to hold him accountable for violating such sacred rights. The entire international community is bound by jus cogens norms, and therefore, they are obligated to extradite and prosecute its violators.

While the perpetration of sexual and gender-based violence by Assad’s regime is the most systematic of all of the parties in the conflict, the Islamic State group, armed groups, and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (members of the former al-Qaeda group) all engage in some way in sexual violence against women and girls, according to the UN report.

With many survivors describing their attackers as “giants” and “monsters,” it is easy to lose sight of the humanity of the attackers and the earthly jurisdiction over their crimes. Ambitious as it may be, the international community must use all the weapons in its arsenal to eradicate war crimes of sexual violence as well as the systems of power and patriarchy that feed them. One mechanism for assisting in the efficiency of prosecution is the  International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), which supports the investigation and prosecution of the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since 2011. This mechanism created an office that assists in the preparatory work, such as collecting evidence and preparing files, for prosecuting serious crimes, such as torture. The IIIM provides the investigative resources needed to prosecute these crimes. There is no question that the sexual violence being used as a weapon in Syria is a form of torture prohibited under the UN CAT, the Geneva Conventions, and jus cogens principles. With the creation of the IIIM and other UN organs directed specifically at violations of international law in Syria, the international community has the tools, the authority, and the responsibility to prosecute the sexual and gender-based violence committed by the Assad regime and other actors within the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian conflict is a complex and ever-changing international event. The weaponization of sexual violence, regardless of who and for what is wrong. With the involvement of UN agencies and brave survivors, the hope is justice will eventually be served.

The authors would like to thank Java Films for allowing viewing of the film, Silent War. They would also like to thank the survivors for telling their stories and showing the world what is happening in Syria.