When rebels retook the tallest building in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata late last month, they found a message, spelled out in green Arabic graffiti, from the government troops who had been occupying the building: “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misrata. We will f*** your daughters and your wives.”
The writing had been on the wall since Iman al Obeidy burst into a Tripoli hotel a month earlier to tell the international journalists gathered there that she had been sexually assaulted by 15 men loyal to the Libyan leader. A few days after that, a doctor in Ajdabiya told Al Jazeera that he found Viagra and condoms in the pockets of dead Gadhafi troops. The doctor also said he had treated two women who had been raped by Gadhafi forces in the past week.
Now, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for three unnamed members of the Libyan government, likely including Moammar Gadhafi himself, for crimes against humanity, including — perhaps — the use of rape as a weapon.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo says that he has strong evidence of the crimes of persecution and the killing of civilians, and is investigating rape allegations, including the claim that Gadhafi troops are being issued Viagra — a sign that rape is premeditated and encouraged.
It’s still unclear whether there’s evidence to prove that rape is being used in a systematic way, but the fact that it’s even being considered alongside those other war crimes is no small thing. Rape has been used to terrorize, demoralize, dishonor and drive away the enemy in conflicts all over the world — in Bosnia, Burma, Sudan, Tibet, Congo, even during the Holocaust.
“Rape was assumed to be inevitable” said feminist author Gloria Steinem. “The idea that it was a war crime is new; it’s barely a decade old.”
It wasn’t until survivors of sexual violence in Rwanda gave their testimony in The Hague that the use of rape as a weapon was formally addressed by international law. More than 100,000 Rwandan women were raped during three months of conflict in 1994; a year later, the court ruled those rapes a component act of genocide. The first actual indictment calling rape a crime against humanity came during the Bosnia war crimes trials, in 2001. Finally, in 2008, U.N. resolution 1820 elevated mass rape from a humanitarian issue to a foreign policy priority, noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”
Will these tools be useful in the case of Gadhafi and his cohorts? Are the alleged instances of rape and sexual violence in the conflict in Libya “just” a few bad actors taking out their aggression on women, or is this tactical and widespread?
“There’s not enough information on Libya, and not enough access to know what’s going on,” said Janet Walsh, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division. “The conditions may not be ripe yet for using these tools.”
But Margot Wallström, the U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict, said she’s looking into it. “We hear reports from from NGOs active on the ground, we see media reports that hint at this being employed in Libya, so we’re trying to gather as much evidence as possible in order to verify that this has happened,” she said. “We are always dealing with the fact that this is surrounded by stigma and shame, so women will not easily come forward to tell their stories, so you have to take this into account.”
In the cases of Rwanda and Bosnia, rape was used as part of a genocidal strategy to drive people from their homes and villages, or even, in Bosnia, as an attempt to breed Serb babies. Thankfully there doesn’t appear to be an agenda of ethnic cleansing in Libya. If the allegations in Libya are true, what would be the motivation there?
“Unfortunately it is used in the usual way — uniformed men using their power where women are vulnerable — and I think that might be the case here” Wallström said. Rape is used “for a very simple but wicked reason — because it is cheap, silent and effective.”
Lauren Feeney is senior web producer for Women, War & Peace, an upcoming PBS project on the changing role of women in war and post-conflict peacebuilding.