UN Inaction and Rape as a Weapon of War in Syria

Allison Harvey

As the Syrian civil war continues, international bodies are taking notice of the atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict. Rape has been used as a weapon of war—a tool of political and social subjugation—and it is one of the most important issues that ought to be addressed by the United Nations and other peacekeeping bodies. The UN recognizes “rape as a weapon of war” in conflict, but in many cases, this declaration is effective only nominally. No action is taken, and there is no relief for victims and survivors of this violence. Noninterference by the UN is a result of the organization’s policy of inaction until a conflict has been resolved. But modern conflicts often do not reach a clean resolution. In order to effectively mitigate international conflict, the UN ought to change its approach to peacekeeping aid to reflect the changes in modern warfare.

Since its inception in 2011, the Syrian civil war has killed 100,000 people and displaced millions. The Syrian conflict began in 2011 as a reaction to the Arab Spring protests. Syrian citizens attempted peaceful demonstrations against their government. President Assad responded with violence. In order to defend their protests their safety, civilians armed themselves. The Syrian Free Army was created, which was comprised of civilians, but also army defectors and radical Islamists who were members of Al Qaeda. The continuing violence ultimately led to the creation of refugee camps as Syrian citizens fled to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Destabilization and violence spread into camps within these nations. In one clinic alone, doctors estimate that they treat 100 cases of domestic violence, abuse, and rape every day.1 The violence of such cases is so extreme that many patients die in refugee hospitals or without treatment.2 These physical abuses present challenges to both individual health and sociopolitical stability.

The individual trauma inflicted by rape and sexual assault is crippling. Rape and sexual violence often results in physical harm, including traumatic fistulae and tissue tears which often become infected and debilitating. These injuries can result in infertility as well.3 Pregnancy is another serious concern that affects 5% of women.4 Psychological trauma is another serious issue with regard to violent sexual acts. Often, women who report these crimes fall victim to PTSD. In 1949, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) declared that rape was prosecutable as a war crime at the Geneva Convention.7

The sociopolitical repercussions of rape are also profoundly difficult for women to overcome. Stigma and shame surrounding rape are particularly traumatic for women who have been taught in youth that virginity is vital to a woman’s worth and reputation. Indeed, approximately 6% of victims are abandoned by their husbands and shunned by their communities after reporting sexual violence.5 Thus, the community and family systems, which would otherwise provide support during periods of unrest and war, are removed ripped away from survivors and their families. Even if this is an unintended consequence, it is devastating for survivors. However, there are times where an antagonist has used rape as a planned, calculated attempt to destabilize and demoralize enemy parties.6

The United Nations declared in 2012 that rape was being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Despite this, the aid given to rape victims in Syria is sorely lacking.8 Hospitals and clinics are not equipped to deal with the sheer volume of victims, and many victims do not report their attacks. In order to truly address the issue, there must be increases in direct medical services for victims of violence, along with a more concerted effort to identify and stop perpetrators of sexual violence. But the UN’s policy of noninterference presents a challenge in times of ongoing conflict.

Solving issues of sexual violence in Syria will be a daunting task, but analogous conflicts from the past provide insight into potential UN policy modifications that may expedite the process. In the United Nations convention in 2012, the Norwegian foreign minister asserted, “The equivalent of the Bosnian War is … repeating itself right now in Syria.”9 On the surface, both conflicts show obvious similarities. The number of casualties and refugees during the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict matches the number in Syria. Between 20,000 and 50,000 were victims of rape during this territorial conflict, which like in Syria, was characterized by ethnic cleansing, shelling of villages, and violent systematic rape. However, in Bosnia, intervention by NATO mitigated the conflict, and in December of 1995, the Dayton peace agreement brought the war to an end.10 But the problem of systematic use of rape in Syria may be much more difficult to solve.

The Syrian conflict might have been difficult to resolve because the UN and other Western powers could not identify one side as the primary perpetrator of conflict. In Bosnia, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia convicted war criminals from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia – determining that 90% of sexual violence was perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb forces.11 This ability to shift blame onto one side allowed the UN to broker peace agreements and provide reparations to appropriate populations; it simplified the process of peace. In Syria, responsibility for these war crimes does not fall on any one side. The Syrian government, led by President Assad, responded with violence to peaceful protests, but the Syrian Free Army, composed partially of radical Islamists and members of Al Qaeda, is also guilty of perpetrating crimes. The UN Report on the Syrian conflict asserted that both sides of the conflict committed serious crimes against humanity. “Government forces continue to attack civilian populations in what amounts to crimes against humanity, says the report, released Wednesday by the U.N. Human Rights Council. But anti-government groups, in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, have themselves committed war crimes, including murder, torture and hostage-taking”.12

The first priority in order to end the rape and sexual violence occurring in refugee camps should be to end the conflict and rehabilitate the refugees to their homes. To this end, the United Nations ought to abandon its position of inaction and political tiptoeing. Waiting until a conflict has ended to begin negotiations and grapple with international law leaves many victims helpless without resources, medical care, or legal recourse against their oppressors. The UN ought to intervene for pure public health purposes, instituting both educational and hospital clinic programs in order to help refugees who experience sexual violence. Declaring “rape is a weapon of war” is no longer enough. The UN policy of non-interference may have been appropriate in the past, but in a new age of conflicts with less easily defined aggressors, this policy will prevent the UN from aiding victims of sexual violence.


  1. Greenwood, Phoebe. (2013). “Rape and domestic violence follow Syrian women into refugee camps.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/25/rape-violence-syria-women-refugee-camp.
  2. Wolfe, Lauren. (2013). “Syria Has a Massive Rape Crisis.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/syria-has-a-massive-rape-crisis/274583/.
  3. Pinel, Arletty, and Lydiah Kemunto Bosire. “Traumatic fistula: the case for reparations.” Forced Migration Review 27 (2007): 18-19.
  4. Holmes, Melisa M., Heidi S. Resnick, Dean G. Kilpatrick, and Connie L. Best. “Rape-related pregnancy: estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology175, no. 2 (1996): 320-325.
  5. Sanday, Peggy Reeves. “The socio‐cultural context of rape: A cross‐cultural study.” Journal of social Issues 37, no. 4 (1981): 5-27.
  6. Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew. “A brief history of ethnic cleansing.” Foreign Affairs (1993): 110-121.
  7. ICRC. (1949). Geneva Convention. http://www.icrc.org/eng/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions/index.jsp.
  8. Ouyang, Helen. (2013). “No Aid for Syrian Refugee Survivors of Rape.” Global Perspective. http://www.theglobalist.com/no-aid-for-syrian-refugee-survivors-of-rape/.
  9. Magwaro, Cleopatra. (2013). “Syria War: Rape is a weapon of war.” PolicyMic. http://www.policymic.com/articles/34007/syria-war-rape-is-a-weapon-of-war. 10 Cohen, Roger. “Conflict in the Balkans: The Overview; NATO Presses Bosnia Bombing, Vowing to Make Sarajevo Safe”. The New York Times. (1995). 11 Cohen, Roger. “CIA Report on Bosnia Blames Serbs for 90% of the War Crimes.” The New York Times. (1995). 12 Castillo, Mariano. “UN Report: Abuses on both sides of Syrian Civil War.” CNN. Accessed via http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/11/world/meast/un-syria-report/.