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ISIS and Sexual Violence: A Very Deliberate Strategy

Joanne Mackowski
Commentary, 28 November 2014
Defence, Industries and Society, Iraq, Syria, Terrorism, Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
The use of rape and abuse as psychological weapons by ISIS forces has raised questions on how best to protect vulnerable civilians in warzones

September 2014 heralded the onset of British re-engagement in Iraq, with the authorisation of military action against ISIS Initially, RAF Tornados were committed to air strikes, and have attacked ISIS positions, equipment and personnel. Last week, it was made public that SAS personnel had also been deployed. Special forces teams appear to have conducted targeted killings, allegedly on a daily basis for the preceding month. Replete with its legacy of prior British military operations, the employment of the military instrument back to Iraq has re-focused defence on the familiar problems posed by insurgency and instability.

However, compounding the familiar security threats posed by ISIS jihadists has been the deliberate persecution of non-Muslims, especially the Christian Yazidi sect. The persecution has been characterised by a brutal spectrum of sexual violence, mostly against women. Rape and abuse, especially that heightened or exploited during times of conflict, have been an enduring accompaniment to fighting throughout the ages; tragically the Yazidi case represents yet one more iteration of this. But in addition to perpetrating sexual abuse, ISIS have validated its use against ‘infidels’, and demonstrated a willingness to employ sexualised violence as a deliberate tactic. As such, the military cannot afford to underestimate how combating sexual violence may be a necessary mission objective.

ISIS and Sexual Violence

The executions of Yazidi men and boys are perhaps an expression of straightforward violence in Iraq, but abuse stories have underlined the human security aspects of Iraq’s state of affairs. A Human Rights Watch report detailed forced religious conversions and forced marriages of Yazidi women and girls; other accounts have narrated stories of sexual assault and sexual slavery. The mass abductions of females for sexual violence demonstrate ISIS’s view that women are but the spoils of war, and have led to arguments that ISIS are carrying out ethnic cleansing. The Yazidis community does not accept converts nor exogamy - forced religious conversions will alter Yazidi practices. Repeated rape by multiple perpetrators, other expressions of sexualised violence and women’s enforced marriage to jihadi fighters could ultimately result in the genocide of the community.

 ISIS have also manifested a strategy beyond the immediate infliction of sexual violence. In their online publication Dabiq, they sanctioned using non-Muslim women as sex slaves. ISIS paired the broadcasting of their justification of sexual abuse with supplying mobile phones to kidnapped women, and having the women contact family members or the media. What ensued was forced recounting, in detail, of how ISIS had treated the women. Such action propounds the individual’s trauma by having them re-live attacks; layers distress upon family members who remain helpless against ISIS; and instils and propagates further community fear of ISIS. In PsyOps terms, it is a shrewd but ugly tactic. As ISIS fights to establish a Caliphate in the Middle East, it is deliberately flouting norms and conventions by partnering pursuit of territory and resources with its view that women are just another commodity in warfare.

Political Engagement on Preventing Sexual Violence

2014 has equally seen a vocalisation of political motivation to address sexual violence in conflict. In June London hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which amongst other things demanded action to stop the use of rape as a weapon of war. It built on extant international activism against violence carried out on women and girls: In December 1999, the UN General Assembly through Resolution 54/134 designated 25 November International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This year, the day initiated sixteen days of activism to highlight and impel action to end gender-based violence - whether domestic, in conflict, or in any other form.

June’s Summit saw the UK government publically state its commitment to working to prevent sexual violence in conflict, but there is no evidence of implementation of such a policy in Iraq at present. On 26 September the Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons, and set out military action as necessary to defeat ISIS. But the government’s legal position on military action made only oblique reference to R2P (Responsibility to Protect), noting air strikes were intended to ‘protect Iraq’s citizens’. Politicians’ statements on ISIS and the British response have devoted attention to terrorism and counterterrorism. Preventing sexual violence appears to have political engagement, but not action.                                                                                                                                                       

Short-Term, Long-Term

In the long term, security interests, alongside basic human rights, demand work to redress the suffering of women in conflict, and prevent its future occurrence. Failure to do so will likely perpetuate instability and inhibit peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. The military instrument is a highly visible means of tackling the traditional security threats posed by conflict in general, and ISIS in particular. But it is an opening, short-term measure. The SAS’ targeted killing of key ISIS leaders is intended to damage ISIS’s operational effectiveness, and erode their morale. It is unclear if it will induce a change in their behaviour over the employment of rape. In the short term, the government will have the military cut the head off the Hydra – what grows in its place is the long term concern. As the military campaign continues in Iraq and conventional tallies of gains and losses of territory or resources are calculated, the impact upon women and communities must be factored in to any measure of success.

This item is a precursor to a more in-depth analysis on sexual violence in conflict forthcoming in the January 2015 edition of Newsbrief.

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