According to the 2018 Commission of Inquiry report to the Human Rights Council, sexual violence has been widely used by the parties to the conflict in Syria. While the full scale of these crimes is unknown due to the stigma associated with it, their societal impact is huge. Syrian NGOs working with survivors of detention have also documented extensive use of SGBV used against women and girls as well as men and boys while forcibly detained in the regime prisons.
Ambassador Thomas Wagner, Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva, opened the meeting and welcomed the panelists: “Widespread use of rape and sexual assaults against women and girls as well as men and boys in Syria are crimes that require our special attention and sensitivity,” he said, encouraging the speakers to share their expertise on these issues and discuss mechanisms to improve accountability for SGBV survivors.
Co-host, Ambassador Miriam Shearman from the UK Mission to the UN in Geneva emphasized: “Sexual and gender-based violence is a critically important issue for the United Kingdom and we are committed to ensuring that effective measures are in place to prevent and respond to SGBV in Syria.” Michelle Javis, Deputy Head of IIIM, the moderator of the event, introduced the experts to the audience and opened the discussion with the all-female panel.
The ‘Syrian Road to Justice’ campaign, a coalition of Syrian feminist NGOs, was launched to raise awareness about SGBV crimes in the conflict in Syria, demand justice for all international crimes that took place in the Syrian conflict, including SGBV crimes, and an increase in gender expertise at every step of the litigation process in order to help survivors speak up for justice.
“Our campaign is made of feminist Syrian-led organizations who work for accountability for perpetrators of international crimes, which includes SGBV”, explained Mona Zeineddine from Women Now for Development. Further she stressed: “Gender-sensitive analysis is needed when researching violations of international law. This also requires more female practitioners at all levels of investigating SGBV.”
Rand Sabagh, founder of Intersections and Content Specialist at the Syrian Female Journalists Network drew attention to the issue of stigmatization as a prevalent problem for SGBV survivors: “It is due to the patriarchal society in Syria, that SGBV survivors are being stigmatized and marginalized. This stigmatization is a form of violence, it is an obstacle towards justice. The media can help to reshape this understanding of SGBV.”
Noura Al-Jizawi, founder of the NGO Start Point, shared her experience of her work with Syrian SGBV survivors, while highlighting the need for long-term holistic support. She also put emphasis on victim-centered approaches in addressing SGBV and to ensure the protection of SGBV survivors, by providing them safe space, for example. “We need to make sure that all voices are heard. No survivor should be left behind”, underlined the Syrian activist.
In June 2020, seven survivors of the Syrian torture system filed the first criminal complaint to the German Federal Public Prosecutors demanding the prosecution of SGBV as a crime against humanity. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), one of the co-hosts of the event, drafted the complaint with support from its partner organizations. “Justice and protection of survivors of SGBV is needed to guarantee international peace according to the UN principles. Still, not enough SGBV crimes are being persecuted”, explained Lily Kather, Legal Advisor and SGBV expert at the ECCHR. According to the expert, stronger initiatives based on gender-sensitive approaches are needed by national prosecutors, investigators and experts. “A closer interdisciplinary look at survivors needs has to be included in the processes. This means also to ensure active involvement of survivors at all levels”, Ms. Kather stressed.
EU Ambassador Wagner expressed his appreciation for the fruitful discussion and valuable insights into the panelists' work with SGBV survivors, concluding: “The EU will keep the issue of conflict-related SGBV and accountability high on its agenda, and will continue – together with international partners – to work towards peace in Syria.”