'This is how we treat the enemy': Thousands raped in Syria's war, UN finds

Over the last seven years, Syrian government forces and allied militias have used rape as a tool to punish and humiliate their perceived enemies, a UN report has found.

UN Human Rights Council report based on 454 interviews with survivors, relatives, witnesses and doctors

UN adviser Karen AbuZayd attends the launch of their report on sexual and gender-based violence in Syria at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Listen5:47

Read Story Transcript

Over the last seven years, Syrian government forces and allied militias have used rape as a tool to punish and humiliate their perceived enemies, says United Nations special adviser Karen AbuZayd.

"Mostly it's either to punish or to embarrass," AbuZayd told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"But even just to pleasure people when they've had the women in detention or the boys in detention. It's just pretty nasty all the way around."

AbuZayd co-authored the UN Human Rights Council report released on Thursday, as Syria enters its eighth year of war. It's based on 454 interviews with survivors, relatives, witnesses, defectors, and medical staff.

Government forces raped civilians during house searches and ground operations in the early stages of the conflict, and later at checkpoints and detention facilities, the report said.

The youngest known victim was a nine-year-old girl.

"Rape of women and girls was documented in 20 government political and military intelligence branches, and rape of men and boys was documented in 15 branches," the UN war crimes investigators said.

The independent experts — who have compiled confidential lists of suspects since 2011 — did not name individual perpetrators but said they had documented "numerous" cases of rapes by high-level officers.

Not ordered, but permitted

As far as UN investigators can tell, these rapes were not "ordered" from on high, AbuZayd said, but they were "certainly allowed, especially in detention."

The report also found rebel groups in Syria's protracted civil war had also committed crimes of sexual violence and torture although these were "considerably less common."

Militant groups associated with Islamic extremism, like ISIS, used sexual violence as a punitive measure.

I think it was no question that this was intentional to humiliate them and ruin them for anything they could go back to in their societies.- Karen  AbuZayd , UN special adviser 

"When we had the terrorist groups, I think it was no question that this was intentional to humiliate them and ruin them for anything they could go back to in their societies," AbuZayd said.

"This was a way of punishing people, especially women who didn't cover their hair or didn't dress properly or just happened to talk to a man in the street or something like that."

But no matter who was committing the violence, she said the justification was the same: "This is how we treat the enemy."

Shame and rejection 

Followup with victims was difficult in the war-torn country, AbuZayd said, but those UN investigators were able to track down told devastating stories about the effects the sexual violence had on their lives.

Victims suffered shame, depression, incontinence, impotence and miscarriages, and rejection by their families.

Male victims, AbuZayd said, tended to "ostracize themselves in many ways."

"Many of them do certainly say it's an attack on their masculinity and they're very ashamed," she said.

People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa in Syria on Thursday. The country has been in a state of civil war for seven years. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

The report recommended that the UN Security Council refer the findings to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecutions.

"We've said throughout the report that the extent to which this is done in many places amounts to war crime and, in fact in some cases, to a crime against humanity," AbuZayd said.

"We hope that some people are punished for what they've done in these seven years."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Mary Newman.

Mobile users: View the document
(PDF KB)
(Text KB)
CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.