As the Taliban extends its grip over Afghanistan and as Islamic State and other extremists continue to press their oppressive ideologies across the world, it is increasingly important that the United States leads on protecting and extending the natural rights of women and girls.
One important element of that leadership will be preventing and prosecuting cases of sexual violence in wartime.
Rape is often a weapon of war. Researchers and historians agree that just about every major military conflict in history has brought with it a rise in instances of sexual violence. That’s not just because war leads to lawlessness, though that is certainly true. Rape isn’t just a byproduct of war; it’s a tool of war. It is a strategy.
Rape is recognized as a war crime under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute of 2002, but it is rarely prosecuted. That’s not to say all sexual violence is a war crime, but when it is perpetrated as such, it should be prosecuted as such.
And there is more to be done. Specifically, even as (and especially because) the Biden administration is leaving Afghanistan, it should take the lead on the world’s stage to protect the rights of women.
First, the president should lead rhetorically. He should find a platform that will draw public attention to rape as a weapon of war, similar to how Ronald Reagan used the Berlin Wall to ensure his speech calling for its destruction drew an international spotlight. Biden’s public remarks should show how militarized forces like Islamic State and Boko Haram use sexual violence to strategic ends. He should meet with survivors, hear their stories, and make sure the world hears their stories too.
Second, the Biden administration can press for specific regimes and even individuals to be identified as committing these crimes so they can’t continue to do so with impunity. Without pressure in the public sphere, prosecution is unlikely. The State Department should promote an awareness campaign along the lines of the 2012 effort that put a global spotlight on Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony.
This administration can also organize allies behind this cause much the way the U.S. government created an anti-proliferation initiative 20 years ago to enforce laws already in place related to sanctioned chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. If militia leaders perpetrating these crimes can’t cross international borders without risking arrest and prosecution, they will be less likely to commit these crimes and more likely to be held accountable.
What’s needed here is leadership. This is an opportunity for Biden to make good on his campaign promise of restoring American leadership on the world stage.
Finally, the administration can expand asylum laws beyond those fleeing political or religious persecution to include people fleeing rape as a weapon of war. Biden has already made a related move last month, rolling back Trump-era policies that required asylum-seekers fleeing gender-based violence to be part of persecuted social groups. A change here could add pressure to an already overloaded immigration system, but it would also address other policy goals of the United States.
Biden’s withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is likely to make women less safe there. And that is only one of many conflict zones around the world where women are exploited and subjugated for military ends. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report, 65.6 million people were forced to move because of persecution, conflict, widespread violence or human rights violations in 2016. Women in those situations are particularly vulnerable. According to a 2019 report in The Journal of Public Health, “In times of war, women and girls are more vulnerable to rape and are at greater risk for other forms of sexual violence, such as early or forced marriage, intimate partner abuse, child sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking.”
For Biden, this is a choice. He can decide to lead here. We hope he works to ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in human rights and specifically in protecting women.
The Dallas Morning News