Spotlight on Syria: the gendered perils of war, and a groundbreaking analysis of rape during the conflict

-- UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura keynotes --

On March 24, 2016, as the civil war in Syria entered its sixth year, the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP) at Syracuse University College of Law released a groundbreaking report—“ Looking Through the Window Darkly: A Snapshot Analysis of Rape in Syria”—about sexual crimes committed by forces on all sides of the protracted conflict. Compiled using international legal standards—and with an eye toward future justice for the victims—the white paper will be distributed to United Nations and other international legal organizations to support the creation of a transitional justice mechanism when the fighting in Syria ends.

David Crane, SAP Project Leader and Peter Levrant, SAP director, paper author

A multi-school Syracuse University whitepaper launch event held at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, in partnership with SAP, SU College of Law, and the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, included keynote remarks by United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura. The event was coordinated by the Maxwell School’s International Relations Program, in partnership with the Middle Eastern Studies Program.

Mary Lovely, chair, international relations, Maxwell School; Ken Harper, director, SI Newhouse Center for Global Engagement; and UN Under-Secretary General Zainab Bangura

These remarks were followed by an expert panel on gender crimes in war, moderated by Catherine Bertini, Professor of Practice, the Maxwell School with panelists Bangura; Lamis Abdelaaty, Assistant Professor of Political Science, the Maxwell School; and David Crane, Project Lead of the Syrian Accountability project, Professor of Practice at SU College of Law, and Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone. 

About the White Paper

The SAP report begins by noting that rape and sexual violence have been a means to terrorize and a weapon of war since ancient times. These crimes received little mention in international law until the 20th century, but today rape is a violation of several international statutes and its use imposes criminal liability on its perpetrators.

While some accounts of rape during the Syria Civil War exist, the majority of acts go unreported, partly because of social, religious, and cultural stigmas around rape, making it particularly difficult for victims to tell their stories. Underreporting therefore is a significant barrier to finding those responsible for these crimes and holding them accountable under law. 

To bring some of these incidents into the light, SAP’s snapshot carefully documents and analyzes 142 alleged incidents of rape and sexual violence. Using open sources, it describes the perpetrators, victims, and types of violence that occurred in these cases. It also applies relevant laws and treaties—the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and/or Syrian Penal Law—to highlight potential sources of liability, in anticipation of a transitional justice mechanism for Syria.

Key findings include:

  • The 142 reported incidents affected at least 483 Syrian women and girls across the country.
  • The Syrian Regime perpetrated 62% of the total incidents.
  • Shabiha, the Regime’s affiliate, was responsible for the second most rapes: 23%.
  • Rebel forces of the Free Syrian Army were one of the least responsible perpetrators at 2%.
  • The majority of rapes, 34%, occurred while the victim was detained or imprisoned.
  • Rapes during home raids and rapes resulting from abductions were also commonly reported.

The report was written by SAP Executive Director Peter Levrant, a JD candidate (2017) at SU Law. Other contributors include INSCT CAS in National Security and Counterterrorism Law alumna Callie Moncus (LAW ’15); MA/JD candidate (2017) Marlana Shaw-Brown; and Professor Lynn Levey. SAP Project Leader is David M. Crane, Professor of Practice at SU Law and Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone. 

Remarks and the release of the white paper were accompanied by Clouds Over Sidra—a virtual reality, 3D video journey out of Syria—and a multimedia presentation about the conflict, curated by SI Newhouse Center for Global Engagement. 

The entire half-day event was livestreamed by Syria Deeply, a digital platform that provides comprehensive information about the region. A podcast of professor Crane and students discussing the Syrian Accountability Project White Paper is also available.