Not often does good news come on International Human Rights Day — December 10. It is mostly a somber occasion, a day to reflect on the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and a day to bemoan the gap between those values and our reality.
Little of the high-minded dreams have come to life. Hunger and war, desolation and alienation define our times as sharply as they did for those pioneers who wrote that text in the years after World War II. They had the Holocaust and the atomic bomb as their context.
It is worthwhile to point out that it was the Indian delegate — Hansa Mehta — who objected to the phrase “all men are born free and equal.” She insisted that it be changed to “all human beings are born free and equal.” Hansa Mehta was thinking of women when she made that alteration. She knew that the costs of war and hunger are borne so sharply by women. So did Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic) and Begum Shaista Ikramullah (Pakistan), both of whom made key interventions into that declaration.
This year, two important events took place on December 10. First, the nations of the world signed on to a Global Compact for Migration. Second, the Nobel Peace Prize went to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, both campaigners against sexual violence as a weapon of war. These are two events that drive forward the good side of history.
In Marrakesh, Morocco, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres hosted an important meeting on migration. The upshot of this meeting was a non-binding Global Compact for Migration that provides the basis for international cooperation on migration and that makes the case for migrants to be treated with dignity.
The United Nations’ Special Representative for International Migration — Louise Arbour — greeted the Compact’s passage as a “wonderful occasion, really a historic moment.” Discussion over the Compact had been ongoing for the past 18 months, placed on the table by the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and by the terrible reaction by Europe and the United States to the migrants.
There has been so little recognition that most migrants flee from war and economic collapse — conditions created by policies made by the governments of Europe and North America. The people who make the long journey across the Sahara Desert or along the length of Central America are survivors of trade policies and extractive industries that destroy their livelihoods and lives. A true global compact would abandon those policies. But we are far from that.
Louise Arbour noted that nothing really would come of this Compact unless the countries implemented its initiatives. It is not likely that countries such as the United States will honor the Compact. Nonetheless, here is another piece of paper with multilateral agreement that one can wave under the nose of Trump and the other xenophobes. It is a red rag to the bull.
Sexual violence in war
The horror of war is unimaginable. Those who have been to a battlefield know its terrors: the sounds, the smells, the casualness of the killing, the hunger, the uncertainty, the peril. In the shadows lurk terrors even graver, the “invisible war crime”—Binaifer Nowrojee said at Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is the crime of wartime sexual violence.
No doubt that this violence is old. But it is shocking nonetheless. Professor Claudia Card, in an articlefrom 1996 on “Rape as a Weapon of War,” suggests that mass murder has many methods. One way is to kill people — by gunshot or by gas or by atomic bomb. Another, she says, “is to destroy a group’s identity by decimating cultural and social bonds.” Martial rape, she says, does both. It kills people and it kills the bonds of a community.
It was shocking to hear what ISIS did to the Yazidi community — the capture of women who were then forced to be sex slaves, the rape of thousands. It is what catapulted Nadia Murad to the headlines, her bravery moving her from being a survivor of horrific violence to being a brave spokesperson for justice and against war. She accepted her Nobel Prize on Monday and said, “thank you very much for this honor, but the fact remains that the only prize in the world that can restore dignity is justice and the prosecution of criminals.”
What the Yazidis experienced is not uncommon elsewhere. Reading the Truth and Reconciliation documents from Sierra Leone or the reports from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan is chilling. It is difficult to forget men like Mosquito, who raped a 19-year-old woman in Telu Bongor, Sierra Leone and then — according to the young woman — “ordered his men to continue the act.” “Even now,” she says, “the pain is with me.”
Denis Mukwege is from east Congo. He is a gynecologist who has watched his society be torn apart. War has been its condition for decades, war premised on the theft of raw materials that feed a world hungry for its digital goods (the mineral coltan is essential to capacitors). Mukwege’s Nobel Prize speech rattles. “Turning a blind eye to tragedy is being complicit,” he said. “It’s not just perpetrators of violence who are responsible for their crimes. It is also those who choose to look the other way.”
It is easy to be fascinated by the brutality of Mosquito, but what about the brutality of the system that produces Mosquito and the women he devastated? It is the victim, Mukwege said, who is valued less than the commercial goods that slip out of the Congo and are shipped from the ports of Mombasa, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to factories far afield. It is worth pointing out that the worker who mines for coltan or tantalum makes less than US$1 per day, while a kilo of tantalum is likely to fetch somewhere around US$200. Violence to control these mines is the author of rape.
The Global Compact for Migration is not so far from the question of sexual violence in war. I remember the attacks on Somali refugees in the camps in Kenya in 1993. The logic of the rapists was appalling — to punish the Somalis, to enjoy the spoils of war. What was there for the Somali women in the isolated camps in Kenya is now there for the Rohingya women as they flee rape by Myanmar’s military and as they struggle with the stigma of birthing children from the sexual violence. The echoes are loud and horrifying, reminders of the Pakistani soldiers raping women in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as a weapon to break the confidence of the liberation struggle. There is an echo of the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and her family by U.S. soldiers in Yusufiyah, Iraq. There are loud echoes, loud screams for justice.
There is the echo from the Indian state of Manipur, where the soldiers of the Assam Rifles raped and killed Thangjam Manorama — one more victim in a line of victims (the story is told movingly by Anubha Bhonsle in "Mother, Where’s My Country?"). She was raped multiple times, the autopsy showed, and she was shot 16 times in her vagina. One day, fed up with the violence, 12 Manipuri women went out on the street, removed their clothes in front of Imphal’s Kangla Fort, where the army was headquartered, and shouted, “Indian Army, rape us, kill us.” One of the women — Soibom Momon Leima — later said, “They had their weapons. We only had our body.”
The 12 women of Manipur said that they had let out their “war cry.” Denis Mukwege said from the Nobel pulpit, “If there is a war to be waged, it is the war against the indifference which is eating away at our societies.” There is terrible indifference, silence.