Urgent Appeal to Stop Use of Rape and Violence Against Women as War Tactic by Ethiopian Military Forces.
by Belletch Deressa, PhD
The aim of this communique is to air utmost indignation over practice of rape as a weapon of war by Ethiopian Military Forces on innocent Oromo women and children and others as a part of ongoing ethnic conflicts in that country. Except for the people living in directly affected areas, the public is largely unaware of this heinous crime taking place due to news blackout by state-controlled media on such matters. Rape, as a military tactic, has been used with impunity on Oromo women and Oromo children and others who live in the Western and Southern regions of Oromia, both regions under direct administration of the state-of-emergency military rule for the last ~18 months. More recently, this crime against humanity has now spread to Eastern Oromia.
The intension is to inform world public at large (the United Nations, various humanitarian organizations, human rights groups, religious and civic organizations, as well as other Ethiopians) of these atrocities being committed against innocent women and children, and challenge Ethiopian leaders to refrain from practicing such inhuman criminal acts on its innocent citizens. The full public awareness of this atrocious crime will hopefully lead to forcing the banning of rape as a weapon of war in Ethiopia as well as render some sort of justice for victimized individuals.
Currently, various untold crimes of humanity are in the making in Ethiopia. According to Amnesty International May 29, 2020 report,” Ethiopian security forces committed horrendous human rights violations including rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, burning homes to the ground, burning crops in the field, killing entire family members, in response to attacks by armed groups and inter-communal violence in Amhara and Oromia”.1 There are also numerous reports from other media outlets that women, underage girls, and boys are being raped and tortured by government military forces every passing day in Oromia; the overwhelming incidence of these criminalities take place in Western and Southern Guji regions of Oromia, and spreading more recently to Eastern Oromia. In these areas, physical abuse and torture are routinely practiced in jails on women and girls. Some of our readers must have witnessed recently taken photos displaying grossly bruised bodies of rape victims on social media. Any reasonable human being who has seen these pictures cannot escape without feeling the pain, the brutalities, and tortures that these innocent victims of war have endured. Despite these graphic reports from Amnesty International, and other news media outlets, the Ethiopian government continues to deny and repudiate these crimes.
Rape is a crime wherever it occurs. It is humiliating, and offensive to individuals and victimized communities. It is an act of barbarism and cowardice designed to dominate the enemy and break the morale and control the person and the society at large. Perpetrators engross in such behavior to assault, subjugate and inflict maximum shame upon the victims. Rape does not happen in isolation by a few uncontrolled soldiers; it is a systemic abuse and assault engineered and tolerated by leaders to inflict harm to their opponents. The physical and emotional scars of rape on innocent women and children last for a lifetime. In Ethiopia where there is high expectation of girls to be virgin, rape can be a cause for divorce, and this is particularly the case with newly married couples, where virginity is expected. The impact is even worse for boys, since rape of male is considered unthinkable and traditionally taboo in the Oromo as well as other Ethiopian cultures. Whoever is raping is destroying not only the individual but also the culture and norm of a community.
Public health information attests that rape can lead to a variety of physical and psychological complications, including bodily injury, transmission of diseases, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal mortalities, and persistent gynecological problems. “Victims of rape are at very risk of psychological problems including suicide, depression, anxiety disorders, self-hatred, paranoia, shame, anger, fears, etc.”2 Government must make an end to the use of rape as a strategy of war on all innocent victims, women, children, girls, boys, and men. It is essential that such behavior by soldiers be documented and necessary action taken upon people who commit such horrendous acts. When military and political leaders do not stop this crime, they should be held fully accountable to the behavior of the soldiers under their control.
In 1993, The Declaration on The Elimination of Violence Against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The Declaration defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women. It includes threats of such acts, as coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”3 The United Nations classify gender-based violence as human rights violation, and rape as a crime against humanity. In 2008, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1820, which notes that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity”.4 The Security Council demands immediate and complete halt to acts of sexual violence against civilians in conflict zones. Rape committed by any party in internal conflicts is prohibited by Geneva Convention as it constitutes violence to life and victims. Ethiopia, as a member of the United Nations, did ratify the declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and as such has responsibility to protect its citizen women, girls and children and bring perpetrators to court.
The use of rape as a weapon of war was documented during the 2nd World War with the Nazis on Jewish women. Since then countless rape crimes have been recorded during war times on women, including by Pakistani soldiers during the war on Bangladeshi women, on Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, with Bosnia-Herzegovina women by the former Yugoslavia Serbian forces, in Peru during armed conflicts between the communist party of Peru-Shining Path and the government, by Burmese military government forces on Rohingya Muslim women, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia during civil war, the Sudan with Darfur women, and in Northern Kenya to Somali refugee women, etc.5 In countries where rape had been used as war tactic, the International Criminal Court has been persecuting offenders as war criminals. Although Ethiopia did not sign on to International Criminal Court, or on to the Rome Statute, as a member of the United Nations, she should be accountable to criminal laws established by the International Community.
History reminds us the wound of war is hard to heal, and this is even more so between ethnic groups. A case in point is atrocities committed at the two infamous wars of Anole and Chalanko more than fourteen decades ago when the Ethiopian army massacred tens of thousands of Oromos, and then from those men and women who survived the carnage, mutilated right arms and breasts, respectively. Some of those physical wounds probably healed with time for survivors, but as can be witnessed now, the memory will never be erased from the hearts and minds of present and future Oromo generations. Ethiopian authorities are best advised that adding extra pain to existing wound is not a solution if peaceful coexistence with Oromos is the goal.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a few personal thoughts: In my more than 20 years of service in international development areas for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I had the unique opportunity of dealing with state-sponsored rape and other forms of violence in war times. I interacted with numerous rape victims and other forms of violence in many countries named above as part of my official responsibility. The great majority of these rapes were perpetrated by military forces on their own women citizens with the tacit knowledge of authorities. Perhaps the most agonizing example of all of these countries is Rwanda where I visited immediately after the genocidal civil war ended. I met many rape victims witnessing first-hand on the forbidding ramifications of rape. I was able to meet with women, expectant mothers and children born out of rape. Neither the mothers, nor the children chose to find themselves in this predicament. I was also allowed to gain access to prison cells and talk with ex-solider rapists and ask pointed questions. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my lifetime and the experience has changed my global outlook.
But in many of the countries that had to endure dealing with the heinous crime of rape, I have notice there were many nationally organized entities who tried hard to assist their people, mostly by appealing to international institutions for rehabilitative economic and political assistances. Oromo people are no different. They are also trying to fight back the injustice of rape as best as they can. Inside and outside Oromia, women and men are expressing rage by staging daring public demonstrations against this crime against humanity called rape. A recognition should go to those brave women from Eastern Oromia who have recently kept on rallying despite intimidations, incarcerations, brutal beatings, and serious injuries and sometimes even death at the hands of the Ethiopian Military Force. But there must be more to be done from others on these critical issues that strikes at the very core of humanity. For instance, what happened to basic human decency and cultural norms with the Ethiopia people in general, and why the silence? Why did the President, a woman, and the Prime Minster, who has three daughters, failed to investigate, and end immediately such a crime of colossal human significance? Where are religious leaders (pastors, priests, bishops, imams), Abba Gadas and community elders when such barbaric acts take place on our mothers, sisters, and children in Oromia and elsewhere in the country? Perhaps they have to pay more attention to the words of the late Congressman John Louis, from the great state of Georgia, who once said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up.”
Urgent Recommendations for Consideration:
- Ethiopian government must stop immediately using and encouraging government soldiers from assaulting and raping women and children as a strategy of war.
- The United Nations, Amnesty International, International community, and human rights groups urge the Ethiopian government to meet its obligation to protect victims from all forms of sexual violence against women, children, and all civilians.
- The International Criminal Court should demand from the Ethiopian government reports of sexual violence and rape against women and children during civil and ethnic conflicts and impose international rule of law on Ethiopian government.
- Sexual violence, including rape, must be documented by observers, witnesses and recorded while protecting the privacy of victims. Oromo lawyers, and friends of Oromo people across the globe should aggressively pursue this crime to bring perpetrators to international court of law.
- Religious leaders (including priests, pastors, Imams), Abba Gadas, community leaders and elders should challenge perpetrators including government leaders to respect human rights of citizens and defend victims of atrocities.
1 Amnesty International Report, May 29, 2020
2 United Nations Actions on Sexual Violence in Conflict: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wartime_Sexul_violence, Retrieved September 5, 2020.
3 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. New York, United Nations, 23 February 1994(Resolution No. A/RES/48/104.
4 United Nations Actions on Sexual Violence in Conflict. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wartime_sexual_violence
5 Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity: by Thomas, Dorthey Q., and Regan E. Ralph. SAIS. Vol (1994), 82-99, The John Hopkins University Press. https: www.hrw.org/legacy/women/docs/rapeinwar.htm retrieved September 4, 2020
Belletech Deressa (Ph.D.) is a former director of international development and human right s advocate and the author of Oromtitti: The forgotten women in Ethiopian History (2004)