Tomorrow, 15 March, will mark the seventh anniversary of the conflict in Syria. Since 2011 more than 500,000 people have been killed, including 19,800 children. Approximately 11.7 million Syrians have also been displaced, and 13.1 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.
As the conflict enters its eighth year Syrians continue to endure unimaginable suffering. Syrian government forces and their allies continue to bomb civilians in opposition-held Idlib governorate, where hundreds of thousands have fled after having been displaced from other parts of the country. The military offensive on Afrin by Turkish-led forces has also resulted in the deaths of at least 230 civilians since 20 January, and the city is now under siege.
Above all else, the systematic destruction of the opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta has come to epitomize Syria’s deadly civil war. Since 18 February, over 1,100 civilians have been killed by airstrikes and shelling, and minimal humanitarian aid has been delivered to the 393,000 people who have lived under siege since 2013. At least 28 health facilities have been attacked, and thousands of civilians are still in need of emergency medical evacuation. Since the start of the year, chlorine gas has also been used as a chemical weapon against civilians in eastern Ghouta at least seven times. Despite the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2401 on 24 February demanding a ceasefire, the killing continues.
The Security Council has failed the Syrian people. Eleven vetoes have prevented meaningful action to halt atrocities, and even when the Council has been able to reach consensus, they have been incapable of enforcing compliance with their resolutions.
Last Thursday, 8 March, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that during mid-February the mass rape of civilians had taken place in the village of Kiriwiri, near the town of Bossangoa in northwestern Central African Republic (CAR). According to MSF a group of women were abducted by members of a local armed group and taken to the group’s camp, where they were raped multiple times. Two weeks after the attack several of the victims were finally able to reach a hospital.
At least 56 victims of sexual violence have been treated at the MSF facility in Bossangoa since September 2017. An increase in sexual violence is directly linked to the upsurge in fighting in the northwest, and highlights the widespread use of rape as a weapon by the numerous predatory armed groups who still control an estimated 70 percent of the country.
Systematic sexual violence by armed groups in CAR may constitute crimes against humanity. Due to stigmatization, survivors often lack access to assistance and protection, and rapes often go undocumented. Survivors who have sought justice have been subject to intimidation and death threats by armed groups. In addition to widespread sexual violence against women and girls, a pattern of rape and sexual abuse to “humiliate, emasculate and terrorize” men and boys has also been documented by the All Survivors Project. These crimes remain particularly underreported.
The government must take immediate steps to end pervasive sexual violence by carrying out credible investigations and criminal prosecutions, and setting up adequate victim protection mechanisms. The international community should assist the government in operationalizing the Special Criminal Court to investigate all perpetrators of atrocities in CAR, and help strengthen domestic justice mechanisms.
On Tuesday, 6 March, the government of Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency following a wave of anti-Muslim violence in the Kandy district. Since 4 March mobs of Buddhist extremists have carried out targeted attacks on Muslim-owned businesses, houses and mosques. At least two civilians have been killed and dozens wounded.
Tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the minority Muslim community have increased in Sri Lanka over the past several years. Muslims constitute approximately nine percent of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. On 11 March, during an official visit to the island, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, condemned the violence and urged the Sri Lankan government to bring perpetrators of violence and hate speech to justice.
The government must uphold its responsibility to protect all populations within Sri Lanka, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Almost a decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s long ethnic-based civil war, the government needs to take practical steps to curb rising hate speech, mediate inter-communal conflict, and counter violent extremism. Justice and accountability for past atrocities, including those committed during the civil war, also remains essential.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA