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Monday, June 13, 2011

Defending Rape Charges: Hysterical Grandstanding

June 13/14 2011

Ooh, a Small but Noisy Controversy!
The claim of mass rape by the besieged regime of Muammar Gaddafi is regularly made to and passed on by the Western media, and generally met with widespread credulity. From rebel-affiliated doctors, supposed neutral experts, and anonymous comments via Twitter and Youtube, we've heard of mass rape, abuse, and humiliation  of women, children, and men in the thousands perhaps by now.

We only hear a few direct accounts, and are told nearly all the victims are silent due to the stringent social taboo against discussing rape or accepting "dishonored" survivors. The Islamic prohibition against lying is another, less acknowledged, potential factor in the dearth of reports.

The body of accusations from this handful includes the famed banshee of the Rixos, Iman al-Obeidi, and her globetrotting theatrics. It includes the ridiculous Viagra claims pushed by Susan Rice to dropped jaws at the UN Security Council. Even the Leader's son Saadi Gaddafi is on the record ordering the rape of male prisoners by African mercenaries, and his top official Abdullah Senoussi is accused of personally sodomizing an old man with a stick in an underground dungeon. These are to some extent collected at this post, which has been getting a lot of views lately.

This renewed interest was triggered by a new twist - on June 9, the International Criminal Court's top prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, added to the ICC's accepted evidence against Col. Gaddafi orders for mass rape. This, he said, was based on "some information" that had them "more convinced" than before of sexual warfare, a "new aspect of the repression" not included in his original set of highly politicized charges. By politicized, I mean they're so technically vague they can only point lazily to the very top shelf - the Leader Muammar Gaddafi, his son and likely successor Saif al-Islam, and Mr. Senoussi. The last was nabbed for a more direct "participation ... in the attacks against demonstrators." Was it below ground level, Mr. M-O?

Immediately after this announcement, a verbal conflict broke out among the Human Rights experts at the United Nations. On one side is M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born UN human rights investigator. He just finished heading up the first-ever official fact-finding mission to Libya and as he announced their findings of regime war crimes, he also managed to cast doubt on Moreno-Ocampo's latest decision (see below for details).

Semantics-Based Quibbles Over "Hysteria"
On the other side are at least two scholarly women, both focused largely on Bassiouni's use of the word "hysteria" to describe the exaggerated and largely baseless claims of mass rape, as alleged against both sides in the conflict. As the Canadian paper National Post reported:
“It is unfortunate that UN investigators of Libyan human rights violations have chosen words which downplay rape allegations and suggest that the main problem was the use of such claims to spread the fear of atrocities, rather than the commission of the atrocities themselves,” Anne Bayefsky, a Canadian political science professor who heads the New York-based monitoring group Eye on the UN, told Postmedia News.

“Investigator Bassiouni’s use of the word ‘hysteria’ in this context is especially insensitive in light of the oft-repeated use of such vocabulary to diminish the credibility of rape victims.”
This is fair enough as a semantical exercise, but it doesn't work any further. Hysteria - in general usage - is one mindset that clouds judgment of what's true. The context of Bassiouni's statements (see below) makes clear that he means not personal hysteria of the pseudo-medical type, but social hysteria of the mass type. That may or may not be a good description of what's going on, but it's clearly something that's not likely to be straight truth.

The first bolded part presumes the atrocities really were carried out, which is the opposite of what Bassiouni implied. In fact, Bayefsky's argument is almost as perverse and criticizing critics of the Salem witch trials for using the term "witch-hunt." Just because the town went mad in its pursuit of witches doesn't excuse the evil done by the witches.

In short, the use of this singular word is nothing to get hysterical over.

Squeezing the Controversy
The other opposing view presented by the National Post is clearly more of a professional - Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict
Wallstrom defended Moreno-Ocampo’s claims, saying there were “consistent reports from people, from organizations, from UN entities and others on the ground.

“It is difficult to give a figure, but this is part of the arsenal of the Gadhafi troops,” she said.
Wallstrom, a former Swedish minister, told reporters that armed groups continue to use rape as a weapon of war because it is “cheaper, more destructive and easier to get away with than other methods of warfare.”
On Bassiouni’s use of the word hysteria, she said officials should “avoid such language.”

“This has been called history’s greatest silence,” she said of the crime of rape. “For too long, it was not considered proper to mention rape and sexual violence.”
Oh, enough with the dramatics! To the extent silence about sexual violence is the problem, loudly proclaiming false rape charges and having the "world community" bully it into legal realty is not the right antidote.

"Consistent" reports, as far as I can see, means they all share the traits of screaming rape, and pointing the weapon at the demonized government. To the extent I've been able to verify, each report or support does so based on murky evidence and unclear methodology. Is a pile of that collectively more or less reliable than its individual parts?

The bolded phrase, “cheaper, more destructive and easier to get away with," is the kind of talk that eggs on those who would try to stop the alleged crime, and who already were doing it, by targeting the regime for destruction. Every new claim only helps justify the course already chosen from day one for other reasons entirely. 

In summary of Wallstrom's comments, it's hard to imagine that someone trying to be honest and level could squeeze that much political poison out of this disagreement. It is a simple clash between her perception of reports and Mr. Bassiouni's findings from going there. And to publicize the difference and grand-stand like this, she had to first commence, as the National Post put it, "squabbling in a way that critics say is causing an unnecessary distraction as the war in the country rages on."

Why He Didn't Quite Buy it
The critical reader who still sides against the alleged down-player might wonder here "who is this Cherif Bassiouni? Some out-of-touch Gaddafi supporter at the UN, as well as a horrible sexist pig?"I can only offer his Wikipedia page, which I haven't even read. He just headed the first ever official fact-finding mission to Libya for one thing, to actually investigate the rumors that have already sort-of justified about 3,000 NATO strike sorties.

He doesn't come across as pro-Gaddafi. The investigator seems to be gripped by the same general assumptions as most about how the conflict unfolded. As Voice of America noted on June 9, the same day he spoke of mass hysteria:
The chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Cherif Bassiouni, does not mince his words as he presents the conclusions of the fact-finding mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“There have been many serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by government forces and their supporters amounting to war crimes. They include attacks on civilians and civilian objects and targets, attacks on humanitarian-related personnel, attacks on medical units and transports using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions,” Bassiouni said.
It's not clear if these attacks on civilians are of the warfare type where one side is called civilian, or the more crucial (alleged) slaughter of non-violent demonstrators in the first few days. Crimes happen during wars, and the rebels started it. Any other country would have stomped twice as hard as Tripoli did in response to the early rebel outrages.

But the investigators seems to feel differently, and I'll nod to their superior knowledge - for once that seems justified. But it's only on the one issue of mass-rape where the chairman seems to be very at odds with the general lynch mob mindset descending on Gaddafi from all sides. Below is much of an article from the Herald-Sun (Australia), conveying his actual statements on that, including hints of just what the ICC's "new" evidence for mass rape really is:
But Cherif Bassiouni, who is leading a UN rights inquiry into the situation in Libya, suggested that the claim was part of a "massive hysteria".

Mr Bassiouni told journalists that he had heard those claims when he visited rebel-held eastern Libya. But when he went to Tripoli, "the same story comes up."

"This time it's the government people telling us, 'you know what? The opponents have a policy of rape, we have discovered that they are giving out contraceptives and Viagra pills'," he recounted.

"So I told them, 'this is exactly what the other side told us'," he added. "What it is, at least my interpretation of it is, when the information spread out, the society felt so vulnerable... it has created a massive hysteria," said Mr Bassiouni.

The investigator also cited the case of a woman who claimed to have sent out 70,000 questionnaires and received 60,000 responses, of which 259 reported sexual abuse.

However, when the investigators asked for these questionnaires, they never received them.

"But she's going around the world telling everybody about it ... so now she got that information to Ocampo and Ocampo is convinced that here we have a potential 259 women who have responded to the fact that they have been sexually abused," Mr Bassiouni said.

He also pointed out that it did not appear to be credible that the woman was able to send out 70,000 questionnaires in March when the postal service was not functioning.

The circumstances of these 259 alleged reports do sound fishy, especially considering the explosive nature of rape charges and their history of being marred by a very steep convenience-to-plausibility ratio. It's possible rebel networks augmented delivery in lieu of the post office, but to get 60,000 responses back, roughly 1% of Libya's total population, and expect them to be honest, would be a bit much. How many were done in the same hand and ink? Were there really zero mailed-in claims of rape by rebel forces, as the reportage implies? A ratio of 259:0 just doesn't seem plausible to me, if the sampling was at all representative.

There are many variables we don't know, but this is reportedly what convinced Mr. Moreno-Ocampo to modify the charges. And those are against the men at the very top, suggesting further evidence - or imaginings - tying these 259+ possible rapes to orders from on high.

Mr. Bassiouni said he'd be looking into the questionnaires claim further, despite his doubts, and for once I get a slight sense of sanity and a hope that he'll look fairly. He also added:
For the moment, the team has only heard of three cases [of rape by government forces]. "We've not investigated these cases, we hope to be able to investigate them. These would be in the midst of a military operation, a field operation. These would clearly be a war crime."
So he doesn't completely dismiss that rape in a military context might well have happened in at least three cases (besides that of Iman al-Obeidi). But its origin from on high cannot honestly be drawn from these few cases or even from 500, beyond general responsibility. Some "hysteria" to demonize the other side seems to be behind the massive narrative laid out for us, added to by each publicized and believed claim.

As is clear, the 259-victims-by-questionnaire claim adds little to the credibility of this complex of often cartoonish allegations. The ICC and Moreno-Ocampo just don't seem to find that important.

1 comment:

  1. Tripoli, 28 September 2012 :

    An Australian aid worker living in Libya has been arrested by the Libyan authorities following an alleged sexual offence said to involve Deputy Health Minister Almahdi Alamen.

    Alexandra Bean, who works for the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, was stopped by officials at the boarding gate at Tripoli airport on Wednesday on her way to a conference in Rome.

    Libyan officials have accused Alamen of raping the Australian, although Bean denies the incident ever happened.

    This morning, nobody from the Government was available for comment regarding the allegations and what action is now being taken to verify their authenticity.

    During the interrogation on Wednesday, which lasted for four hours, Bean was reportedly asked to sign a document in Arabic, which it is said she refused to do as she did not understand it.

    Her passport was then confiscated and she has been held in custody since.

    She worked in Misrata at the height of last year’s revolution and has remained since that time.



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