WPS 2018: Modern slavery and WPS

This article is the eighth in a series on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ that The Strategist will publish over coming weeks in recognition of International Women’s Day 2018. Eds.

The Da’esh terror group’s genocide of the Yazidi people in Iraq was recognised in a House of Representatives motion in late February. The motion condemned the extermination campaign, including the use of sexual violence, and called for those responsible to be made accountable.

This was the last of three motions calling for the investigation and prosecution of individuals who perpetrated sexual violence for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide while fighting with the terror group, also known as Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq.

It is hoped that parliamentarians consider and link these motions to the ongoing work on a modern slavery act, which the Australian government has already committed to pass this year. That follows the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee’s inquiry into modern slavery legislation last year.

The need to protect people from sexual violence in armed conflict, and to end the impunity of those responsible, is the driving force behind more than half of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). But, in 2016, the Security Council also passed Resolution 2331 on human trafficking in areas affected by armed conflict.

The resolution called on all member states to investigate and prosecute those responsible, recognising that such crimes ‘can be part of the strategic objectives and ideology of, and used as a tactic by, certain terrorist groups’. The Security Council went on to note that trafficking contributes to the ‘funding and sustainment’ of organisations like Da’esh, but also Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

While media reporting has highlighted how Da’esh used the promise of sex slaves as a recruitment incentive, what is less known is the financial value of the sex slave market to ongoing military operations. Da’esh published a price list of ‘spoils of war’, including Yazidi women and children as sex slaves, sold in dedicated markets. It has also been reported that Yazidi virgins had been auctioned via social media networks for over $12,000 each.

It is estimated that nearly 200 Australians travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with Da’esh, and many of those foreign fighters are believed to have been involved in sexual violence as part of the genocide of the Yazidis. Journalists recorded testimony of Yazidi women who identified an Australian man who bought them at a slave market in Raqqa, held them in captivity, and both physically and sexually abused them.

While no attempt was made to charge the individual identified by those victims, Khaled Sharrouf, he has since been reportedly killed in a drone strike. Australia’s Attorney-General and foreign minister have stated that Australians allegedly responsible for sexual violence while fighting with Da’esh will be investigated and prosecuted.

Despite the challenges, the Commonwealth Directorate of Public Prosecutions is mandated to, and does, pursue prosecutions for the crimes of slavery and sexual servitude. These crimes and human trafficking are criminalised under Divisions 270 and 271 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. Slavery and sexual servitude can also be war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Australia has recently updated its war crimes legislation to ensure that it covers members of organisations like Da’esh, but the last time an Australian court heard a war crimes case was 1951. Slavery legislation may be a more effective way to bring justice to the survivors of these crimes. Both the war crimes and the slavery legislation have universal jurisdiction, so the location of the crime and the nationality of the victim are no legal barrier to prosecution.

Thousands of Yazidis were sold into sexual slavery by Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of Yazidis have now been resettled in Australia as part of the government’s humanitarian program. Many of them want to tell their stories and are seeking justice for the crimes perpetrated against them.

One such survivor was 15 years old when she was captured by Da’esh while she was fleeing to Mount Sinjar. Nihad’s sister was sold to a Da’esh fighter:

She was then raped and beaten repeatedly. When the fighter died in combat, she was sold to a man she referred to as a monster, who kept her and other Yazidi girls as slaves. Nihad was further raped and beaten and then fell pregnant. Nihad gave birth to her son in July 2015. When she managed to escape, she was unable to take her young baby with her and the baby was forced to remain with the father, a member of ISIL. She’s never seen the baby again.

UNSCR 2331 states ‘that trafficking in persons undermines the rule of law and contributes to other forms of transnational organized crime, which can exacerbate conflict and foster insecurity and instability and undermine development’. It also encourages member states to align their planning frameworks on WPS with those on human trafficking and modern slavery to ensure they’re mutually reinforcing.

Australia is now in the process of developing both a modern slavery act and a new national action plan on WPS. The final report of the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee’s inquiry into establishing a modern slavery act, Hidden in plain sight, calls on the government to appoint an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, whose role would complement that of the Ambassador for People Smuggling and Human Trafficking. Perhaps this new commissioner could also play a role in connecting the issues surrounding modern slavery to the WPS agenda.

Now is the time to align those two bodies of work and to prosecute those responsible for sexual violence.