War criminals against war crimes

Dan Glazebrook
Dan Glazebrook is a freelance political writer who has written for RT, Counterpunch, Z magazine, the Morning Star, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Independent and Middle East Eye, amongst others. His first book “Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis” was published by Liberation Media in October 2013. It featured a collection of articles written from 2009 onwards examining the links between economic collapse, the rise of the BRICS, war on Libya and Syria and 'austerity'. He is currently researching a book on US-British use of sectarian death squads against independent states and movements from Northern Ireland and Central America in the 1970s and 80s to the Middle East and Africa today.
Britain's leader of the House of Commons William Hague © Stefan Wermuth
Satire died the day Tony Blair was appointed Peace Envoy to the Middle East. But William Hague’s fronting of a campaign against sexual violence is pissing on its grave.

Ibtisam was 15 when Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh) came to her village. It was 9 a.m., and the gunfire of the approaching forces was getting louder. Her family piled into their car and fled; in need of baby milk, they passed by the city of Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan to stock up. That was when they were caught. The men were executed immediately; Ibtisam and her two younger sisters were taken into captivity in the city of Tal Afar.

After several weeks they were moved to another building with around 700 other women and girls, where her younger sisters – one of them five months old – were forcibly removed from her. She and another girl were singled out by a much older man who took them home and raped them. The next morning, finding the house apparently empty, they were able to escape. They reached a road and hailed a taxi; luckily the driver was sympathetic and gave them refuge in his home, hiding and disguising them as best he could. But it soon became unsafe for them to stay there, so he took them to a friend’s house. Passing through a checkpoint, they were again caught by ISIS, and taken to a basement full of other women and girls. There they were beaten regularly, as a message to any others who might try to escape. When her friend started vomiting blood, they were taken to a hospital; but when she stopped, they were taken back to the basement and beaten again. They were again sold as sex slaves, and resold and raped repeatedly over the months that followed.

This is one of many disturbing testimonies from a report published this month by the House of Lords Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Ibtisam (not her real name; the testimonies in the report are anonymous) was a Yazidi, one of hundreds if not thousands who have lived through similar experiences. The plight of the Yazidis was briefly front-page news in autumn 2014, but the Committee’s report shows that such experiences are far from unique.

In fact, the report refers to 19 countries in which conflict-related sexual violence is particularly prevalent. That list derives from another report, prepared by the UN Secretary General for the Security Council last year. Across all 19, the report noted, “non-state actors account for the vast majority of incidents," referring in particular to “those pursuing extremist ideologies in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya and Yemen.” 

That list is significant, for violent extremism it not the only thing these countries have in common. The other is that all of them have been willfully destabilized by British government policy, creating the conditions for that extremism to flourish.

Take Yemen, for example. The depth of British involvement in the Saudi bombing campaign which began last year is on such a scale that it could be seen as a British war by proxy. Since it started, Britain has overtaken the US to become the leading supplier of weapons to the Saudis, providing all the bomber jets, missiles and bombs necessary for the campaign, which has killed at least 10,000 people, left 90 percent of the population without access to safe water and sanitation, and pushed 14 million to the brink of famine. The British military also have six “advisors” embedded with the Saudi Air Force to help with targeting, with suspicions that nearly 100 more British soldiers are also involved in some capacity.

Yazidi refugee women © Umit Bektas

The Secretary-General’s report on sexual violence was issued before the Saudi bombing started. But he noted that 148,108 people had already been internally displaced by the fighting in Yemen, with “the majority of those displaced… women and children, who faced increased vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence. A marked increase in violence against women has been observed in conflict-affected areas, with the most prevalent manifestations being rape, sexual assault and early marriage. A disturbing link exists between the presence of armed groups and an increase in early and forced marriage, resulting in the sexual abuse of some of the poorest and most vulnerable girls in society.”

The 148,000 refugees exposed to such risks has now increased to an estimated 2.5 million, as a direct consequence of the British-supplied and directed escalation. British government policy, then, has likely facilitated an approximately 16-fold expansion of sexual violence in Yemen.

But a similar story could be told for every country on the Secretary-General’s list. In Syria, the “non-state actors…pursuing extremist ideologies” that “account for the vast majority of [sexual violence] incidents” have been consistently supported by the British government, and continue to be so. Providing diplomatic support and even special forces for the insurgents since 2011, Britain has been encouraging and facilitating their expansion ever since, implicated in the delivery of 3000 tons of weapons to them in November 2012 (delivered via Croatia to evade an EU arms embargo) and successfully lobbying the EU to end the arms embargo altogether the following year.

It has been training these militias in Jordan, and is now providing them with air support: in discussions prior to airstrikes last year, David Cameron explicitly stated that his allies on the ground would not be the non-sectarian Syrian Arab Army under the control of the elected government, but rather 70,000 militia fighters, 40,000 of which have been identified by his own national security advisor Mark Lyall Grant as “radical Islamists.” As is well known, ISIS emerged precisely out of the groups Britain had been helping to destroy Syria, and even now, in the midst of a supposed “war against ISIS,” Britain still refuses to attack the group when they are fighting the Syrian government.

Equally well established is that it was precisely the foothold they gained in Syria, with Western support, that allowed ISIS to then take control of large swathes of Iraq, itself already weakened by decades of British-US bombings, sanctions and occupation. The 1,500 civilians estimated by the UN to be held in sexual slavery by ISIS in Iraq, then, like those suffering sexual violence in Yemen, largely have Britain and its allies to thank for their predicament.

Then, of course, there is Libya. Early in 2011, Britain led calls for NATO intervention in support of a violent and racist insurgency led by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, originally the Libyan franchise of Al-Qaeda. The utterly predictable outcome of NATO’s destruction was the country’s rapid slide from the most developed and prosperous in Africa to the continent’s latest failed state, with all the attendant poverty, kidnappings, gang warfare and sexual violence that entails. “Extremist activity in Libya,” said the UN report, “is a source of serious concern given regional trends regarding sexual violence committed by armed groups” – that is, the armed groups armed and brought to power by NATO.

But NATO’s actions in Libya were much more far-reaching than this. The destruction of Libyan state authority meant that, following the collapse of the government, most of the army’s arsenal fell into the hands of the region’s various militias. As a report by Al-Jazeera Center for Studies (AJCS) noted, “terrorist groups like AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] acquired heavy weapons such as SAM-7 anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, transporting them back to the Sahel region” (encompassing parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Chad, Nigeria and elsewhere). Subsequently, “courtesy of AQIM, these arms have been transferred to groups such as Ansar Dine [and] Boko Haram… emboldening and enabling them to mount more deadly and audacious attacks.”

Both the 2012 war in Mali, and the rise of Boko Haram, then, are the direct fallout of NATO’s Libya war. Of Boko Haram, the UN report wrote that “forced marriage, enslavement and the “sale” of kidnapped women and girls are central to Boko Haram’s modus operandi and ideology.” As for Mali: “In November 2014, non-governmental organizations filed 104 criminal complaints against armed groups for incidents of conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls that took place in 2012 and 2013. These incidents were filed as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and have been attributed to members of the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa,” all of them beneficiaries of the regional instability and weapons free-for-all generated by NATO’s war.

The British government, then, has played a pivotal role in not only igniting those conflicts characterized by serious sexual violence, but in directly supporting and arming the very groups perpetrating that violence. For that same government to now be claiming to be leading a global “Initiative” to “Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict” is a supremely sick joke – and that it is fronted by William Hague, the foreign minister who oversaw British support to Al-Qaeda and their allies in Libya and Syria, is an insult to the thousands of victims of that policy.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.