The use of chemical weapons has rightly shocked the world. Sexual violence as a weapon of war should cause a similar outrage.

By using  poison gas in early April in Syria, a red line was crossed in the eyes of the international community. The U.S. reacted with an airstrike, the UN Security Council held an urgent meeting and the chemical attack was worldwide front page news. The response is completely justified.

Sexual Violence in Focus

Another method of warfare in Syria, however, has gotten much less attention. In addition to Sarin gas, rape and sexual torture are being used systematically and on a large scale.

There are no images of these crimes, because they often take place in the basements of government buildings and in the houses of opposition members, genuine or alleged. According to the UN, tens of thousands of people are being held in detention centres across the country, including children, since the beginning of the conflict six years ago.

In these centres, sexual violence is being used as a tool by the security authorities to obtain information or a confession. Like in other conflicts, rape is  used to break victims emotionally, to belittle them and to disrupt families.

Long-lasting Consequences

Rape with objects and gang rape, carried out in front of the victim’s family, leave deep and longstanding marks on victims, their communities and the country as a whole.

The use of sexual violence, like the use of chemical weapons, is a relatively efficient method of warfare. Both are cheap and have long lasting consequences on a country.

Despite these similarities, chemical weapons and sexual violence fall under different moral norms and are treated differently by the international community.

The virtually universally accepted Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 prohibits the production, possession and use of chemical weapons. They are morally and legally banned because they violate fundamental principles of international humanitarian law:  chemical weapons are indiscriminate and make no distinction between combatants and civilians as required by the laws of war. Moreover, chemical weapons cause unnecessary suffering.

All of this applies to sexual violence, too.  However, the response to the large-scale and systematic use of sexual violence is much less effective.

Fighting for Change

In countries such as the Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar, Burundi and Sudan, sexual violence is often used as a method of warfare. These attacks, however, seldom appear in the news, nor are they a subject of political debate.

Europe, and particularly the Netherlands, as a global leader in the field of human rights, must act firmly against sexual violence in conflict areas. Systematic rape should be as strongly condemned as the use of chemical weapons.

If European governments stand up and raise their voices,  they can start a new global moral movement. A coordinated effort, for example within the EU system, where sanctions can be imposed, will lead to a new red line against the use of sexual violence in conflict.


Esther Dingemans is the director of the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation.

Benjamin Duerr is the foundation’s legal project manager in The Hague.


This op-ed was published first in the Nederlands Dagblad on 25 April 2015. Translation: Charissa Dechène.


Image: Security Council Considers Situation in Syria.  A wide view of the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria. 

12 April 2017, United Nations, New York, Photo # 719857

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