The Republic of Guinea, a small West African country mired in extreme poverty and turmoil, is transitioning to democracy for the first time since its independence from France more than five decades ago. This month, the military junta appointed the opposition leader Jean-Marie Doré, the most vocal critic of the regime, as the country’s new prime minister, tasked mainly with leading an interim government and preparing the ground for democratic elections. No member of the military will be allowed to run.
This surprising turn of events was not brought about by external military intervention or internal revolution. It began with the September 28th crackdown by Guinean security forces in response to a pro-democracy rally that sparked universal outrage. What raised the profile of a news story that would otherwise have had a short shelf life were the dozens of reports of rape of women in broad daylight, caught on cell phone cameras. Like Bosnia’s grim detention camps or Sierra Leone’s amputations, public rape became an icon of atrocity that forced the hand of decision-makers. It pricked the collective conscience more than the beatings or the executions. In a striking reversal of history, in which rape has been silenced, sidelined and ranked lowest on a constructed hierarchy of armed horrors, this made headlines. It was different, shocking, impossible to ignore.
Brutal repression of dissidence is not new to Guinea. Comparable violence erupted just three years ago, when many died as the security forces violently repressed nationwide strikes and protests. A domestic investigation was set up but was never intended to take off. The protests of human rights organizations quickly fizzled away. This time, however, the audacity of unleashing the security forces to rape women in plain view at a public stadium and its surroundings sounded all the alarms.
The tactical use of sexual violence has become increasingly visible in recent years. Its elevation to a place on the peace and security agenda of the United Nations Security Council has cast an unprecedented spotlight on the issue. But the rape-as-weapon epidemic is not limited to war. In March of last year, an attack on the headquarters of Sierra Leone’s opposition party was allegedly accompanied by the gang-rape of most of the female staffers. There is often political method to what has long been dismissed as opportunistic madness. Like other cheap ways of terrorizing entire populations, such as suicide bombing, the military and political use of rape can also cross borders and be emulated. A well-known example is the Interahamwe, with whom armed rape crossed the border from Rwanda to DRC. In a range of conflicts and upheavals, the extensive legal and policy injunctions against sexual violence are ignored and sexual predation proliferates.
As if dramatizing this divide between policy and impact, last September saw the unanimous adoption of a resolution condemning sexual violence in the Security Council, while Guineans outside the UN complex protested widespread rape and political violence. Yet the international community responded decisively to the events of September 28th with a combination of official condemnation, travel bans, asset freezes, diplomatic efforts, and calls for accountability. This suggests the gap is narrowing between triumph in the Council Chamber and what reaches the world – and the women – beyond. The United Nations’ most significant action was the swift deployment of a Commission of Inquiry, a human rights investigation that often results in the drafting of a report that gathers dust somewhere - its findings disputed and debated but rarely acted upon. This Commission of Inquiry, however, explicitly named the head of state, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, as well as several of his associates, as potentially liable for crimes against humanity perpetrated against Guinean civilians, and established that at least 109 women had been subjected to rape and other sexual violence of unthinkable cruelty and viciousness.
The leader of the military junta, isolated and pressured by Guinea’s neighbors in the region as much as Western countries, decided to scapegoat his security forces and blame his aide-de-camp for the violence, against all evidence and plausibility. This backfired, quite literally, prompting his flight from the country to seek medical treatment in Morocco for a bullet wound inflicted by his subordinates. With the hardliners in the army split among themselves, the balance of power shifted in favor of the opposition and the strong national desire for democracy. The mediation process, brokered by Burkina Faso’s President Compaoré, yielded an uncommonly favorable outcome, and the members of the military that seek the normalization of Guinea’s relationship with development partners appear ready to facilitate the transition.
These tentative steps towards civilian rule and democratic elections can easily be disrupted, and Guinea’s transition will have to be managed carefully. But for those who fight for sexual violence to be taken seriously as a matter of collective peace and security, the international response to Guinea suggests progress. More importantly, for those who would wield rape as an instrument of war and terror, an ostensibly cheap and easy tactic of choice, it suggests heightened stakes and potential for political backfire.
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