Skip to main content

Where is 'red line' on rape in war?

By Lauren Wolfe, Special to CNN
updated 10:33 AM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lauren Wolfe: Obama says world set "red line" on chemical weapons that can't be crossed
  • She asks: Why does world have no such red line on abhorrent weapon of mass rape?
  • She says in Syria and Congo, rape is "normalized," doesn't draw threat of intervention
  • Wolfe: U.S. should rethink ties to Rwanda, which backs Congo militia known for atrocities

Editor's note: Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. She is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and blogs at laurenmwolfe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Wolfe321.

(CNN) -- I remember a chalk line drawn on blacktop by a group of kids at recess when I was young. The message was clear: This is the line you do not cross. If you stepped over it, you would face the wrath of those kids in whatever game we were playing. Now turn that line crimson and color it toxic. This is the adult version of "do not cross."

This is the infamous red line.

We first heard about it in terms of Syria a year ago. President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would cross a "red line" that would have "enormous consequences." As chemical weapons were deployed in Syria in August, Obama's tripwire was triggered. Then Obama told reporters: "First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

Lauren Wolfe
Lauren Wolfe

When Obama says "the world" did it, he was indicating that much of the world long ago decided chemical weapons were an abhorrent thing to unleash in war. More than 160 countries signed a treaty attesting to this view.

But why has "the world set" this one line in the blacktop, and not others? The United States and its allies ignore the violation of treaties all the time. They ignore the use of other terrible weapons in global conflicts daily. As someone who grew up wondering why we intervened in Bosnia but not Rwanda, as someone who directs a project on rape in war, I want to know: How do we decide what suffering matters enough to get a red line?

At the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege project, we've been keeping a live crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria. I've personally reported multiple stories of rape in which women were hung by their wrists or burned. We've also documented how hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in 16 years of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yet Congress is not debating whether to intervene in Congo. It is not struggling over what to do about the rape and torture of women and men in Syria or anywhere else. Why? Here's one gut-wrenching answer:

"People divide their understanding of militarized violence into normal and not normal, acceptable and not acceptable," says Yifat Susskind, executive director of women's human rights organization MADRE.

Susskind argues that violence against women has been "normalized," especially in Africa.

Rape as a tool of war in Syria
Syrian refugees at risk for rape

"World leaders, like representatives in Congress, have turned a blind eye to the violence in DRC for a simple reason: It does not disturb their preconceived notions about where violence is normal," she says.

If this statement makes my heart hurt, I'm not sure I can imagine what it means to the people of Congo.

I spoke to Eve Ensler, the founder of V-Day. She conceived of the City of Joy, which empowers survivors of sexualized violence, and built it with the women of Congo. Just returned from there, Ensler says she witnessed a kind of dismay about the recent U.S. response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

"Although the Congolese I spoke to felt great empathy for the Syrians, they felt confused by the U.S.'s immediate and overwhelming reaction when -- after 16 years and 8 million people dead -- they have been waiting and demanding that the U.S. stop supporting Rwanda," she says.

Ensler and others have long argued that the United States reconsider its relationship with Rwanda, which they say supports the rebel militia M23, one of the main perpetrators of atrocities in Congo. They are pushing for the opposite of military intervention -- they want a political intervention based on human rights violations.

"For how many years have we been banging on the doors of the White House, saying thousands and thousands of women have been raped?" she asks.

Unlike the obvious effects of chemical weapons use, the fallout of rape is often invisible: It doesn't always leave marks, and it is so heavily stigmatized we don't see how it psychologically, and physically, tears women apart.

With chemical weapons, gases seep in an indiscriminate cloud and infect whoever is in their path. They've been called "weapons of mass destruction in slow motion," says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Lewis argues that "the goal is to have a world in which people don't settle for disputes with violence," but he recognizes that "we're a way off" from such a day.

"We still need to prevent a world that uses the very worst weapons," he says.

But "worst" is subjective.

"There's a hierarchy of sensation around weaponry," Ensler says. "But in my mind chemical weapons and mass rape are both weapons of mass destruction."

You could argue that the United States gets involved in wars based on careful geopolitics. You could argue, as many do, that the United States intervened in Bosnia because there was a politically viable solution on the table. You could say we stayed out of Rwanda because it was "messy." It's a nasty kind of calculus, this business of deciding the red line of intervention, of what kind of pain matters most. Ultimately, however, it may not be as complicated as it first appears.

"Do the people at risk matter to the people in power?" Susskind asks. "Does intervention serve the political aims of the powerful? In that calculation, human rights fall far behind."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lauren Wolfe.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT