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Applying Blockchain Technology for Social Impact

By Amanda Graham, an M.A. student in human rights

Equality, transparency, accountability, personal security, inclusivity and individual autonomy: blockchain represents many core ideals of international human rights work.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is an updated way of documenting and verifying interactions on a digital platform. Up until now, we have given power of mediation to banks and other third parties to validate transactions. Blockchain is a digital distributed platform that validates transactions through algorithms. No third parties needed. Originally, blockchain was used to track digital currencies such as Bitcoin.  It has evolved into a system of trust through collaboration, its power slowly being leveraged beyond monetary transactions.

Guest speaker Brian Behlendorf // Andrew Rizzardi

The potential for disruption or transformation of industries has been the subject of recent conversations.  The Institute for the Study of Human Rights recently hosted Brian Behlendorf for a talk on Applying Blockchain Technology for Social Impact, kicking off a technology and human rights speaker series. Behlendorf is the executive director of the Hyperledger Project (among his many current roles) and spoke about the applications and inherent limitations of blockchain in current social impact projects.

The power of the relatively nascent technology, which can record the transactions of anything of value, has been leveraged beyond money. While the positive utilities of blockchain are clear, the potential to misuse or undervalue the technology also lies in the balance of its governance.

The blockchain platform can range from public to private ledgers with mixtures of technology and human governance. For this, Behlendorf explained the governance model of the Linux Foundation. Its ecosystem comprises a wide range of developers, providing a place for collaboration for other companies to build off of its technology. The Hyperledger Project has replicated this model into a “sort of standards body” that produces running code. To empower collaboration, the Apache Foundation–of which Behlendorf is a founding member–recognized that a common language, or code, makes correspondence between organizations a more accessible reality. Thus, the Linux Foundation has adapted toward an industry for alignment through common solutions. The visions of these organizations create a valuable, dynamic viewpoint in human rights.

Guest speaker Brian Behlendorf // Andrew Rizzardi

When looking at certain types of problems in the world, a mix of technology and human governance brings critical value to private blockchain networks in order to ensure multiple layers of protection for the privacy of individuals. Behlendorf explained healthcare as an example when sharing private records: When dealing with sensitive data that requires consent to be shared, having the privacy of individuals bound by technology and human governance provides an extra layer of security.

With this in mind, Behlendorf shared a few current social impact applications of blockchain that peak his interest:

Land titles: Factom started as a cryptocurrency company and saw the power of the ledger intrinsic to cryptocurrency. It began collecting land titles in Honduras on a blockchain database. In previous centralized databases, corrupt bureaucrats could change ownership with ease. With the new record system and no one at the center who can “change history,” loans can no longer be taken away with such ease and individuals “do not have to surrender to a single trusted third party.” As a result, the use of blockchain technology for recording land titles brings a conflux of interest between the financial industry, which looks to make loans, and human rights activists, advocating to maintain people’s rights to their land while protecting their dignity and sovereignty.

Diamond industry: Understanding the provenance of conflict diamonds has been the key function of the Kimberley Process. Blockchain technology allows for decentralized auditing procedures, where data retrieval is done on a platform visible to all parties in the diamond supply chain, rather than inconsistent and often inconclusive paper trails. This asset-tracking registry holds vast potential for whistleblowers and country-level or industry-level regulators. It also allows retail buyers to have confidence that their diamond is independently verified and not from a conflict region. As Behlendorf wisely shared, “You’re only as good as the data you collect on the ground.”

Fishing industry: The fishing industry is notorious for forced labor and illegal catches. GPS sensors on verified boats combined with data standards to pull information into a publicly distributed ledger creates a new system for accountability. This holds economic and safety benefits, allowing “wild caught” labels to be a trusted authentication for sustainability. Furthermore, this system provides a way to address and eliminate human trafficking from the industry when appropriate documentation does not accompany the product.

Human rights activism: In an environment of ‘fake news,’ The Guardian Project, a mobile phone security company, has created a system of collecting data during protests where one can record video and audio, or take a picture, which is verified by confirming that it was taken at a specific location and has not been modified.

Bringing a human rights focus to blockchain, the technology provides a unique system of metrics for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. With a system of accounting that does not depend on a single government, NGO, or group like the United Nations, blockchain brings forth measurements that are not defined by any one entity. Behlendorf shared his interest in seeing these different entities as nodes on blockchain transactions. “If you put it in the same chain, then you make it a part of the economic cycle,” he said.

With such incredible applications at the forefront, it is imperative to maintain a trustworthy process on inbound data. This is where a sustainable system of governance comes in. Blockchain technology is a tool that supports interactions already taking place. By linking the power of humans and technology on a decentralized network, trusted information has the potential to change the world.

Amanda Graham is an M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the nexus of blockchain technology and the protection of human rights in supply chains.

Careers in Human Rights: Insights From the Field

By Bárbara Matias, an M.A. student in human rights

Amid a tense political climate and growing importance of the human rights field, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights annual Career Panel came at a particularly conducive time. On February 21st, an ensemble of undergraduate, graduate and prospective students gathered to discuss topics ranging from the professional opportunities available to human rights students to the skills, credentials, and experiences most valued by organizations.

As acknowledged by faculty and students alike, human rights does not always present an obvious career path, which was why hearing from experts in diverse fields within this realm proved opportune. This year’s panel welcomed four experts working at intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and not-for-profit organizations: Mia Briones, a leadership gifts officer at the International Rescue Committee (IRC); Bethany Brown, a researcher at the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch; Emilie Filmer-Wilson, a Global Human Rights adviser at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); and Nahal Zamani, an advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

The panelists opened the discussion by describing their academic backgrounds and professional paths. Mia Briones’ role with the IRC’s major donors, for example, requires her to be completely up to date with international affairs, as was noted by Nahal Zamani from the Center for Constitutional Rights. Being knowledgeable about a wide range of issues around the world and able to provide commentary is crucial to her work. With information and international events moving as fast as they do, it is fundamental for professionals to engage with many actors —governmental, non-governmental, national and international, as well as civil society— to get a full grasp of the current footing of your field.

Panelists Bethany Brown and Emilie Filmer-Wilson // Andrew Rizzardi

With this in mind, every student or job applicant is expected to be alert to how their research or a particular organization is presented in the media. Following social media or official news outlets to better understand public opinions about the field or organization was highlighted throughout the panel.

Oftentimes, in human rights advocacy and funding, it may be difficult to motivate or spark interest in a listener or reader— therein a full understanding and motivation in your work is indispensable to engage others. On this note, Bethany Brown added that networking should never be overlooked or overrated; she herself reaches out to other departments at Human Rights Watch to make sure she is fully abreast on certain topics.

For many within the human rights field, working for the United Nations is a career goal. Emilie Filmer-Wilson, having worked at the development pillar of the UN for the last 11 years, offered some insight into the work environment and hiring competitiveness of the organization. While it is a state-centric organization, she reminded attendees that ‘’there is nothing like the UN in bringing stakeholders together.” The diverse backgrounds of UN employees make for an inspiring work environment for anyone with a passion for our global village. Moreover, it enables work-related international travel and missions, which are often of major interest to students.

Another type of work environment students might find interesting is not-for-profits. Working at the CCR, Nahal Zamani finds it particularly fulfilling to be able to transfer the skills she acquired from a life of political activism to a professional setting.

Panelist Mia Briones // Andrew Rizzardi

Against a growing competitive backdrop within human rights and international affairs, the panelists shared some insights on the attributes most sought by hiring managers. Excellent communicators, writers and researchers with direct work experience stood out among the hundreds of applicants reviewed, according to the panelists. In other words, while there must be an evident drive to work in a specific field, it is highly recommended to demonstrate how you have already engaged in the field. Tangible experience in adopting a certain mindset given the scope of work, as well as showing initiative or producing creative solutions to problems were all highlighted. For example, to work internationally, clear evidence of successful work with people or teams from different backgrounds is essential.

Analytical skills matched with political judgment to identify how to present information depending on the audience also mustn’t be disregarded. There must be an underlying passion in one’s work, however never to a point that hinders one’s ability to see others’ perspectives. Such diplomatic skills are a valuable asset in cultivating change and engaging in discussion with various actors.

It was particularly interesting to see the emphasis on the importance of a fortuitous opportunity made possible through hard work. All panelists reminded the audience that while hard work does lead to great opportunities, one should take advantage of lucky opportunities and invest hard work. Avid commitment was flagged as the key to converting opportunities into concrete achievements. It is important to know what you want, to put yourself out there, and to take the risk. There is nothing to learn from an opportunity not taken, but one can always learn from failure.

A last topic worth highlighting was the panelists’ discussion on field work. While the majority of students look internationally, any work with affected communities constitutes field work. There are a myriad of human rights organizations in New York City that students are encouraged to explore, as well as opportunities to work with vulnerable populations such as refugees, the elderly or the homeless. In fact, Brown revealed she first became aware that she wanted to pursue a career in researching international frameworks for older people’s human rights after volunteering for a hospice in her hometown in her early 20s.

At the end of the event, prospective ISHR student Jessica Pierson reveled in the opportunity to hear from such skilled human rights workers: “For someone who is looking to apply to this master’s program, knowing what kind of jobs I’d be able to apply to when I graduate was really beneficial.”

There are sure to be more career-related events for the human rights aficionados around campus. Be sure to stay informed of opportunities and make sure to take advantage of each one.

Bárbara Matias is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  Her research interests include refugee rights, forced displacement, and human rights affairs in the context of the European Union.

A Defense of Dignity

By Joseph Chuman, a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

With dark forces clouding the political horizon, both domestically and globally, defense of fundamental freedoms has become stridently urgent. While some may prophesy or lament the end time of human rights, the drumbeat of illiberalism requires an even more robust enunciation of the human rights program. Those striving to consolidate greater power in the hands of state executives may seek to swat aside human rights as an annoying manifestation of political correctness, but it is good to remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged out of the nadir of European fascism. The response to darkness is not despair, but the bright light of civility and decency, which are conveyed most powerfully by human rights and the ideals that it reflects.

At the heart of human rights is respect for the dignity of human beings – without exception. If asked to summarize in briefest terms the purpose of the human rights program, one could probably do no better than respond by stating that the aim of human rights, whether safeguarding immunity from violation or entitling the resources necessary for human flourishing, is respect for and protection of human dignity. The Universal Declaration begins with the words. “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity…of all members of the human family…” And “dignity” is mentioned seven times as the norm that must be met for the realization of human rights, for both political and economic rights.

Despite its centrality to the human rights program, there is surprisingly little discussion about the meaning of dignity in the human rights literature. Yet its meaning is contested, and I would argue that some conceptual understandings of dignity are preferable to others, if human rights are to enjoy the strongest protection. There are at least three plausible approaches to dignity: one partially historical, a second, philosophical, a third, cultural.

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Two recent books, both brief but scholarly in their treatments of dignity, highlight differences. Jeremy Waldron, University Professor of Law at NYU in Dignity, Rank and Rights, argues that dignity, understood as a universal concept, did not start that way.  Examination of dignity’s historical genealogy reveals that it has been associated with a person’s social status or bearing. In Roman times, dignity referred to honor, privileges, or deference due to a person issuing from rank or office. According to Waldron, the dignity due a person of high rank underwent a transvaluation in late-eighteenth century romantic poetry, wherein such dignity associated with aristocracy was seen as bogus or superficial, and it was the person of low rank who became dignified. This is but one example of the universalization of the concept of dignity, which underlies its usage today. So, in Waldron’s words, “the modern notion of human dignity involves an upward equalization of rank, so that we may now try to accord to every human being something of the dignity rank, and expectation of respect that was formerly accorded nobility.” In the realm of dignity, we are all aristocrats now.

A contrasting view is presented by Harvard Professor of Government, Michael Rosen, in his work, Dignity. Rosen elaborates on the more conventional position that modern notions of dignity can best be traced to the Enlightenment, especially the ethics of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, dignity is an inherent attribute of all human beings exclusively in that we are rational agents. For Kant, ethics and the supreme moral law, the Categorical Imperative, emerges from reason, which in its transcendental freedom postulates moral laws to which human beings choose to be obedient. It is this autonomy which also dictates that the human person is an end-in-himself, whose humanity requires respect. Kant further affirms that all things subject to our use possess a value, which is relative to the one doing the evaluating and to context. But human beings alone possess dignity, which is absolute. For Kant, again, dignity is universal, and has a Platonic resonance that isolates it from questions of social contingency. Dignity is a thoroughly ahistorical concept. Both Waldron and Rosen elaborate with extensive analyses and applications of these variant derivations for dignity – social rank, and transcendent universalism.

One might argue that the placement of dignity in the idea of social status and as historically malleable renders it less secure and more open to manipulation as social currents themselves change. Yet I would maintain that grounding the origins of human rights in these two respective approaches makes little practical difference. The Universal Declaration by intent presents no foundation for the human rights it proclaims. The defense of its origins never need rise to the surface. Rather the Universal Declaration affirms a consensus that, once accepted, can find pragmatic application in the world of political strife and struggle.

However, there is a third conception of dignity that embeds the notion in a cultural context. As such, it is radically different, and I believe can be erosive of the human rights project, especially in the contemporary environment characterized  by increased nationalism, parochialism and a resurgence of group rights articulated within the framework of religio-ethnic particularisms. It is an expression of dignity very much subject to social contingencies.

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Dignity in this sense can be defined as a felt attribute constructed out of a person’s fittedness to her or his distinctive cultural milieu. It can serve as an index of particularist identity. This understanding is most evident in the relationship of human rights to the religions. In various instantiations of religiously grounded rights, there need not be a contradiction between human rights and religious precepts. The doctrine central to Judaism and Christianity, that the human being is created in the divine image and all people share a kinship as children of God, can corroborate the value of dignity by rendering the human being a sacred component of the cosmic order. But at the same time, divine command as delivered to different faith communities can impose a highly differentiated notion of dignity that undermines its universal character.

For example, Professor of Religion, David Novak, of the University of Toronto, notes that in Judaism human dignity emerges from the capability of being able to respond to God’s commands. Needless to say this would not do for an atheist or freethinker. But beyond that it suggests that one’s dignity is tied to one’s identity within a specific cultural milieu, for divine command cannot be abstract or devoid of particular substance.

Take for example the issue of male circumcision, which periodically become an issue of debate within the human rights community. Defenders of the need to respect dignity as put forward by Waldron and Rosen, might argue that male circumcision is an affront to the dignity of the child undergoing the procedure because it is a violation of his autonomy, is painful and in addition is essentially irreversible. However those relating dignity to the confirmation of identity within a community, and herein a religious community united under divine law, might argue that not to circumcise is a violation of the dignity of the child. It robs the individual of a dignity-informing place as a member of the community, and therefore deprives him of a mainstay of his very identity.

Such a culture-bound definition of dignity clearly has its merits and can be argued on its own terms. Yet, from a human rights perspective it may readily feed into a vicious form of cultural relativism and summoned as an argument to defend that relativism, thus undercutting the essential universalism required for human rights to be sustained as such. While remaining sensitive to the complex elements of culture and identity, on balance it is hard to see this as a good thing.

We are at an historical moment when reactionary forces are on the march and minority groups suffer greater denigration and too often find themselves the victims of xenophobia and scapegoating. Tragically and paradoxically, the very sensitivity to cultural difference which argues for tolerance has metastasized into a highlighting of difference characterized by fear and hate-mongering. It is time when those committed to human rights need to recommit themselves to the defense of human dignity — as a universal value — wherever it is oppressed or violated, and do so without apology.

Joseph Chuman is an adjunct professor of The Institution for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  He has taught the introductory course and an elective in Religion and Human Rights since 2001.

Can the Permanent Members of the Security Council Lead the World’s Journey to Sustainable Peace and Gender Justice?

By Marina Kumskova,  Program Associate at WILPF/PeaceWomen and guest blogger Katie Krueger, Program Associate for WI-HER

Since the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), the world has slowly come to understand that the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda has transformative potential to create positive change.

The WPS agenda is a tool for moving from conflict, militarization, and violence, to peace, inclusive decision-making, and gender justice, while increasing the number of women meaningfully involved in decision-making processes. However, this important tool remains under-utilized. Innovative new research carried out through the WPS Scorecard project identifies several gaps in the holistic implementation of the agenda, especially in the areas of conflict prevention, demilitarization, and disarmament.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, now is an ideal time to reflect on these major gaps in the WPS agenda’s implementation, and promote advocacy and action amongst the grassroots. Civil society has an important role to play in ensuring that women’s rights are not used as a bargaining tool to solve other social, economic and national security problems.

Considering their position as leaders on peace and security issues within the UN, the Permanent Five members of the Security Council (the US, Russia, France, China, and the UK) have a singular responsibility to implement the WPS agenda and set a precedent. Yet, as the world’s top military spenders and arms-traders, these states tend to prioritize their own geopolitical interests at the expense of the gender-sensitive agenda for peace and conflict resolution. To date, verbal commitments made by the representatives of these countries at the Security Council’s Chamber have not translated into effective actions, with many efforts largely gender-blind to the context-specific needs of conflict-affected populations.


The average performance of the Permanent Five on the WPS Agenda for the period between 2010 and 2015

For instance, the sale of arms by states including the United Kingdom and France, have promoted gender-based violence in Yemen through the Saudi-Arabia-led military intervention, and through these attacks, have directly violated women’s rights to adequate housing, health, and education. Moreover, where Russia and China failed to develop their National Action Plans (NAPs) on the implementation of the WPS agenda, the United States, France and the United Kingdom made their plans ineffective by failing to include necessary disarmament provisions and provide the necessary and sustainable allocated budget.

The Permanent Five are missing the opportunity to internalize the WPS agenda within the Security Council’s daily work, on all country and thematic topics. Between 2010 and 2015, the Permanent Five used gender-specific language in 31.62% of all Security Council open debates. The Permanent Five generally do not connect or acknowledge the mutually reinforcing nature of women’s participation and protection, thus creating a false dichotomy that claims women’s protection issues are separate from, and more important than, issues related to women’s active participation. The lack of attention to gender-sensitive issues leads to more explicit consequences. As the continuous references to women as victims builds a dominant political narrative within the Security Council, diplomats tend to ignore women’s diverse and important roles in conflict resolution, peace building, and diplomacy. An example of such ignorance is the ongoing lack of human rights mandates and gender advisers in peacekeeping missions around the world.

The Permanent Five are also failing to prioritize political economies of gender justice and peace by implementing structural changes within national security policies and budgeting. Between 2010 and 2015, the Permanent Five members spent 7 trillion USD combined on national military and defense, earning 124 billion USD from the transfer of arms sales. During the same period, the members only invested 172 million USD in the work of UN Women, and other spending allocated to WPS and gender-related issues remained inconsistent. With these trends remaining identical today, the numbers clearly demonstrate that the current state of international affairs is fostering war rather than cultivating peace and justice.

The commitment to the holistic implementation of the WPS agenda remains illusory within the Permanent Five’s national environments. Instead, the Permanent Five are limiting the space for civil society, and failing to provide them proper funding and support. Restrictive NGO-laws, limited funding sources, and questionable criminal charges against activists have been authorized by the Permanent Five in the name of national security, with the aim of limiting civil society’s ability to operate effectively.


The graph depicting commitments to the WPS agenda within the Security Council actions.

As the Permanent Five have yet to demonstrate a positive example of integrating the WPS agenda into national priorities, they should realize that their actions matter. Looking forward, as long as the leading countries at the Security Council remain represented by Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Theresa May, and, potentially, Marine Le Pen, the agenda is under the even bigger threat of being forgotten, or disassociated from national and international security efforts.

Given the current leadership’s track record within the Security Council, it is evident that changes must be made. Non-Permanent Members should take over leadership of the Council, with a nuanced understanding of the importance of internalizing the WPS agenda within the Council’s daily work on all country situations and thematic issues, including counterterrorism efforts and the protection of civilians. Civil society actors and Member States should collaborate to develop specific commitments to meaningfully support the active and meaningful integration of women with a diversity of voices, experiences, and perspectives.

To help achieve these ideals, UN Women should actively attend all relevant high-level inter-agency forums on peace and security. The establishment of an independent monitoring mechanism that is designed and operated exclusively by women’s civil society groups and women’s human rights defenders should be established to track the compliance of the Permanent Five and the actions of the Security Council overall. The Council must recognize the  valuable knowledge, insight, and experience that civil society organizations have at the local level, and work with these groups as partners to achieve relevant goals.

It must be recognized that the current leadership of the Security Council has prioritized greater spending on war, at the expense of promoting peace and conflict resolution, including supporting women and minority groups. With this realization, it is essential to raise the voices of civil society through influential platforms worldwide. With the support of diverse social and political leaders, we must ensure that all Member States of the United Nations work closely with civil society organizations to provide the WPS agenda with global support for the purpose of achieving sustainable peace based on gender justice and human rights.

Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

Katie Krueger is a Program Associate at WI-HER, LLC (Women Influencing Health, Education, and Rule of Law). She holds an M.A. in International Public Policy and Development, specializing in Human Security, Human Rights, and Gender Equity from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: War, Gender, and the Silent Victims of the Syrian Conflict

By Philip Belau, guest blogger from Connecteer

Over the last few years, the topic of sexual violence in armed conflict has received an unprecedented level of attention from the media. It seems that not a single day passes without horrific reports about the crimes committed by the so-called Islamic State. In a veritable ‘war of images’, the media coverage of relief organisations, press agencies, and social media activists alike depict a world in which women are illustrated as defenceless, suffering from sexual harassment and exploitation.

However, while it is true that women are disproportionately affected, they are not the only victims of sexual violence and rape within the Syrian conflict. It seems that our belief in a rigid gender binary has biased perceptions, prohibiting us from developing a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of the conflict.

In other words: “Patriarchy has been stealing the feminists’ clothes”.

In the environment of war, gender binaries appear reified, and while it would of course be exaggerating to claim that ‘masculinity’ itself generates war, “militarism and heteronormative gender identities are co-constitutive[,] draw[ing] on and exaggerat[ing] the bipolarization of gender identities in extremis”. The different narratives of war and armed conflict usually rely on the logic of hegemonic masculinity. They construct a reality in which women and girls represent both the peaceful non-combatants, and the silent victims of the conflict. In this war scenario, a biopolitical discourse identifies the female body as the symbol of the nation, whose vulnerable geography has to be protected by men against a foreign enemy.

"Texting Syria" by Liam Maloney. Thirty minutes from the Syria–Lebanon border, 16 families seeking refuge from ongoing conflict in Homs, Syria, live in tents erected inside an abandoned slaughterhouse. At night, they text friends and family still under siege.

“Texting Syria” by Liam Maloney. Thirty minutes from the Syria–Lebanon border, 16 families seeking refuge from ongoing conflict in Homs, Syria, live in tents erected inside an abandoned slaughterhouse. At night, they text friends and family still under siege.

Despite growing recognition that women and girls are not the only victims of sexual violence, there is still a taboo around viewing men and boys as potential victims of sexual assault and abuse. There is a general supposition that women are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and rape, a perception linked to the construction of the feminine gender and its associated characteristics of passivity and submissiveness. Patriarchal societies that promote a heteronormative sexuality and the image of a strong, self driven and powerful masculinity make it particularly difficult for male victims to admit to being sexually violated.

Amongst the different horrors of war and armed conflict, sexual violence and rape are considered one of the most shameful violations the civilian population can experience. Rape as a weapon of war has especially proven its ‘effectiveness’ in numerous conflicts worldwide, including in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. This enormous ‘success’ is a result of rape being cheaper than traditional warfare. Its effects, however, are devastating, leaving shattered communities, and lifelong psychological and physical scars.

Syria is now irrevocably linked with the long list of countries in which sexual violence and rape constitutes an institutionalised practice. Since the outbreak of armed conflict in March 2011, rape has been systematically used as a weapon of war  by both the Syrian government, as well as the different rebel groups.

While the topic of sexual violence and rape is a permanent feature in ‘Western’ media outlets, the issue remains extremely sensitive for many Syrians. ‘Thaqafat al-‘aib’ (the culture of shame) considers the honour of the family to be of primary importance, to be upheld at any price. Along with religious beliefs it leaves many victims traumatised and unwilling to report assault.

Another tremendous obstacle preventing many men from seeking help is the fear of being labelled ‘gay’. Although men in Syria do not face the death sentence for ‘homosexual behavior’, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan or Yemen, homosexuality is neither socially nor legally accepted, and is sanctioned with up to three years of imprisonment. Men accused of ‘homosexual behavior’ are considered a ‘disgrace’ to their families and are often the target of honour killings. Therefore, many victims of sexual assault in the form of ‘MSM’ (men who have sex with men) fear being labelled and persecuted as ‘gay’.

Despite the enormous challenge of gathering data on the issue, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, along with different non-governmental organizations, has managed to document cases of sexual violence against men and boys perpetrated during the Syrian conflict. The Commission’s report exposed many cases where men and boys have been subject to sexual torture during detention. Methods included rape, forced oral sex, and electrocuting or burning  the genitals with cigarettes and lighters. Other testimonials from detainees revealed repeated threats of being raped in front of their family. Although 90 percent of the reports of sexual violence have been allegedly committed in detention facilities run by the government, there is strong suspicion that there are more cases to be uncovered, hidden within areas controlled by different rebel groups.

"Texting Syria" by Liam Maloney

“Texting Syria” by Liam Maloney

According to estimates of the project Women under Siege at least 20 percent of the victims of sexual violence and rape are men, illustrating that men are more than just witnesses to sexualized violence in armed conflict. Yet, despite this growing recognition from the international community, there is still a clear dearth in adequate initiatives. A first step in the right direction was the UN Security Council Resolution 2106 which marked the first reference to men and boys in a resolution on women, peace and security.  This kind of recognition is vital and needs to be articulated further, in order to ensure affected men receive adequate support in conflict and emergency situations.

In the context of the conflict in Syria however, the reality is that victims have much to lose and little to gain by coming forward. If you are labelled ‘gay’ you have many enemies: the government, the so-called Islamic State, al-Nusra, even your own family. Furthermore, the ordeal does not necessarily end at the border. Prejudice and persecution against rape victims in neighbouring countries leave many survivors alone with no safe haven.

Unfortunately there are no simple solutions to address the problem of sexual violence and rape against men and boys. The first step in addressing the problem – whether in Syria or elsewhere – begins with questioning the simplistic and stereotyped gender binary norms which prevent men from coming forward with their stories. Instead of focusing on the dichotomy between genders, we should undress patriarchy to first uncover the full scope of the problem. Only when ordinary people start realising that sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of their race, religion, social status, sexual orientation, or gender, can they address the topic with the best possible response to the needs of those affected.

Philip Belau is Executive Director and Founder of Connecteer, a grassroots organisation for refugees. He holds a masters degree in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has been involved in several humanitarian projects in the Middle East. He recently joined Amnesty International Switzerland as Country Coordinator for Syria.