Despite calls at the UN, Australia supports impunity for sexual violence in war

Last week, Amal Clooney delivered a powerful speech to the UN calling for an international investigation into the crimes perpetrated by Da’esh in Iraq. Clooney said “the UN was created as the world’s way of saying ‘never again’ to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis” and reminded the General Assembly of the extent of the crimes perpetrated by Da’esh. They have “carried out or inspired attacks in more than 31 countries that have killed over 2,000 people outside Syria and Iraq in the last 3 years alone. Inside Iraq, ISIS has attacked victims from every community including Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians. And ISIS has made clear that it intends to destroy Yazidis, like Nadia, completely: through killings, forced conversions, and rape. The UN has concluded that ISIS is committing genocide against this group, and there can be no more serious crime.”

Clooney represents a group of Yazidi victims of Da’esh, including Nobel Prize nominee Nadia Murad. With Murad sitting beside her, Clooney demanded to know “why has nothing been done? Could it be that these crimes are not serious enough to warrant an international investigation? NO – ISIS is today the most brutal terror group in the world, representing what the Security Council has called an “unprecedented threat” to international peace and security.”

Last year, Australia co-sponsored General Assembly resolution 71/248 which established the International and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011. When we were on the Security Council, we supported resolution 2106 which “calls upon Member States to comply with their relevant obligations to continue to fight impunity by investigating and prosecuting those subject to their jurisdiction who are responsible for such crimes”. The government has made repeated statements about the need for justice for these crimes. But the government is not undertaking investigations into the sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated by Da’esh.

Over 100 Australians have travelled to fight with violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. They are libel under Australian criminal law for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But those who are caught, like Neil Prakash, are not charged with these crimes, they are charged only with terrorism related offences.

Khaled Sharrouf is surely Australia’s most recognisable and gruesome member of Da’esh. Formerly of Sydney, Sharrouf is notorious for having his seven year old son pose for social media photos holding a severed head. The ABC’s 7.30 Report aired testimonies of several witnesses to Khaled Sharrouf purchasing Yazidi women at a slave market, abusing them in his home, and presumably sexually assaulting them. But rather than charge him with these crimes, last month the Australian Government merely revoked his citizenship. Where is the justice in that?

Australia has a whole-of-government policy on women, peace and security which is designed to implement the resolutions like 2106, which among other things, call for an end to impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. Under the principle of complementary of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, of which we are a signatory, Australia is obliged to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated by those within our jurisdiction. Australia’s legislation on these crimes has extraterritorial jurisdiction, and our slavery laws have universal jurisdiction – they apply even when neither the perpetrator nor the victim is Australian.

The Australian Government must investigate and prosecute our own nationals for sexual violence perpetrated as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq and Syria. These prosecutions cannot be made subordinate to other offences, including terrorist or immigration related offences. Investigations need to begin now. The relevant ministers need to provide tasking and resources to the investigative authorities and provide any necessary policy support from the public service.

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