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(Mis-)Reporting “Rape-as-Weapon-of-War” in Libya : Who are The Victims of The Narrative?

September 4, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

A previous post on Do No Harm discussed how the conventional narrative of complex emergencies fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS often conceals rather than revealing the complex interplay of forces behind a simplistic view of events. The recent episodes in Libya tell us how a component of such narrative – i.e. rape – can be reported or rather misreported and how the costs of such misreporting are borne by other victims.

When the Qaddafi’s government hired mercenaries soldiers coming from neighboring countries to buffer up its army, what captured the headlines in western media was the use of sexual violence and rape as instrument of war by these mercenaries. Such statement surged to the status of undisputed facts when UN war crime prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo said that the International Criminal Court had evidence that Qaddafi’s forces were using rape to punish government’s opponents.

Other sources, such as the UN human rights investigator and Amnesty International, however disputed  such allegations. Such counterarguments were met by sharp criticisms and labeled as attempts to downsize the suffering of the victims of such violence.

In this dispute, the only thing which appears to be clear is that during war time the collection of information about a overly sensitive issue such as rape is particularly difficult and therefore only scanty data are available. The fact that no data exist does not imply that rape are not committed, but it does imply that we do not know the scale of the phenomenon. This should be enough to avoid to present scanty data as facts. If one needs another reason, one should have a look at costs of “rape as weapon of war” story on a specific group in Libya.

The victims of this narrative are black Africans who work as cheap labor in Libya oil sector, agriculture, construction and other sectors. According to different scholars, there is a deep rooted discrimination and racism towards this sub-group of the population which appears to erupt periodically in the country. This racism is the legacy of a long history of slave trade between the black Africa and the modern world, which stretches as far back as 640. This entrenched racism towards Black Africans is revived as allegations are made that people from Sub-Saharan African countries are combating as mercenaries for Qaddafi and are using rape as weapon of war. Episodes of harassment and violence against black skinned migrants workers have spiraled to a point where the government of Chad has called upon the NATO forces to stop the lynching of Chadians citizens in rebel held areas.

Although it relies on scanty evidence, the “rape as weapon of war” story has been presented as a fact in Libya. There is somehow the perception that admitting the existence of such episodes is a moral obligations dictated by the suffering of the victims of sexual violence. Failing to discuss or popularize this violence would be tantamount to ignoring the suffering of the victims. The episodes of racism and aggression against black Africans in Libya sheds lights on the risks associated with such line of thought.  Caring for some victims would lead us to create new victims. Taking into account their suffering gives another reason NOT to make conclusive judgments before evidence are collected.

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