Hard To Know the Truth When War Propaganda Is Everywhere

The Canadian government’s financing of rape investigations in Ukraine warrants healthy skepticism. A similar initiative in Libya was used to justify violence.

Canadian officials have repeatedly criticized Russian soldiers for raping Ukrainians. Last week a Global headline noted "Ukrainian sexual assault victims need reproductive health care, Sajjan says" while a few days earlier Ottawa put up $1 million for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian sex crimes and crimes against children. They previously put up $7 million to "support aims to increase security and protection from sexual and gender-based violence for women and girls in Ukraine." Ten RCMP officers have also been dedicated to gathering evidence of rape and sexual violence by Russians in Ukraine.

People with any historical knowledge of warfare understand that Russian forces have almost certainly raped Ukrainian women. But it’s also obvious that Ukrainian officials have made some outlandish claims.

Two weeks ago, the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights Lyudmila Denisova claimed "an infant girl of six months was raped with a teaspoon." In another incident she said, "twin toddler boys, 2, were sexually assaulted in front of their mother. Five Russian soldiers broke in and four of them raped the toddlers in pairs, orally and anally, while the fifth soldier was holding the mother. Both children died of ruptures and blood loss."

Denisova’s claims were reported uncritically by several major western media outlets. But Ukrainian media could not corroborate the allegations. As such, dozens of Ukrainian media outlets and journalists signed an open letter criticizing Denisova for releasing unverified information, demanding she "check the facts before publication" and "disclose only information for which there is sufficient evidence." In response the Ukrainian parliament recently removed Denisova from her post as commissioner for human rights.

In a similar dynamic, Ottawa hyped up obviously outlandish rape allegations during the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya, which was led by Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard. Canada gave $1.75 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as $250,000 to the Red Crescent Society "to protect women and girls from gender-based violence – including sexual assault – and provide critical care to survivors in Libya." A number of Foreign Affairs press releases cited this aid disbursement.

One described "an additional $2 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to the needs of conflict-affected populations, including survivors of sexual violence" while another mentioned "$2 million in … dedicated funding to assist victims of rape – which is being widely used as a weapon of war in the conflict."

Devoting funds to combating gender-based violence is usually a worthy cause but in this case it was part of an attempt to justify NATO’s intervention. The rebels accused Gaddafi’s forces of mass rape, a charge that was repeated by western media and politicians. According to the Guardian, "tales of raping sprees by sub-Saharan African mercenaries – fueled in one version by Viagra doled out by Gaddafi – abound in Libya." Incredibly, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, cited the obviously outlandish (and racist) Viagra allegation at a closed session of the international body. Canadian foreign minister Baird was still repeating the mass rape justification for bombing Libya months after Gaddafi was killed. At the end of 2011 he told CTV: "When you talk about rape as an instrument of war, women being raped in Libya, it’s a very uncomfortable issue. Just ignoring it, throwing it under the carpet, it’s not an option."

But did Gaddafi’s forces engage in mass rape? Probably not, according to experienced human rights investigators. Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera, who was in Libya for three months after the start of the uprising, said: "We have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped." Liesel Gerntholtz, head of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, concurred. "We have not been able to find evidence [of mass rape]." According to a June 24 report in the London Independent, Amnesty’s specialist on Libya, Diana Eltahawy, met the most reputable source for the mass rape claim. Libyan psychologist Seham Sergewa said she distributed 70,000 questionnaires in rebel-controlled areas and along the Tunisian border. The psychologist claimed 60,000 were returned with 259 women volunteering that they were raped.

According to Sergewa’s account, she then interviewed 140 of the victims. Yet when Amnesty’s Libya specialist asked to meet some of the women Sergewa said "she had lost contact with them" and could not provide documentary evidence.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch’s lack of documentary evidence does not, of course, conclusively disprove that rape was employed by Gaddafi’s forces. It does suggest, however, that the rebels (at minimum) exaggerated the claim, which would fit within a long-established history of lying during war.

Amidst the fog of war, we should be skeptical of outlandish claim and how the Canadian government seeks to amplify allegations that justify its policies.

Yves Engler’s latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People’s History of the Canadian Military.