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When the 'Good Guys' Rape Too

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In the age of social media, stories about human rights abuses, including rape, no longer emerge months - or even years - after the event.

Unlike the Rwanda genocide and the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, allegations of atrocities have emerged in Syria - and Libya before it - in close to real time, or as soon as images and videos could be uploaded.

The proliferation of information from areas of conflict raises important questions about sexualised violence. One of them is addressed by the New York City-based Women Under Siege Project, which in recent months has been carrying out the vital task of gathering and verifying data from Syria.

In this way, the Women's Media Center-run project has been able to confirm what Facebook posts and YouTube videos, as well as accounts picked up by foreign journalists, suggest - that "sexualised violence in this conflict, as in nearly every other recorded conflict, is being used as a weapon of war".

Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe presented the initial findings gleaned from the crowdmap of sexualised violence in Syria to the UN last week ahead of the Security Council vote on international sanctions that was vetoed by Russia and China last Friday.

But as the organisation has also discovered, reporting on rape in war involves walking a difficult tightrope.

Under Wolfe's careful scrutiny, claims made by Senator Joseph Lieberman that rape in Syria was "widespread" in a column urging the U.S. to step up its support for the Syrian opposition were shown to be based on flimsy evidence.

No one is suggesting that rape is not being carried out by soldiers and paramilitaries loyal to the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But it's clear that independent monitoring has an important role to play if rape is to be kept out of what Wolfe describes as the "delicate propaganda war being played by all sides".

The CIA 'Red Cell' memo leaked by WikiLeaks suggesting using Afghan women's stories to bolster support among European women should be a warning to us.

But we should also be concerned that after allegations that Muammar Gaddafi's troops were being supplied with Viagra and committing mass rape proved to be unfounded, some journalists have tended to view all allegations of rape in that conflict as suspect.

While it is probably true that the Viagra story was exploited to shore up support for NATO intervention in Libya, the true extent to which rape was carried out remains extremely difficult to verify because of the stigma that surrounds the subject.

The issue of rape and sexualised violence is too important to allow it to become just another weapon in the propaganda war.

We should ask ourselves why the response to atrocities in DRC has been far more muted and insist that no one, irrespective of whether they are "goodies" or "baddies" in the eyes of the West is able to commit rape with impunity.

Rather than knee jerk reactions to allegations of rape, we could look at long term solutions including addressing the link between the arms trade and sexualised violence.

How is it that the global trade in arms currently has fewer regulations than exist in international trade for consumer goods? The Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) report suggest "legally binding criteria" in the Arms Trade Treaty to ensure that arms don't get into the wrong hands would be an effective way of beginning to tackle the problem.

Women who are raped by Assad loyalists deserve justice, but so do the women whose rapists are the so-called 'goodies' including Libyan rebels who Human Rights Watch allege committed rape.

Their victims - and any victims of Syrian rebels who commit rape - are equally deserving of justice. Yet this fact can get lost if we allow it to get caught up in a narrative of goodies versus baddies.

What about women who allege they have been raped by American or British soliders? Or women in the armed services who have been raped by their comrades?

The conviction of U.S. Air Force instructor Staff Sergeant Luis Walker for the rape and sexual assault of female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas is claimed to be just the tip of the iceberg in a culture that places almost insurmountable barriers to women seeking justice.

Social media is undoubtedly giving us more real time insight into how rape is used systematically during conflict. But if the global phenomenon of rape is to be challenged, we can't allow it to be used in the propaganda war either.

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