It was a year ago this week that the terrorist group Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) not long ago, carried out a late-night abduction of 276 girls from their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria, loading them into trucks and disappearing into the dense forest. The abduction ignited worldwide outrage, sparked a vigorous social media campaign to #BringBackOurGirls and drew condemnation from political leaders.
Yet, inexplicably a year has passed and the world has not fulfilled its responsibility to rescue the girls. Which brings me to the question of the day: As I write this, the Chibok schoolgirls have been enduring lives of daily terror and torture, including rape, forced marriage and conversion to Islam, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery, for 365 days. Compare that to the search for the 239 passengers lost on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared about the same time. Immediately, a multinational effort was launched, costing tens of millions of dollars. The world’s most sophisticated technology was deployed to scour the ocean floor three miles deep. Active search efforts continue today.
So, what does this say? It demonstrates the gulf between global concern about women and the political will to do something about it.
Terrorist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS express an ideology grounded in the subordination and disposability of women. Disturbingly, they are perpetuating a new pattern of kidnapping of young girls and women. It is a tactic of war increasingly used by terrorist groups, as evidenced not only by the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls but also the kidnappings of Yazidi women and girls in Iraq last year and now.
Boko Haram is perpetrating genocide against the Christian community in northeastern Nigeria, including by forcibly transferring children, with the intent to destroy the group, as such, at least “in part.”
How is this genocide and why genocide? The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls and others in Nigeria is exactly the act of genocide, as defined in the Genocide Convention, called the “forcible transfer of children.” This definition includes taking children from a particular national, ethnic, racial or religious group with the intent to destroy that group and transferring them to another group.
The essence of genocide is not mass killing but the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Removing children from a group destroys its future and has been a tool of genocide for as long as the legal concept has existed. In fact, the first international convictions for genocide in the Nuremberg Tribunals included acts of forcible child transfer.
This week, I have urged the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, to take the first step toward finding the Chibok girls and holding those accountable for their abduction.
Specifically, I’ve asked Bensouda to investigate whether Boko Haram is perpetrating genocide against the Christian community in Nigeria.
It is critical that Bensouda examine whether Boko Haram’s gender-based abductions amount to genocide for the following reasons: It would put all countries unequivocally on notice that genocide may be occurring in Nigeria, propelling them to action; it will make clear Nigeria’s own obligations to stop this conduct and to prosecute it vigorously; it will send a message to other perpetrators, including those currently targeting Yazidi women and girls in Syria and Iraq, that genocide will not be tolerated; it will fulfill the prosecutor’s own commitment to fully prosecute crimes aimed at women and girls and to integrate a gender perspective into every stage of its work; and finally, it will trigger the international community’s responsibility to protect the Nigerian population.
We live in a world where government agents can intercept electronic communications and drones can find and target virtually anyone, anywhere, any time. Surely, we can find more than 200 girls in a forest. Unquestionably, we have the moral and legal obligation to try.
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Janet Benshoof is a human-rights lawyer who has set landmark legal precedents in US courts, including the Supreme Court, and in international forums, including on Cedaw, criminal law, women’s equality rights and free speech and religious freedom guarantees.
As president of the Global Justice Center in New York, Benshoof is working to enforce international human-rights guarantees focused on gender equality, rule of law in transitional democracies and criminal accountability for international humanitarian law violations. She received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her contributions to constitutional and humanitarian law, has a law degree from Harvard and has taught at Harvard Law School and at Bard College.