Commentary

End sexual violence in armed conflict

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Too often, the world seeks to end a conflict and rebuild war-torn societies without addressing the very reasons that make reconciliation so difficult and that contribute to renewed violence.

Wartime rape and sexual violence are among those reasons.

Two weeks ago, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and was handed a photograph of a five-year-old girl who had been raped. As I moved from refugee camps to hospitals to meetings with people fighting for justice, I heard more and more appalling stories of lives destroyed, women ostracized by their families, families broken and victims given life-threatening illnesses after being attacked when foraging for firewood. And all this while the perpetrators continue their “normal lives” under the cover of shameful impunity.

In many of the major conflicts of the past 20 years, from Bosnia to Rwanda and from Libya to Sierra Leone, rape has been used as a deliberate weapon to scar political opponents or entire ethnic or religious groups. The scars inflicted do not easily heal, and never disappear. Instead, they often destroy families and corrode communities.

Sadly, the same story is being repeated again in Syria today, where there are horrific reports of civilians being raped and tortured, and violations being committed with the deliberate intention of terrorizing political opponents.

Responding to this challenge is our responsibility as political leaders of democratic states that believe in human dignity. We have to try and stop this abhorrent crime that has affected so many and work to eradicate the use of rape as a weapon of war.

This is not an easy task and there are many obstacles.

First, there is the fear and shame of the victims themselves. Understandably, often they are reluctant to come forward because of the stigma attached to being raped. This reluctance is then made worse by the lack of sensitive physical and psychological support available to victims.

Second, there is the difficulty of gathering evidence that can be used in court cases, which means that few successful prosecutions are ever mounted. Since 1996, as many as 500,000 women have been raped in the DRC alone, and only a tiny fraction of these cases end up in court. This only reinforces the culture of impunity.

Third, rape tends to be treated as a secondary issue by the international community when responding to conflict. As a result, survivors are neglected, funding is insufficient or simply withheld, and perpetrators roam free.

Finally, there is not enough support for the United Nations agencies, local organizations and human rights defenders, who are assisting the survivors on the ground. As a result, they are severely underfunded and face real difficulties in responding effectively.

All of these are barriers that can and must be surmounted.

This week, I will be asking fellow G8 foreign ministers to agree to a historic political statement that sets out our shared determination to work to end sexual violence in armed conflict, to tackle the lack of accountability that exists for these brutal crimes, and to ensure comprehensive support for victims.

I am seeking a wide set of practical commitments that include recognizing that rape and serious sexual violence are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions; greater funding and long-term support for survivors; and support for a new international protocol that will set out agreed standards for investigating and documenting sexual violence.

These measures are designed to improve evidence-gathering and lead to more prosecutions, empower survivors to come forward, and ensure that victims receive the long-term support that they need to rebuild their lives with dignity. I am hoping for an ambitious agreement in London on Thursday.

But this is only a beginning. We will use the support from the G8 as a foundation to build a strong international coalition against wartime rape and sexual violence in conflict at the UN and more widely.

The G8 represents some of the world’s largest economies, with huge international reach and combined influence. When its members come together in common endeavor, they are capable of bringing about real and lasting change in the world.

This week, that lasting change will be to begin a process aimed at ending one of the most devastating aspects of modern warfare, and addressing one of the main reasons it is so difficult for communities to come back together after conflict. It is our duty as political leaders of free countries and human beings to shatter impunity for those who use rape as a weapon of war, and ensure that its victims are never again abandoned.

 

William Hague is the British foreign secretary. He is meeting with G8 foreign ministers in London to discuss his key policy priorities, including the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. The PSVI aims to strengthen international efforts and coordination to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict, to erode the existing culture of impunity, to increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice internationally and nationally, and to support states to build capacity.

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