I welcome UK’s initiative to bring new momentum to the fight against sexual violence in conflict. I am pleased to see that you have chosen such good allies, ensuring cooperation and alignment of initiatives.
This renewed commitment is timely. The systematic use of sexual violence and rape in Syria has been documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry as well as human rights organizations, but it is not getting the world’s attention and impunity prevails.
What can we do to bring attention to the crimes in Syria and in many other parts of the world? What can we do to prevent new atrocities from taking place?
Firstly, the crimes must be punished. Too often, sexual violence in conflicts is dismissed as “cultural” or as a tradition.
Let us be clear. Conflict-related sexual violence is criminal. Even in wars, there are rules - rules that all parties to the conflict are bound by – and rape in war is explicitly illegal. We need to remind the perpetrators that they stand the risk of prosecution, either under national or international law. Ensuring justice for the survivors can also have a preventive effect, as effective prosecution can have not only a healing effect, but can deter future crimes. Today, as impunity prevails, perpetrators risk very little.
National governments in conflict-affected countries bear the responsibility to uphold the law and to protect their citizens, whether from more conventional weapons or from rape as a tactic of war. Too often, they fail to do so. Let us give clear messages to those who have the power to enforce troop discipline and uphold justice but who chose not to. We must expect and demand more from them.
If we are serious about making a difference, conflict-related sexual violence must be integrated into our broader security efforts and discourse. It must be on the agenda of the Security Council on a regular basis, it must be raised in bilateral and multilateral meetings, not just at side-events and on special occasions.
The large troop or police contributing countries to UN peace operations play important roles in preventing and protecting civilians from sexual violence on the ground. But we must all start at home, and make sure that we effectively implement UN Security council resolution 1325 and the related resolutions on women, peace and security. As a Minister of Defense, I initiated a series of studies on the culture of masculinity and the military and actively pursued the goal of more diversity in our armed forces.
Improving gender relations is not just about adding more women to male-dominated arenas. Changing gender relations is about improving our society for both men and women. This change must start at home. It is not just an issue for conflict-affected countries.
Conflict-related sexual violence is a security issue and a crime. And the international community must respond with the same sense of urgency as with other threats against peace and security.
But we must also work closely with civil society and build strong and viable women’s organizations. In the campaigns leading up to the convention against landmines and cluster munitions, we saw the immense gains from governments and civil society working together. Women in the midst of aftermath of conflicts are more than just rape victims. They might have some thoughts about what they need and how we can best assist them.