Conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a widespread weapon of war—seen in conflicts in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Darfur and Syria, to name but a few. It is used to terrorize, to degrade, to punish communities and to ethnically “cleanse.” Women and girls are predominantly the victims; but men and boys are also targeted and suffer. Survivors are often marginalized and stigmatized, with little hope of seeing their attackers brought to justice.
Adopted in 1998, the Rome Statute was one of the first international treaties to extensively address conflict-related SGBV as crimes against humanity, war crimes and, in some instances, genocide. Unfortunately, there have been few other developments of note—until recently. Encouragingly, the past two years have seen much more visibility for SGBV on the international justice, peace and security agendas.
In June 2013, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2106, which recognizes the centrality of ending impunity for the prevention of SGBV in conflict and encourages states to strengthen accountability at the national level. A few months earlier, the UN General Assembly adopted the landmark Arms Trade Treaty, making it illegal to export weapons to countries or parts of the world where there might be a risk that the weapons will make women, men and children vulnerable to sexual violence. The same year, the G8 recognized that rape and sexual violence in armed conflict are grave breaches of the Geneva Convention and should be considered war crimes.
In 2014 the Security Council held an open debate on sexual violence in armed conflict focused on the implementation and consolidation of Resolution 2106. While stressing the primary national responsibility of countries to protect citizens against sexual violence and to provide justice, many countries also iterated their support for the ICC as a tool for the Security Council to ensure accountability for SGBV. They also stressed that any amnesties offered as part of peace deals should not apply to such crimes.
Meanwhile in London last June, the United Kingdom hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, as part of its wider Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative that has rallied international focus on the issue. An impressive array of victims and survivors, 129 governments, 79 ministers, over 1,700 experts, faith leaders, youth organizations and representatives of civil society and international tribunals and organizations, as well as Nobel laureates, took part. With significant national and international media interest, the summit brought the scourge of wartime rape into the public eye in way not seen before.
The summit saw the launch of an International Protocol on Documenting and Investigating Violence in Conflict—setting out international standards on how to collect the strongest possible information and evidence while protecting witnesses—in order to increase convictions and deter future perpetrators.
Many Coalition members were also present, with Amnesty International issuing a series of recommendations urging world leaders to seize the opportunity and take legitimate action to end sexual violence, Colombian NGO COALICO holding a panel on sexual violence against children in Colombia, and No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ) calling for concrete action to end in crimes. NPWJ also served as a judge on the Ending Sexual Violence Hackathon, which saw the development of innovative approaches to using technology as a tool to promote ending SGBV in conflict, among many others.
Claudine Bela Badeaza, Director of the Centre d’éducation et de recherche pour les droits des femmes (CERDF) and focal point of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):
“The Summit was a very important opportunity for those of us working in conflict areas to have access to and hear from political leaders and policy makers. We rarely have this sort of chance to speak directly to these global decision-makers and we hope that they will do more to end sexual violence in conflict.”
From the beginning of her term in office, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has been proactive in addressing the gender-justice gap and made the investigation and prosecution of sexual and gender-based crimes a priority. Bensouda made use of the London summit to publicize her office’s newly launched Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes, the first ever such document for an international court or tribunal, drafted by her special gender advisor, Brigid Inder.
While there are encouraging signs that conflict-related SGBV is finally getting the attention it so badly deserves, civil society will continue its efforts to ensure the eradication of sexual violence in conflict remains at the top of the international agenda. Commitments made at the UN and at the London Summit this year need to turn into action and accountability. States need to provide greater support to stakeholders in addressing the root causes of gendered violence, strengthen efforts for redress for victim-survivors and ensure that women and gender perspectives are always part of prevention and peace processes.
Stephanie Barbour, head of office, Amnesty International Centre for International Justice:
“In a year, will we have seen more prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict? Will survivors be consulted on their needs? Will every soldier in national armies be trained on gender and sexual violence issues? Will survivors who come forward receive the necessary medical and psycho-social support? Will countries have brought women to the table in peace talks? Civil society will be watching and waiting, and calling states to account for the promises made at the London summit.”
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