Mr. President, Distinguished Members of the Security Council,
I would like to begin my remarks today with a question that should be on the mind of every member of this Council: What do the ten resolutions on Women, Peace and Security – five of which focus squarely on preventing and addressing conflict-related sexual violence – mean right now for a woman in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, or Tigray?
Every new wave of warfare brings with it a rising tide of human tragedy, including new waves of war’s oldest, most silenced, and least-condemned crime. And yet, the promise expressed by this Council in its resolutions is prevention. They represent a commitment to bring all tools to bear to break the seemingly endless cycles of sexual violence, impunity, and revenge, in order to save succeeding generations from this scourge. They articulate the elements of an accountability regime to influence the conduct of perpetrators, and potential perpetrators.
In that respect, I would like to sincerely appreciate the leadership of the United Kingdom in convening this debate on “Accountability as Prevention”. I thank Lord Ahmad and the United Kingdom’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative for shining and sustaining a spotlight on this atrocity, during dark and difficult times. I warmly welcome the civil society briefers from Syria and Ethiopia, as well as Nobel Laureate Ms. Nadia Murad from Iraq. The lived experience of survivors and directly affected communities must guide our global search for solutions.
We meet at a time of great global turbulence, marked by multiple, cascading crises. When the pandemic emptied this chamber, over two years ago, the Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire to defeat the common enemy of disease. The pandemic was meant to usher in a paradigm shift: to silence the guns and amplify the voices of women caregivers and peacebuilders; to deepen investment in public welfare, rather than the instruments of warfare. Instead, we have seen increased militarization, including an epidemic of coups, which have turned back the clock on women’s rights.
New crises have multiplied, even as entrenched wars march on, exacerbating the challenge of shrinking – in some cases closing – civic space, manifest in rising reprisals against women’s human rights defenders, activists, and journalists who risk their lives to bring these issues to the attention of the world. Reprisals have been used against frontline actors working to end sexual violence and deliver lifesaving services, and sexual violence itself has been used as a tool of reprisal and intimidation, coupled with misogynistic hate speech, including online. This affects the wider political climate, when those who should be praised for their courage are instead persecuted.
In virtual meetings, over many months, on many screens, we endeavored to ensure that survivors of wartime rape would not be forgotten in the long shadow cast by COVID-19. Today, as the world watches transfixed by the horrors unfolding in Ukraine, with its wider ripple effects on global stability, other crises continue to escalate behind the scenes. The bandwidth of our global attention economy is limited. As the Secretary-General has rightly stated: “The world is too small for so many hotspots”. We must reassure all populations at risk that they are not forgotten, and that international law is not an empty promise.
In my public statements on Ukraine, I have urged all parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of women and girls from sexual violence, trafficking, and exploitation, including those displaced internally and across borders, following the fastest population flight this century. I have expressed grave concern about the mounting allegations of sexual violence and called for swift and rigorous investigations, to ensure accountability as a central aspect of deterrence, prevention, and non-repetition. The failure to acknowledge and investigate past atrocities is the surest sign that violations will continue unabated.
All the warning signs are flashing red, and yet essential civilian infrastructure has been reduced to rubble and ruin. Gender-based violence and reproductive health services are least available, just when they are needed most. We do not need hard data for a scaled-up humanitarian response. We do not need hard data for all parties to ensure zero tolerance for sexual violence. The harrowing personal testimonies and pictures seen around the world, including of rape at gunpoint, and rape in front of family members, are a call to action.
The report before us today surfaces painful human stories, all of which cry out for justice and redress.
• In northern Ethiopia, a young woman was taken to an Eritrean Defense Forces camp, where 27 soldiers raped her, as a result of which she contracted HIV. An elderly, visually impaired woman was shot by soldiers after being detained for three days while her daughter was raped by members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces in an adjacent room. An adolescent boy was raped in Himora, who later committed suicide.
• There is the case of a woman and two girls whose discarded bodies were found days after their kidnapping and rape by armed elements in the Central African Republic, where sexual violence has doubled over the past year, particularly against displaced populations, who are at risk of being “forgotten victims of a forgotten war”.
• Likewise, the plight of over 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has become a “crisis within a crisis”, following the military takeover of Myanmar by the Tatmadaw. This year’s report includes the tragic case of two women subjected to gang-rape by Tatmadaw soldiers in Chin State, resulting in unwanted pregnancies in both cases.
• There is also the case of a woman allegedly raped at gunpoint by an officer of the Puntland Police Force in Somalia, a context where abduction, rape, and forced marriage are rampant, while legislative reform to address these crimes has been stalled since 2018.
• In Colombia, cases of sexual violence committed against women ex-combatants and members of their families were documented.
• In Afghanistan, professional women, including in the security sector, have been targeted for their work to address sexual violence, with a female police officer who was eight months pregnant brutally tortured and killed in Ghor Province.
• Thousands of civilians abducted by Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, between 2014 and 2017, remain in captivity, including victims of forced marriage and sexual slavery.
• In Yemen, harmful social norms, exacerbated by seven years of armed conflict, can result in a victim being killed for reporting rape, which persists in detention facilities and displacement settings.
In each of these contexts, we see the emboldening effects of impunity. Indeed, the gap between commitments and compliance, resolutions and reality, is evident on every page of the annual report. Over the past year, sexual violence continued to be committed as a tactic of war, torture, terrorism, and political repression. The report covers 18 country situations, and documents 3,293 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence committed in 2021, representing a significant increase of some 800 cases compared with 2020. Once again, the highest number of incidents was recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,016). The vast majority of incidents targeted women and girls (97 percent). 83 cases were recorded against men and boys, with the majority occurring in detention settings. 12 verified cases were found to target LGBTQI individuals.
The report demonstrates how intersecting forms of inequality, based on ethnic identity, political affiliation, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, income, and migratory status increase the risks faced by diverse individuals, in a context of historical power imbalances, which are structural and systemic. While the report conveys the severity of verified incidents, no report can capture the full scale and prevalence of this chronically underreported, historically hidden crime.
Indeed, survivors continue to be silenced by trauma, pain, and despair, as well as by stigma, insecurity, and the paucity of service provision. There is a relationship between the individual silence and the official silence: survivors cannot be expected to denounce what the State itself denies. When the perpetrators walk free, the survivors walk in fear, carrying the burden of ostracism and shame.
The central insight of this year’s report is the need to foster a protective environment that inhibits sexual violence in the first instance and enables safe reporting and response. These are not isolated incidents. They do not occur in a vacuum. Today, we know more than ever before about the security dynamics that cause these crimes to occur and recur, namely: mass population displacement, collapsed rule of law, decimated infrastructure and institutions, rising violent extremism, and hostilities waged in proximity to civilian population centers. It is also starkly evident across the world that lawlessness and impunity are tantamount to “license to rape”. We are aware of the visible drivers, such as arms proliferation, and the invisible drivers, such as gender-based discrimination. We know the contexts in which sexual violence is concentrated, namely in displacement, detention, at checkpoints, on military bases, and in rural areas where women undertake livelihood activities. And we know that socioeconomically marginalized women, in areas beyond the reach of rule of law institutions, are at greatest risk.
Prosecution is also a form of prevention and can help to convert the centuries-old culture of impunity for these crimes into a culture of deterrence. Whereas impunity normalizes violence, justice reinforces global norms. It is time to move from visibility to accountability, and to ensure that today’s documentation translates into tomorrow’s prosecutions. The prohibition on sexual violence is clear and categorical, yet norms have no power unless they are known. Every member of this Council can lead the way in reflecting that prohibition in their military manuals, International Humanitarian Law dissemination and training, codes of conduct, and military disciplinary measures at all levels of the chain of command. We have said for several years in this chamber that sexual violence is preventable, not inevitable. It is time now to make accountability inevitable. Survivors must be seen by their societies as the holders of rights that will be respected and enforced. And societies must realize that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding, or condoning it.
In 2021, four encouraging developments took place in terms of transitional justice.
• Firstly, in Guatemala, five former members of the paramilitary group, the Civil Self-Defense Patrols, were convicted and sentenced for crimes of sexual violence committed against indigenous Maya Achi women in the 1980s.
• Secondly, in Iraq, the Council of Representatives adopted the Yazidi Survivors’ Law, which provides support to victims of Da’esh atrocities.
• Thirdly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling that found the State responsible for violations of the rights of Colombian journalist, Ms. Jineth Bedoya Lima, following her two-decade quest for justice for abduction and sexual abuse. Yesterday, I was pleased to announce Ms. Bedoya’s appointment as one of my mandate’s Global Champions for the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence.
• Fourth, under the auspices of universal jurisdiction, a former official of the Syrian General Intelligence Service, Anwar R., was convicted by the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, for crimes against humanity, including sexual violence committed in 2011 and 2012.
Each year, we report three or four landmark judgments, against the backdrop of thousands of UN-verified cases that meet the elements of international crimes. Accordingly, I regret to note that the few emblematic cases of justice delivered are still the exception that prove the rule of justice denied.
In June 2021, my Office launched Model Legislative Provisions and Guidance on the Investigation and Prosecution of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, which aims to ensure that national legislation comprehensively criminalizes all forms of sexual violence and protects all individuals at risk. This Guidance supports implementation of Security Council resolution 2467 (2019), which calls on Member States to “strengthen legislation and enhance investigation and prosecution of sexual violence”, in order to deliver justice that is accessible, empowering, and ultimately transformative, in line with the “survivor-centered approach”.
Yet accountability processes, while critical, are no substitute for compliance with international norms in the first instance. This year’s report lists 49 parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence in situations on the agenda of the Council. Over 70 percent are persistent perpetrators, having appeared in the list for five or more years without taking remedial or corrective action. It is critical to cohere the practice of listing suspected perpetrators and the practice of imposing targeted and graduated measures by sanctions committees to improve compliance. Leveraging the credible threat of sanctions can change the calculation of parties to conflict that operate on the assumption that rape is “cost-free” or even profitable in the political economy of war, in which women and girls are trafficked, traded, and sold. Eight sanctions regimes now include sexual violence as part of their designation criteria. In 2021, the 1970 Committee on Libya listed the de facto manager of the notorious Al Nasr detention center for abuses including sexual violence.
Excellencies, Distinguished Members of the Security Council,
In terms of the way forward, the report recommends targeted action to reinforce structural prevention, through: political and diplomatic engagements to address sexual violence in ceasefire and peace agreements; the use of early warning indicators of sexual violence to inform monitoring, threat analysis, and early response; curtailing the flow of small arms and light weapons; gender-responsive justice and security sector reform, including vetting, training, codes of conduct, zero-tolerance policies, and effective prosecution; amplifying the voices of survivors and affected communities, supporting women’s human rights defenders, and protecting victims and witnesses.
Justice, peace, and security are inextricably linked. Collaboration between this Council and the Peacebuilding Commission can advance gender-responsive accountability and reconciliation processes, which address crimes of sexual violence as part of the consolidation of peace. We must deliver justice, not just law, in communities as well as courtrooms, and ensure that reparations reach survivors to help them rebuild shattered lives and livelihoods. It is critical that Member States reinforce the architecture established by this Council through resolution 1888 (2009), including the Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict that works to strengthen institutional safeguards against impunity; the interagency coordination network, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict; and Women’s Protection Advisers, whose timely deployment to the field is vital for timely reporting and response. We must marshal a level of resolve and resources equal to the scale of the challenge, including by replenishing the Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Multi-Partner Trust Fund that supports our work.
Our Special Report on women and girls who become pregnant as a result of sexual violence in conflict and children born of sexual violence in conflict, circulated in January, also sets out a platform of legal, policy, and operational recommendations, including reforming discriminatory nationality laws and practices. I look forward to the special report being debated by the Council later this year.
The UN Charter was born of war, to chart the path to peace. No amount of protection or assistance is a substitute for peace. As a wise woman once said, “You can no more win a war than an earthquake”. Wars are indeed unwinnable, and yet their social and economic aftershocks affect us all.
Throughout history, human progress has been interrupted by plagues, wars, and authoritarian rule. Issues we thought had been consigned to the ash heap of history remain in our daily headlines. We cannot choose the times we live in; we can only choose how we respond. We must not rest until every survivor, every civilian, can sleep under the cover of justice. There is no place in the modern world for gender apartheid; for “strong men” in place of strong institutions; or for medieval wars of looting, pillage, and rape. Women’s rights are not “Western rights”, they are human rights, and they are universal, in times of war and peace. Prevention is the best form of protection, including the prevention of conflict itself. We must rise to the challenge of our times. Inaction is not an option.
Source: UN Office of the SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict