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One Minister Cannot End Sexual Violence in Conflict Alone

12/04/2016 15:55

While the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his team rush to corporate lunches, leaving morals at the door, there is still one minister bravely championing human rights in British foreign policy.

As a damaging public narrative builds about the UK's promotion of trade at any cost, this should be a moment for Baroness Anelay to bask in sunshine, so it is unfortunate that a parliamentary committee has delivered a lukewarm assessment of the work she leads to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

For anyone troubled by the relegation of human rights to the darkest corners of the Foreign Office, this initiative is a beacon of hope. Launched by William Hague, Hammond's predecessor, back in the days when human rights were still considered part of the "irreducible core" of foreign policy, it was the flagship for a new style of British "campaigns" diplomacy, combining political peer pressure at global summits with daring technical missions in conflict hotspots, digital innovations including a "hackathon", and the stardust of Angelina Jolie Pitt.

Unquestionably, this dynamic approach propelled the issue of sexual violence in conflict up the international agenda. Even states with atrocious records such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka, whose survivors we treat in the hundreds at Freedom from Torture, were incentivised to endorse a declaration pledging action to prevent sexual violence, punish perpetrators and provide support to survivors.

But this flashy approach was always divisive within the stuffy Foreign Office and it is unsurprising that a House of Lords committee set up to assess the impact of this initiative has hinted at a loss of momentum and star power wattage since Hague handed over the reins.

Hammond's lack of interest in human rights is notorious and, inevitably, his lack of leadership has diminished the status of the UK's work on sexual violence. The mantle has instead passed to his junior minister Baroness Anelay as the Prime Minister's special representative on these issues. She is highly capable, empathetic and steadfastly concentrated on turning political rhetoric into reality. She deserves credit for overseeing implementation of a protocol for first responders on how to gather evidence and supporting grassroots organisations working in affected countries.

The Survivors Speak OUT network, a survivor-led activist network supported by Freedom from Torture, has shared public platforms created via this initiative from the start, but with a stronger focus on survivor empowerment under Baroness Anelay they are now at the top table advising on policy and implementation.

We agree with the committee that the initiative would benefit from a clearer long term strategy, but its real Achilles' heel has always been the UK government's double standard on the all important question of 'proving' sexual violence.

While the Foreign Office rightly reminds the world that survivor testimony alone can be sufficient evidence of a crime of sexual violence, the Home Office often dismisses this testimony out of hand despite a much lower standard of proof that applies to asylum claims.

Hardly a week goes by without a client of Freedom from Torture being wrongly refused asylum because their disclosure of sexual or other torture is disbelieved, even if they supplied independent medical evidence. This is devastating for survivors, who face a mortal fear of being sent back to their abusers, and bad for British tax payers who pay for poor decisions to be corrected via appeals.

Despite hard work by the Foreign Office to challenge distrust by other countries of survivor accounts of sexual violence, the level of evidence a survivor must present to 'prove' this abuse in the UK's asylum system is rising exponentially. In the 1990s, our expert forensic reports were five pages but now they run to 20 pages or more as our doctors are pushed to provide ever more exhaustive analysis of why physical and psychological injuries are likely to have been caused by sexual and other forms of torture.

Still our forensic reports are rejected on the most spurious grounds, often because asylum caseworkers, including gap year students these days, prefer their own unqualified opinions on strictly medical matters. This is especially lamentable because the Home Office has an excellent policy to prevent these mistakes but an accompanying training package, developed with help from Freedom from Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation, has been left on a shelf to gather dust.

Values-based diplomacy can deliver impact, as the Foreign Office's work to prevent sexual violence in conflict demonstrates. But this is a young initiative and it needs political support and resources to grow. In the face of growing perceptions that his government has downgraded human rights, the Prime Minister should step in to reinforce this trailblazing project by tackling hypocrisy in the way survivors of sexual violence are treated in the UK asylum system and ensuring that his special representative Baroness Anelay is not left alone to fly the flag for human rights on the world stage.

Sonya Sceats is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom from Torture. Follow her on Twitter at @SonyaSceats and Freedom from Torture @FreefromTorture.

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