The Blog

Like Genocide, Slavery and Torture, Sexual Violence During Conflict Must Be Challenged and Eradicated

The UK Government has played a key role in starting what will be a long and difficult road to ending sexual violence in conflict. It is time for it to show it has the mettle and the motivation to stay the course.

Earlier this year I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but one living under a terrible shadow. For 10 years women and girls and men and boys in parts of the DRC faced the risk of becoming victims of sexual violence. Like citizens in 18 other countries around the world identified by the UN in 2015, people in parts of the DRC lived with the horrific prospect of becoming innocent victims of sexual violence in conflict, a crime that ruins lives and destroys communities.

My visit to the DRC, with colleagues from the House of Lords Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, formed an important part of our inquiry; the result of which is our report, Sexual Violence in Conflict: A War Crime, which we have published today.

We started with the premise that the occurrence of sexual violence during conflict is not inevitable. For too long it has been regarded as 'just something that happens' in war. It is not; it is a war crime. Like genocide, slavery and torture it must be challenged and eradicated.

In 2012 the UK Government launched the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative and two years later hosted an international conference on ending sexual violence in conflict. This was a big step, it made headlines around the world and raised the profile of this important issue. The conference benefited from the legitimacy provided by the attendance of numerous world leaders and the attention generated by the involvement of a global superstar and UN Special Envoy in Angelina Jolie Pitt.

We wanted to assess where the important struggle to end sexual violence in conflict should go now. After the bright lights of the launch, how can the UK Government ensure the momentum is not lost?

Firstly the Government now needs to reassert its commitment to the PSVI. It should do so by clearly setting out strategic goals for the PSVI and producing a plan for their delivery, including providing long-term commitment and resources. Without that commitment there is a risk momentum will be lost and the good work since 2012 undermined. Once that strategy has been set out, it is important to keep a firm eye on how it is progressing. That is why we are recommending the Government produce a report to Parliament each year on its progress.

Secondly the Government must resist any temptation to limit the scope of PSVI to the Middle East or refocus its priorities to combating religious extremism. Clearly dreadful crimes against humanity have been committed by multiple aggressors in Iraq and Syria, and the PSVI will have a role to play in supporting reconstruction in those countries and helping bring perpetrators to justice once peace is achieved and Daesh has been defeated. However, sexual violence in conflict is a global problem. Its victims in the 19 countries right across the globe are no less in need of support, and its perpetrators no less guilty, because the world's attention is now focused on the Middle East. We must ensure victims elsewhere are not forgotten. The PSVI will be crucial in achieving that and the Government have a responsibility to ensure it is able to do so.

More must also be done to bring the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict to justice. Victims are let down if those that ordered or carried out sexual violence are not punished for their crimes. In the DRC the Government has at least taken steps to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence from previous conflicts, the same cannot be said in many other places. The prosecution last month of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, the architect of so much of the damage done in the DRC, is the first and sole successful prosecution at the International Criminal Court for sexual violence in conflict. We must ensure it is not the last. To help achieve that, the UK Government should increase its voluntary contributions to the work of the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to help it investigate and prosecute these crimes.

Too often peace processes overlook the need to bring perpetrators of sexual violence to justice. There is a tendency, for what is often a group of peace negotiators solely or overwhelmingly made up of men, to want to avoid difficult questions of ensuring justice for victims. The UK Government were right to call for an absolute ban on amnesties for perpetrators of sexual violence. They should now work hard to ensure any peace negotiations in Syria continue that approach and also that women are meaningfully involved in negotiations to bring the Syrian conflict to an end.

We also looked at the role of peacekeepers and the dreadful breach of trust that occurs when they abuse their position to commit sexual exploitation and abuse. This has happened in conflicts in Africa, Asia and Europe and has gone largely unpunished. That is why we are calling for a new international tribunal to ensure accountability for peacekeepers who commit these crimes. The incoming UN Secretary-General, whomever it may be, must make this issue a top priority.

I know our report will refocus the attention of the Government and others on this vital issue. The UK Government has played a key role in starting what will be a long and difficult road to ending sexual violence in conflict. It is time for it to show it has the mettle and the motivation to stay the course.

Baroness Winterbourne is chair of the House of Lords Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict