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UK to deploy rape investigation squad to war zones

The UK is setting up a special rapid deployment unit to collect evidence on mass rape used as a weapon during global conflicts, as part of a broader initiative to be launched on Tuesday to combat sexual war crimes of the kind seen in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, central Africa, and now in Syria.

The team of experts being created by the Foreign Office will be drawn from a pool of British police, forensic experts, doctors, psychologists and lawyers and is expected to be in action by the end of this year, ready to be sent to war zones at short notice wherever there are signs of sexual abuse on a large scale. One of their first destinations could well be Syria where William Hague, the foreign secretary, said there were “horrifying reports” of rape beginning to emerge.

“Despite the valiant efforts of many individuals and organisations, the perpetrators of the worst sexual crimes generally go unpunished,” Hague will say at the launch of the initiative, according to early extracts of his speech released by the Foreign Office. “We want to use Britain’s influence and diplomatic capability to rally effective international action.”

The team will initially be funded out of a £20m urgent action fund, part of UK contingency spending set aside for helping mitigate the impact of global conflicts. The UK also intends to use its presidency of the G8 in 2013 to persuade other countries and organisations to put more resources into the fight against rape worldwide.

Angelina Jolie will be also be speaking at the launch at the Foreign Office, where there will be an advance UK screening of her film about the rape camps in the Bosnia war, In the Land of Blood and Honey. Up to 50,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the 1992-1995 conflict, but there have been only 30 prosecutions specifically for sex war crimes.

During the Rwanda genocide, the UN estimates that at least 250,000 women were raped. More than 50,000 were raped in the conflict in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, while almost half of all Liberian women have reported being the victim of at least one act of physical or sexual violence by a soldier or paramilitary fighter.

Two years ago the UN appointed a special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallstrom, who named the worst offenders in her report to the security council in February, including the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, various militias in Ivory Coast, and the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Wallstrom also gave examples of how sexual violence had undermined peace-building efforts in post-war zones such as Chad, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and Bosnia, and during elections or political strife in Egypt, Guinee Kenya and Syria.

“Conflict-related sexual violence is not specific to one country or continent: it is a global risk, Wallstrom said. “Wars have entered the marketplaces where women trade; they follow children en route to school; and haunt the prison cells where political activists are detained.”

British officials said the aim of the UK initiative was to support the work of Wallstrom’s offices and local law enforcement, while allowing the UK to act on its own where it believes it can offer specific expertise in collecting forensic evidence, victim testimonies and eye-witness statements of a standard that would be admissible in court.

“The UN do a good job on this, but the thing about these horrific crimes is that you can always do more,” a British official said.

Hague will say: “We want to help find practical ways to ensure that survivors feel confident to speak out, and regain the dignity, rights, and restitution that is their due. And we want to see a significant increase in the number of successful prosecutions so that we erode and eventually demolish the culture of impunity.”

Shuna Kennedy, the head of a London-based advocacy group, Womankind Worldwide, gave the Hague initiative a guarded welcome last night, warning of the dangers of duplication of effort.

“While we’re pleased to see the foreign office taking steps to tackle the issue of sexual violence in conflict, an important link in the chain seems to be missing,” Kennedy said. “We are not starting from scratch, so the proposal for a squad of experts to gather evidence, provide training and support to human rights defenders in fragile states, whilst welcome, will waste resources if it fails to recognise and build on the expertise and experience already available in women’s rights organisations.”