When we think of armed conflicts, we think of battlefields, of soldiers in arms, of trenches and tanks. But wars tragically are also about civilians, particularly women and children, caught on the margins of the battlefield yet at the centre of warfare.
The grave and regrettable reality is that rape and other forms of sexual violence have been inflicted upon women as weapons of war in battlefields the world over. In Rwanda alone, it is estimated that over 300,000 women were raped during the 100 day Genocide. In Darfur, Liberia and the DRC levels of sexual violence have been extremely high too, and horrific reports are emerging of abuses in Syria.
The human cost of these crimes was brought home to me most starkly when I met women in refugee camps in Darfur who had been raped when collecting firewood to cook for their children, and survivors of Srebrenica – the worst atrocity on European soil since the end of the Second World War.
Such crimes, especially if they are not addressed or punished, affect the victims and their families as well as their communities for years to come. This feeds anger, distrust and continuous cycles of conflict. It creates long lasting enmity between peoples, and makes it hard to bring peace. Degrading the dignity of women in such a way reduces their essential role and crucial ability to help build peace and holds back development.
It is the responsibility and duty of all states to take measures necessary to put an end to impunity and prosecute those responsible. There is a strong international consensus that more needs to be done. This has been reflected in the valiant work that the UN and its agencies numerous NGOs and frontline organisations have undertaken over the last decade. But more often than not, the perpetrators of sexual and gender based committed crime in conflict or post conflict situations still get away with it. Shockingly, they are neither held to account nor deterred.
As of today there have been only around 30 convictions for up to 50,000 rapes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This kind of record sends a clear message to the past and to would-be perpetrators to be: if you commit sexual crimes in conflict you are likely to get away with it.
As a community of nations we will not succeed in preventing conflict and building sustainable peace unless we give this issue the centrality it deserves; alongside the empowerment and participation of women at every level in all societies.
Our government is determined to bring new energy and leadership to this task. We want to use Britain’s influence and diplomatic capability to rally effective international action, 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. Only a significant increase in the number of successful prosecutions will erode and eventually demolish the culture of impunity.
A key vehicle for prosecution is strengthening national and international capability to gather and preserve evidence, on a systematic basis, in a way that means such evidence is admissible in courts, and that allows victims to speak out and demonstrate the proof of their claims.
Above all, it is essential to ensure that the survivors have access to justice and are treated with dignity throughout the justice process.
We know that the problem is complex and that there is no single solution. We know that legal action to bring perpetrators to justice is only one avenue. That, however, should not discourage us. We are determined to act.
We will form a new team of UK experts to help deal with this problem by helping states, civil society and communities to build their capacity to prevent and respond to sexual and gender based violence, by increasing the ability of national governments, law enforcement agencies, judiciaries, human rights defenders and civil society to hold perpetrators to account.
We will seek to identify those countries and places at most risk of sexual and gender based violence. We want to strengthen our support for international efforts to build up a system of early warning indicators with the UN and other like-minded partners. We will draw on and seek to develop the UK’s own early warning analysis to support this.
And we will use Britain’s Presidency of the G8, starting on 1 January 2013, to highlight the need for stronger international action to deter and prevent sexual violence in conflict. We will use these crucial seven months before our Presidency to build real momentum around this initiative and to encourage other countries to work with us on this vital issue.