Angelina Jolie has said she hopes a global summit on sexual violence she will co-host in London with the UK government will bring lasting change to global peacekeeping and war crimes prosecutions, deterring the use of mass rape as a weapon in future conflicts.
The four-day summit, beginning on 10 June, will bring together governments from 141 countries to discuss how to improve and standardise the investigation of large scale sexual violence in wartime, to bring an end a culture of impunity that has severely limited prosecutions up to now.
Speaking to The Guardian during a visit to Bosnia, Jolie said: “I would hope that years down the line when war breaks out, people who are considering raping a man, woman or child would be very aware of the consequences of their actions, and that a woman crossing a checkpoint would be aware there was someone collecting evidence and that evidence would have a … result for her.”
“When that begins to happen on masse, then things will change. That’s why its important that this effort isn’t just one single [approach]. We are working with everyone who has worked on this issue for years, with every NGO and every government, to assist these people on all fronts.”
Jolie visited Bosnia at the end of last week with Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, as part of a two-year partnership aimed at preventing sexual violence in conflict. In the course of the trip they spoke in private to several women survivors of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, where the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys has overshadowed another crime against humanity committed at the same time, the systematic rape of women and girls.
The meeting with the Srebrenica women took place in a disused battery factory where in July 1995, thousands of Bosnian Muslims sought the shelter of Dutch UN peacekeepers. The UN promise of protection proved hollow and the factory is now echoing and empty apart from a sombre memorial – two black boxes each as big as a house. In a cemetery outside a stone monument records the names of the 8,000 men and boys slaughtered by General Ratko Mladic’s Serb army.
One of the women, Edina Karic, was taken from her family by Serb soldiers and held at a nearby lead and zinc mine, where she was repeatedly raped.
“I was taken to the mine, where I was raped many times along with two other girls. Then we were eight days in an abandoned house where we were raped again,” Karic said. “When these things were happening to me, it was as if I wasn’t there in my body. I was looking at it from outside.”
None of Karic’s rapists has been prosecuted, even though she could definitively identify at least three of them, and has followed their lives, in a town a few miles away, through Facebook.
More than 20,000 Bosnian women and girls were raped. Over a decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo there are thought to have been 200,000 victims. There were up to half a million rapes in Rwanda in 1994, and there are widespread reports of systematic sexual violence in Syria.
The silence surrounding rape as a war crime is deepened because the victims are often shunned by their own communities. Edina Karic is a rarity in that she is prepared to speak openly about what happened to her.
“I realised I’m not the one who should feel shame. It’s for the perpetrators to feel ashamed,” she said.
In Sarajevo, Hague and Jolie spoke to a hall full of Bosnian army officers who have, with British assistance, developed a training course meant to equip peacekeeping contingents from around the world to detect and prevent the commission of mass rape. As part of the Hague-Jolie campaign, every UN peacekeeping mission is now supposed to provide for the protection of civilians against sexual violence in conflict.
“At times, you may be all that stands between a child and violence that will scar him or her forever,” Jolie told the soldiers in Sarajevo. You may sometimes be the first person outside their family that a survivor of rape encounters. Your actions may make the difference between a successful prosecution, or aggressors going unpunished.”
So far, for the 20,000-50,000 wartime rapes in Bosnia, there have been 30 convictions at the Hague war crimes tribunal and another 33 at the Bosnia state court. Thousands more perpetrators, like Edina Karic’s rapists, remain at liberty.
“There is no forensic evidence, often no medical reports. All you have usually are witness statements, and in a very conservative society, most victims don’t want people to know what happened to them, so most rapes are not reported,” said Dubravko Campara, a Bosnian war crimes prosecutor.
The Bosnian state court has hundreds of open investigations on its docket and just 17 prosecutors. But with the help of UK funding, another 15 are going to be added to the staff to ease the backlog. The court now has a witness support unit to ease the pressure on women witnesses.
The global Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative was launched two years ago after Hague saw Jolie’s 2012 film about the Bosnian rape camps, Land of Blood and Honey. The hardest part of the effort is likely to be translating goodwill at the summit into real change in future conflicts. When Hague and Jolie visited Goma in DRC last March, they heard that women fleeing the fighting with their families were being frequently raped when they ventured out of refugee camps to look for firewood, despite the proximity of thousands of UN peacekeepers nearby. Keeping the women safe was not part of the soldiers’ mandate.
Hague conceded that progress in changing UN peacekeeping practices had been slow, but added: “The UN will be heavily involved in the summit. A big ally of ours is Zainab Bangura, the UN special representative on sexual violence. I think we are getting somewhere with that, but it means systematically building our objectives into all peacekeeping training.”
“There is a lot of goodwill,” Jolie said. There is a lot of understanding of what’s right and wrong, but there is a disconnect. So if we can try to put the pieces together and fill the holes, then maybe there can be a real change.”