Protect women’s rights ‘before, during and after conflict’ UN chief tells high-level Security Council debate

Over the course of the past decade, there has been “a paradigm shift” in understanding the devastating impact of sexual violence in conflict on international peace and security, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council during a high-level debate on Tuesday.

At the meeting marking the 10th anniversary of the adoption of resolution 1888, which created the mandate of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Council adopted a German-drafted resolution to reduce sexual violence in conflict and end rape as a weapon of war, with 13 in favour, and two countries, Russia and China, abstaining.

Lengthy negotiations reportedly took place over the wording of the final resolution, with some Members arguing against the establishment of a formal new reporting mechanism, and also references to womens’ reproductive and sexual health service provisions.

Addressing the overall scourge, Mr. Guterres said that “Local civil society organizations, many of them women’s organizations, are on the frontlines of our efforts to prevent and provide redress for this crime, and they deserve our strong and consistent support.”

Sexual violence in war “largely affects women and girls because it is closely linked to broader issues of gender inequality and discrimination”, Mr. Guterres said, adding that “prevention” must be based on “promoting women’s rights and gender equality in all areas, before, during and after conflict”.

“This must include women’s full and effective participation in political, economic and social life and ensuring accessible and responsive justice and security institutions”, he said.

Mr. Guterres also recognized the links between sexual violence in conflict, gender inequality and discrimination, and violent extremism and terrorism.

“Extremists and terrorists often build their ideologies around the subjugation of women and girls and use sexual violence in various ways, from forced marriage to virtual enslavement”, he explained. “Sexual violence continues to fuel conflict and severely impacts the prospects for lasting peace”.

“I encourage this Council to include the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence in all your country-specific resolutions, and in the mandates of peace operations”, he said.

Mr. Guterres stressed the need to strengthen justice and accountability, saying that despite a handful of high-profile convictions, “there is widespread impunity for sexual violence in conflict” and that most “are never reported, investigated and much less prosecuted”.

He encouraged the Council to continue working together “to reconcile differences”, as the “global “response to these crimes must ensure punishment of the perpetrators and comprehensive support to survivors with full respect for their human rights”.

“Together, we can and must replace impunity with justice, and indifference with action”, stressed the Secretary-General.

‘Utterly shell-shocked’ communities

Although stigma and other social barriers contribute to the chronic underreporting of sexual violence, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, told the Council that “we now understand much more about its many forms, drivers, and impacts, and about the devastating physical, psychological, and social burdens survivors bear”.

And yet, after a decade of concerted attention and action to deal with this crime, she spelled out: “Wars are still being fought on, and over, the bodies of women and girls”.

“Sexual violence fuels conflict and severely impacts the prospects for lasting peace” Ms. Patten stated, adding that it is used “precisely because it is such an effective means to target individuals and devastate entire communities”.

The UN envoy painted a picture of victims targeted because of their ethnic, religious, political or clan affiliation.

Ms. Patten recounted a visit to South Sudan where she was “horrified” by the “sheer brutality of the sexual violence, perpetrated along ethnic lines against women and girls, even children as young as 4 years”.

She described “utterly shell-shocked” communities in the UN Protection of Civilian site in the capital, Juba, who were ganged raped and abducted for sexual slavery.

“Imagine a desperation so raw that parents would marry their daughter off to one stranger to spare her rape by many”, she asserted.

“If we are ever to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place, we must confront the unacceptable reality that it is still largely cost-free to rape a woman, child or man in armed conflicts around the world”, she said. “To turn the tide, we must increase the cost and consequences for those who commit, command or condone sexual violence in conflict”.

“We must convert a centuries-old culture of impunity into a culture of accountability,” concluded the Special Representative.

‘Stand on the right side of history’

World-renowned human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, recounted some of the “important milestones” she had reached advocating on behalf of Yazadi women and girls from northern Iraq, thousands of whom were sold into sexual slavery by extremist group ISIL.

She said that two weeks ago in Germany, she had represented the mother of a five-year old Yazidi child, at the first trial against an ISIS terrorist fighter, facing war crimes charges.

Ms. Clooney said the mother had been “enslaved, chained outdoors to a window, and left to slowly die of thirst in the scorching heat” but now justice was being served and he “faces charges of murder as a war crime”.

“Crimes committed by ISIS against women and girls are unlike anything we have witnessed in modem time” she said, adding that “the question of bringing them to justice has barely raised a whisper…if we don’t act now, it will be too late”.

“This is your Nuremberg moment”, she told the Council, referring to the trials carried out in Germany after World War Two that prosecuted Nazis and others indicted on charges of crimes against humanity.

‘A dangerous phenomenon’

Sexual violence crimes committed against women across the world have become “a dangerous phenomenon” that requires action by all, Nadia Murad, UN Office on Drugs and Crime Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking, told the Council.

The Yazidi survivor of rape-turned-advocate, spoke of how the thousands of Yazidi women and girls had been enslaved of in front of the local and international community, remarking that “no one intervened to stop them”.

Moreover, the genocide of the Yazidis continues.

“The social fabric of an entire society has been torn, the hopes and aspirations of generations were wasted”, she bemoaned. “We were prevented from practicing our traditions… [and] there were dozens of mass graves across our region.

She said that the international community must “shoulder the responsibility” to rescue those still missing and in captivity since 2014.

Ms. Murad said that some Yazidi women who had been subjected to sexual violence at the hand of ISIS had “broken the barrier of silence” and “told their stories to the world”, hoping for justice.

“However, so far, not a single person was tried for sexual enslavement crimes against the Yazidis”, she informed the Council, adding that more than 350,000 Yazidis are still displaced in camps.

“After five years since the genocide against my people, as the world stood and watched, no clear steps have been taken to save the surviving Yazidis”, she said.

Asking that those perpetrators who “used Yazidi women as weapons of war” be brought to justice, Ms. Murad urged that they be tried before an international tribunal “for crimes of genocide and sexual violence against women and children” to send a message to others that would “prevent such crimes in the future.”

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