Confronting rape as a weapon of war: a challenge for our generation

Foreign Secretary William Hague's keynote address at the "Preventing sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations" meeting at Wilton Park.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Each generation faces its own challenges, and each can shape our world for the better.

Our generation has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to confront the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

In our lifetimes millions of women, children and men have endured this horror, including in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Uganda, Liberia and in Bosnia, where only twenty years ago, on European soil, rape camps were set up and tens of thousands of women subjected to sexual slavery and enforced pregnancy.

I believe that preventing and addressing sexual violence is vital to resolving conflicts and building sustainable peace. I see it as a vast international issue that national foreign policies have not yet adequately addressed. And I am convinced that we can actually do something more about it. That is why I am championing it as Foreign Secretary.

While my Party was still in Opposition I met survivors of rape in refugee camps in Darfur and in Srebrenica. Last month I returned to Bosnia and spent time with female and male survivors in Sarajevo, and I recently shared a platform with people working with survivors of rape and torture in the DRC.

These experiences brought home to me the sheer extent and intensity of the problem, the overwhelming lack of justice for survivors of wartime rape and sexual violence despite a huge amount of excellent work by grassroots organisations and NGOs, and the direct link that this has with peace and security today. Where there is no justice or dignity for survivors development is held back, and the seeds of future conflict are sown.

I approach this subject with a good deal of humility, as a man, and as someone who has not experienced conflict first hand or worked with survivors. But I have been appalled by the toll sexual violence in conflict has on children. To take just one example, of the thousands of reported rapes in the DRC in one recent period, up to 50% of all survivors were under the age of 17, and 10% were under the age of 10.

I have been struck by the terrible life sentence of trauma, stigma and illness that follows in the wake of rape in war, and its impact on families and communities. This was illustrated to me by the fact that 67% of survivors in Rwanda were subsequently found to be HIV positive.

And I have been deeply affected by the knowledge that many victims never get the recognition or support they are entitled to, eking out a precarious existence in conflict zones with their abusers often still at large in their communities.

There has been a tendency in the past to regard sexual violence as an inevitable by-product of conflict, something that happens in the ‘fog of war’ when law and order breaks down.

On top of this, we have treated sexual violence either as an issue of marginal importance in peace agreements which often tend to exclude women, or to see it as a global problem that is too immense for us to do anything about it.

This has to change. We now know that rape and sexual violence is used as a deliberate weapon of war in the same way that guns and tanks are, to terrorise civilian populations, to humiliate, scar and destroy whole ethnic groups or religious or political opponents, cheaply, silently and devastatingly.

To simply accept that this is part of the cycle of war is to consign hundreds of thousands of innocent people to an appalling fate in the future.

And I am convinced from my own experiences as Foreign Secretary over the last two and a half years that our failure to confront this issue does play a part in emboldening those who are orchestrating atrocities today, including in Syria. Our efforts to prevent rape in war have to be as determined as our efforts to prevent conflict in the first place.

These are just some of the reasons why this issue matters to me and has a direct bearing on foreign policy. But there are also two factors which explain why I think the conditions are right for a major new international initiative, and why I am personally optimistic about our chances.

The first is that we have developed an impressive array of mechanisms at the UN and national level over the last decade, including UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1960, the office of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, the various UN teams of experts, new mechanisms to train peacekeepers, and National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security, which include protections for violence against women and girls. Our understanding of these issues has been transformed over the last decade and we have a far wider range of capabilities to bring to bear against this problem. In the United Kingdom we are determined to champion women’s rights in all the UN bodies, and to be vigilant and outspoken against any attempt to undermine the gains that have now been secured.

And second, I believe that a critical mass of public opinion has now begun to build up in many countries against the use of sexual violence in conflict. My experience as a politician leads me to believe that this is the moment to mobilise global public opinion and to rally the efforts of nations, in the same way that we have mustered the will to ban the use of landmines and cluster munitions, and are on the verge of securing an international Arms Trade Treaty. Shattering the culture of impunity for those who use rape as a weapon of war is the next great global challenge of our generation. It is a cause whose time has come.

This is overwhelmingly due to years of work by the UN and its agencies, by NGOs, the International Criminal Court and other international tribunals and brave survivors who have felt able to share their stories with a shocked world. I am also conscious that many other countries have shown leadership in this area, including many that have emerged from conflict themselves.

We have also benefited greatly from the insights of filmmakers, who have shone a light on painful events and helped us to understand our responsibilities.

One such Director is Jasmila Zbani?, who allowed us to screen her film ‘Emma’s Story’ during this conference.

And another is Angelina Jolie.

Many of you will be familiar with her work as Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But it was my encounter earlier this year with her film In the Land of Blood and Honey that actually galvanised me into starting this new British initiative, and led to her joining me at our event in the Foreign Office in May when I announced it.

I am very grateful to Angelina Jolie for her support for our efforts to combat the terrible suffering she depicted so powerfully in her film, and for joining us again today.

She assures me she is here to meet you and to listen to our discussion, but I also think she may also be checking up on whether we have lived up to our promises.

I believe we are making some strong and encouraging progress with your help. And our ambition and resolve is even greater than when we first began this initiative, because of the overwhelmingly positive reception it has received around the world.

We are focussing our efforts on accountability and justice, and on increasing the number of prosecutions for these crimes. This is the area where there is the most glaring lack of political will, where I believe governments like our own can make the most difference, and where we must act if we are to erode the culture of impunity.

In May I announced that Britain would set up a specialist team of experts that can be deployed to conflict areas to support UN missions and local civil society to investigate allegations of sexual violence, to gather evidence and to help build up the capabilities of other nations.

Today, six months later we have recruited 70 people for this team already, which includes police, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, forensic experts, gender-based violence experts and experts in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses. I will shortly be able to announce its first deployment which will begin before the end of this year.

Each deployment will be tailored to meet local needs and circumstances. The deployments will be based on in-depth assessments of national and international responses in that country to date and how the British team could reinforce or complement existing efforts, as well as consultations with the authorities in each country.

I also pledged six months ago that we would use our Presidency of the G8 in 2013 to secure new commitments from some of the world’s most powerful nations. Be in no doubt, we really mean business about this. By the time our Presidency actually starts in January, we will already have spent seven months building support for our objectives before we begin negotiations in earnest. My colleagues around the world know already that it will be one of my top priorities for the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in April.

We have proposed new G8 partnerships with conflict-affected countries, and a new International Protocol on the investigation and documentation of sexual violence in conflict. I welcome the fact that Mr Brammertz flagged up this issue yesterday, when he said that we need a standardised set of guidelines for effective prosecutions. This would be a practical response to the need to improve the evidence base for prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict at the national and international level, and it would draw on existing advice and guidelines. We want any new Protocol to be of genuine value to national authorities in their efforts to seek prosecutions. If adopted, it could be used in training and capacity building programmes, ensuring an enduring legacy which we would hope to expand beyond the G8 over time.

In all these areas our Government is not looking to reinvent the wheel - but we are saying that we are prepared to put Britain’s shoulder to it as never before.

We do not want to duplicate or cut across the work that has been done by experts - but we do want to set an example to the world of what governments can do.

We are one of the few countries in the world that can lead such an effort. We have a network of 260 diplomatic posts around the globe, one of the most extensive of any nation. We have one of the largest programmes of international development aid in the world. We are members of the United Nations Security Council, NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth as well as our G8 role, all of which gives us the ability - as well as the responsibility - to take this cause to many of the most influential multilateral bodies in the world.

And we have set up an excellent new team of Foreign Office officials led by Emma Hopkins to oversee all our efforts. She and her colleagues have already visited Japan, France, Germany, the US, Canada, China, South Korea and international human rights organisations in Geneva, The Hague and the European Union, to discuss our proposals and mobilise support for our G8 campaign. I think their work will become a model for how other Foreign Ministries can increase their capabilities in this area, particularly in the way it draws on wide expertise from DfID and the Home Office as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office itself.

As a sign of our determination to reinforce and not duplicate existing efforts, we are working closely with the UN Team of Exports on Rule of Law and Sexual Violence that supports the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Mrs Zainab Bangura.

In July I announced that we have donated £1 million over two years to the ICC’s groundbreaking mechanism to help victims rebuild their lives, the Trust Fund for Victims. The projects the Fund supports in Uganda, DRC and elsewhere are based on the understanding that it is impossible fully to undo the damage caused by war crimes, including sexual violence. However it is possible to help empower survivors to rebuild their families and regain their place as contributing members of their society.

In New York in September I announced an increase in British support for the UN Special Representative’s work, with £1 million of funding over the next three years. I welcome the greater emphasis that she is placing on national ownership, leadership and responsibility. And I think we must also promote a more ‘strategic’ use of international effort to support UN work to combat impunity.

And I am announcing today that we will contribute £375,000 over a three year period to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Field Support to develop policies, guidance and training for use by peacekeepers as first responders to incidents of sexual violence.

We are urging other countries to match our voluntary contributions in each of these areas. We will do all of these things and more, but of course we look to you to give us your help, advice, constructive criticism and support.

You are among the world’s leading experts in the field of combating wartime rape and sexual violence, with deep knowledge and personal experience. I am extremely grateful to you all for travelling a long way to be here and for sharing your expertise with us, and I want to pay particular tribute to Special Representative Bangura and her predecessor Margot Wallstrom.
We need your help to ensure that we have set the right level of ambition for the G8, to ensure that we are aiming high enough and that our proposals are drawn up to have the maximum possible impact.

We have already drawn five important conclusions from your discussions over the last two days.

First, justice has got to be viewed in its fullest sense. It means many things to survivors, ranging from access to justice and effective remedy at the local and national level, reparation, medical care and support to rebuild lives, and it can also involve restorative justice and truth commissions as well as prosecutions.

Second, we must conceptualise sexual violence in its broadest sense, in terms of women’s rights, education and participation. It is part of a much broader effort to address violence against women and girls and to empower women across society.

Third, we need better coordination of current efforts, across the silos that can set in between our humanitarian, security and developmental efforts.

Fourth, we have to build up national ownership by matching international efforts much more closely to national requirements and building up national capacity. In my mind this must include how we work to bridge the gap between international efforts and the grass roots organisations which work on the ground, understand the grain of the society, and have the trust of local people.

And finally, we need to shift the balance of shame away from survivors to the perpetrators of this crime. We need to break down the stigma by talking about it, which is something I am attempting to do as Foreign Secretary in my conversations around the world. And we have to recognise that unless we shift attitudes amongst men that rape is not a family matter, it is a violent crime, then the problem will persist.

So I am extremely grateful to you for taking part in this conference, and I will study your detailed recommendations. It is my sincere hope that you will continue to work with us over the coming year, giving us guidance and honest advice when you think we can do more. And I particularly hope you will feel able to work us with to build public momentum around our G8 campaign in 2013 and beyond, so that each country can feel the campaign in their own parliaments and media.

So this will be our approach: increasing our own capabilities in the British Foreign Office, significantly increasing our support to UN efforts, raising the profile of the need to confront sexual violence in conflict in every way we can, and proposing new action that we hope will be adopted by many nations in a new collective effort for our generation.

It has been inspiring to meet many people around the world who share our sense of hope and ambition. On the rare occasion that I am met with a sceptical smile, I remind people of the 18th century slave trade. Although slavery is still with us in modern variants, our predecessors exploded the belief that slavery was in the natural order of things, and a problem too complex to be tackled. And I also remind people that even if our action only succeeds in making a difference at the margins of this vast problem, it could mean that thousands of vulnerable people are spared this appalling violation.

The survivors I have met have made a great impression on me by their courage to speak about their experiences and to live, raise families and hold their heads high. By standing shoulder to shoulder with civil society, communities and international organisations I believe we can match the courage of these survivors with a new international resolve to confront and one day even end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Published 14 November 2012