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Sexual violence in conflict: a war crime

The House of Lords Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict has today published Sexual Violence in Conflict: A War Crime, in which it calls on the Government to set out ambitious policy goals for reducing conflict-related sexual violence to ensure the international momentum created by the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) is not lost.

The report makes clear that the Government must demonstrate its commitment to the PSVI and the NGOs and local organisations that are critical to delivering it. The Government should clearly articulate the strategic goals for the PSVI and set out a strategy for their delivery, including providing long-term commitment and resources. The Government must resist the temptation to narrowly focus the PSVI on just the Middle East or religious extremism.

The Government should also produce an annual report to Parliament on its progress in achieving the objectives set for PSVI.

Commenting, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, Chairman of the Committee, said:

"Sexual violence in conflict is a horrendous and barbaric crime that ruins lives and destroys families and communities. It is right that the UK Government has prioritised the challenge of eradicating it. We have seen from recent events in the Middle East and beyond that this horrific practice is still all too common. However it is not inevitable; it can and should be stopped and perpetrators brought to justice.

"In establishing the PSVI in 2012 and hosting the 2014 Global Summit, the Government made an important contribution in raising the profile of this vital issue. However, if that good start is not to be squandered, it is time for a clear strategic plan on how to take forward the battle against sexual violence in conflict. We need a five-year strategy with the PSVI's work appropriately resourced and embedded across Government.

"Victims of sexual violence in conflict face unimaginable trauma, which is then exacerbated by the stigma they then often face in their own communities. Their needs must be the priority for organisations working in post-conflict zones. The Government should be working now to prepare for the dreadful legacy of the violence and inhumanity of groups such as Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Any meaningful peace process in Syria must include significant participation by women and the Government should resist any settlement that includes amnesties for perpetrators of sexual violence.

"Our report makes a range of recommendations on how the fight against sexual violence in conflict can be taken forward. Victory against this dreadful crime will require determined and coordinated international action across legal, military and humanitarian fields and significant support for organisations helping victims on the ground. It can be achieved, but not without full commitment, a clear strategy and appropriate resources – we must ensure they are delivered."

The Committee's recommendations include:

  • "For too long sexual violence in conflict has gone unacknowledged and unpunished. Only recently has this begun to change, but there remains much to be done before we can mitigate its effects and look to its eradication. Unless the UK and others act, sexual violence in conflict will only increase. The Government must redouble its efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict. Only then will we begin to address this war crime and answer the hopes of the survivors we met and of all those damaged by these horrendous crimes."
  • The UN recently reported evidence of conflict-related sexual violence occurring in 19 countries. The Government must avoid the temptation to narrow the focus of the PSVI solely on the Middle East or combating religious extremism. The PSVI must have a global mandate and work to change behaviour and attitudes to sexual violence anywhere communities are at risk in conflict.
  • Perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict should know they will not evade prosecution. The UK should increase its voluntary contributions to the work of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to help it investigate and prosecute crimes of conflict-related sexual violence.
  • The report considers the atrocities committed by multiple aggressors in Iraq and Syria. The Committee accepts that it is for the courts to determine responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, as access to international jurisdictions such as the ICC is currently blocked, the report recommends that the Government should now state, that in its view, there is prima facie evidence that crimes such as sexual violence, torture and genocide have been committed, and that those responsible must be brought to justice.
  • The UK should resist any peace settlement in Syria that proposes amnesties for perpetrators of sexual violence during the conflict. The Government should also work to ensure any peace process in Syria involves the meaningful participation of women and develop a strategy to support victims of sexual violence, which can be implemented quickly when the current conflict ends.
  • Peacekeepers sent to protect the vulnerable have, on occasions, committed sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), very often without redress. A new tribunal is therefore required to ensure accountability for peacekeepers who commit SEA. The UK Government must ensure the incoming UN Secretary-General gives a high priority to leading the campaign against sexual violence in conflict in all its forms.
  • The UK Government should push for the ‘naming and shaming' of states who fail to investigate or carry out appropriate disciplinary procedures against their peacekeeping troops accused of these crimes. Peacekeepers should receive mandatory gender training prior to deployment and gender advisors with child protection knowledge should be present in all peacekeeping missions.
  • The UK should work with other countries to establish a regular global conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict, to be hosted by a different state every four years.
  • The Government should ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the ‘Istanbul Convention') at the earliest opportunity.

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