Remarks from SRSG Pramila Patten: Georgetown University virtual event, “The crisis in Tigray: Women and girls under violent assault”

I thank Ambassador Verveer for the invitation to this important and timely event. We meet at a time when conflict-related sexual violence, as a crime, should have been consigned to a closed chapter of history, but is unfortunately, once again in the headlines.

In the remote, mountainous regions of North and Central Tigray, women and girls are being subjected to sexual violence with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension. Healthcare workers are documenting new cases of rape and gang-rape daily, despite their fear of reprisals and attacks on the limited shelters and clinics still in operation.

My Office has been following the situation in Tigray since November 2020 and since then I have been extremely concerned by the numerous and horrific reports received from multiple and credible sources, about the extent and cruelty of acts of sexual violence being committed against women and girls. Images of the brutality of the violence and terror being inflicted on women and girls has sent shock waves around the world. Testimonies of some brave survivors revealed the brutal and hideous war being waged on the bodies of women and girls.

On 21 January 2021, I issued a statement calling for restraint in the early stages of these hostilities and urged all parties involved in the fighting to adhere to a zero-tolerance policy for crimes of sexual violence. I also called for humanitarian actors and human rights investigators to be granted access to affected areas and populations.

More recently, as more humanitarian actors, service providers, assessment teams and journalists have been allowed into the regions, horrific stories of sexual violence have emerged…. of men in uniform, using rape and gang rape systematically; holding women and girls captive for days and repeatedly assaulting them; targeting young girls and pregnant women; forcing family members to watch their mothers, daughters, wives and sisters being brutally violated.

It is true that due to communication blackouts, insecurity, and restrictions on access, it has been difficult for the UN to verify all these accounts. It is my position that we cannot sit idle waiting for verification and ignore these multiple accounts of sexual atrocities. After all, these reports may only be the tip of the iceberg, as sexual violence is always chronically underreported. In its report of 11 February in which it had documented 108 rapes reported in health facilities, the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission stressed that the number of sexual violence incidents are likely to be higher and more widespread, given the destruction of local structures where survivors could have previously reported cases, such as police and health facilities.

Neither can we overlook all the signs that point to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Service providers are signaling an increased demand for sexual and reproductive health services, particularly emergency contraceptives, abortions, and HIV prevention drugs, as well as increased requests for psychological and mental health support to deal with trauma resulting from sexual violence. These are indicators of sexual violence being deployed on a large scale.

There are also credible reports of the targeting of health facilities and shelters for survivors; and threats against medical personnel and journalists documenting sexual violence cases. These are indeed, patterns and trends that we often see in conflict zones where sexual violence is widespread and systematic. Therefore, we must view and address them as the critical warning signals they are.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What is clear is that the conflict is not over and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly. Improvement in access and a reduction in conflict and atrocities have been temporary and sporadic. Without a ceasefire, this already grave humanitarian crisis is only going to get worse.

Since January, I have engaged with the Ethiopian authorities on the need to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence and had meetings with the Permanent Representative to the UN, the President of Ethiopia, the Chair of the Human Rights Commission and the Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs. I am encouraged by the acknowledgment of reports of sexual violence at the highest levels of the Government: this is a first, critical step to addressing the problem.

The Minister of Women Children and Youth Affairs has confirmed the critical needs of survivors and called for support from the international community. In this regard, we are currently working together on the development of a Framework of Cooperation which will identify areas for UN intervention and support to the national authorities.

The Security Council has adopted groundbreaking resolutions to combat sexual violence in conflict. Last Wednesday, at the annual Open Debate on sexual violence in conflict, I asked a question to members of the Council: “What do these resolutions mean right now on the ground in Tigray? When history looks back on this painful episode – as part of the long litany of battles fought on the bodies of women and girls, from Bosnia, to Rwanda, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – we will rightly be asked: What did we do to honor our commitments?”.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021