Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
My thanks to the United States Office of Global Women’s Issues, Search for Common Ground, and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security for co-organizing this event, and shining a spotlight on this scourge.
Today’s event takes place against the backdrop of several unfolding crises in which women’s rights and physical security are in peril. Right now, the eyes of the world are on Afghanistan, where women and women’s rights defenders are navigating the new reality of a return to Taliban rule. In the mountainous region of Tigray, Ethiopia, women have been driven from their homes by violence, including rape and gang-rape, often committed at gunpoint, with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension. In Syria, the war marches on after a decade of impunity, including for sexual violence used as a tool of torture and interrogation. In Myanmar, sexual violence has been a driver of forced displacement and remains a factor inhibiting the safe return of refugees and IDPs, prolonging the Rohingya crisis. In South Sudan, women and girls continue to be abducted and subjected to rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery. In Eastern DRC, sexual violence remains widespread as a tool of identity and resource-based conflict, with many women and girls caught between rebel attacks and military responses. At the same time, a once-in-a-century pandemic has made resourcing, outreach, and response efforts more challenging than ever.
At this difficult geopolitical juncture, we must take the opportunity to press pause and ask what more could have been done to prevent this? What more could have been done to learn from history, rather than being condemned to repeat it?
Century after century, women have been treated as the ‘spoils of war’. Since time immemorial, rape has been used to control women’s sexuality, labor and reproduction; to shred the social fabric; to conquer territories and populations; and to crush the enemy’s morale and will to resist. From the wars of antiquity to the complex security landscape of the 21st Century, ‘looting, pillage and rape’ remains the trilogy of wartime terror. It is not only violent extremists and terrorist groups, such as ISIL and Boko Haram, that follow this medieval script. Every new wave of warfare brings with it renewed risks and patterns of sexual violence. The effects are magnified when the perpetrators hold positions of power, which further erodes trust and confidence in governance institutions. Historically, mass rape has been met with mass impunity, barely receiving a line in war reporting or courts martial. In male-dominated security discourse, rape was ranked lowest on the ‘hierarchy of wartime horrors’, as a ‘lesser evil’ relative to the lethal violence of the battlefield. It was dismissed as cultural and collateral. A ‘private tragedy’ rather than a tactic.
The conflicts of the 1990s in the Balkans and Rwanda captured the public imagination, and the crime of wartime rape – though not new – made news headlines around the world. Since then, international criminal law has evolved dramatically, and a new policy consensus has emerged.
Today, sexual violence is less tolerated and more regulated. It is less silenced, and more systematically reported. More diplomatic measures to prevent, mitigate and address wartime rape have been put in place over the past twenty years than in the rest of human history combined. This includes a series of ten robust Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, half of which are specifically focused on combatting conflict-related sexual violence. Eight sanctions regimes now include sexual violence as part of their designation criteria, which puts past and potential perpetrators on notice. More women blue helmets and gender experts have been deployed to the field, and conflict-related sexual violence is routinely included in the mandates of peacekeeping missions as a core Protection of Civilians objective. And yet, even as the face of war has been transformed by new military technology, war’s oldest crime remains a constant threat.
In 2020, my Office reported more than 2,500 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence across 18 country situations. Over 96 percent of these incidents targeted women and girls. Each of these cases cries out for justice and redress, yet 70 percent of the parties named in the report for being implicated in these atrocities have taken no remedial or corrective action. Achieving tangible change will require a paradigm shift in the way we confront peace and security challenges. Addressing sexual violence is no longer a ‘side issue’, but an integral part of broader political and democratic transitions. In that context, policies of zero tolerance for war crimes against women cannot carry zero consequences. All tools must work in tandem to compel parties to comply with international law and to safeguard women at risk, including legislative reform; training of justice and security sector actors; monitoring and accountability. This comprehensive approach is reflected in the 11 Joint Communiqués and Frameworks of Cooperation that my Office has signed with conflict-affected countries to anchor national ownership.
A shift in paradigm and perspective is also essential to ensure that local realities guide the global search for solutions. The survivor-centered approach, which I have made a priority of my mandate from day one, aims to amplify first-hand, front-line perspectives. This approach views survivors not as passive beneficiaries, but as the co-creators of solutions. Critically, it does not only apply to relief and recovery, but also to upstream prevention efforts. Local women are often the first to raise the red flag about impending security threats, and yet they are still the last to be heard and heeded by security authorities at the local, national, and global levels.
Survivors know best what they need. Yet too often, they are minimized by the system, while the perpetrators remain at large. The survivors walk in fear and shame, while the perpetrators walk free.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I was confronted with the challenge of how to keep the perspectives of survivors at the heart of our efforts. As travel restrictions and lockdowns took effect, I became concerned that this already chronically underreported crime would slip further into the shadows. I therefore launched a Digital Book to provide a platform for survivors and service-providers to testify in their own words, and to make recommendations for how our efforts could be guided by ‘ground truths’. We see in these pages not only the incalculable human cost of ‘war’s cheapest weapon’, but also concrete measures that could have been put in place to prevent it. These measures include: avoiding troop deployments close to civilian population centers; ensuring adequate infrastructure such as lighting in camps; safely locating waterpoints and wells; distributing fuel-efficient stoves to reduce the need for women to cross vast distances to gather fuel; deploying patrols of well-trained, gender-balanced police and peacekeepers; informing civilians in real-time about risks and hot-spots; issuing command orders that categorically prohibit sexual violence; and holding perpetrators accountable irrespective of rank.
The insights of survivors and frontline service-providers underscore that prevention is paramount. To this end, my Office is developing a comprehensive prevention framework that aims to make deterrence and guarantees of non-repetition a reality. This framework will reaffirm that women’s rights don’t end when wars begin.
After 12 years of compiling annual reports to the Security Council, the risk factors and patterns are all too familiar. We know that sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum, but is tied to broader security dynamics, such as the resurgence of hostilities, rising violent extremism, militarization, arms proliferation, displacement, and collapsed Rule of Law. Moreover, our reporting finds conflict-related sexual violence to be concentrated in contexts of abduction, captivity, displacement, detention, in the vicinity of military bases, in private houses during raids, at checkpoints, and in rural areas where women undertake livelihood activities. We have translated these and other indicators – such as misogynistic hate speech and propaganda – into a matrix of early-warning indicators that continues to be rolled-out in the field. Efforts to avert recurrent risks must be included in all protection arrangements and contingency plans.
To expand the parameters of protection, my Office has also been mandated to produce a Special Report on the subject of children born of rape, to address the neglect and knowledge gap that hampers our response, and to ensure that specific attention is paid to these voiceless victims, who risk being relegated to the shadows of society – marginalized, undocumented, and sometimes left stateless. Children conceived through rape and their mothers face acute challenges in societies polarized by war. We must not abandon these children; we must not abandon their mothers.
My Office has also developed model legislative guidance to assist States to harmonize domestic laws with international standards. But we must deliver justice, not just law. As one survivor from Myanmar reported to my Office: “I have not received justice or any reparation. On the contrary, I have been threatened with death for telling the truth”.
On her behalf, and on behalf of all the survivors I have met around the world, we must ensure that international law is not an empty promise. We must match moral outrage with material assistance for survivors, to enable them to live lives of dignity rather than desperation. Transformative reparations can uproot the drivers of sexual and gender-based violence, such as structural discrimination and exclusion, rather than sowing the seeds for further inequality and unrest. In addition to preventing sexual violence itself, we must prevent the stigma, re-traumatization and reprisals that often follow in its wake. Fear and cultural stigma cause many survivors to retreat from transitional justice processes and public life. It is unacceptable that – in the court of public opinion – women still bear the blame and shame of rape. Rape remains the only crime for which a community is more likely to stigmatize the victim, than the perpetrator. Practitioners in the field estimate that for every rape reported in connection with a conflict, 10 to 20 cases go undocumented and unaddressed. This means that the trauma of rape persists, long after the guns have fallen silent, and the ink has dried on a peace agreement.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The silence of history has been broken, but we have not yet broken the vicious cycle of violence, impunity and revenge that perpetuates these crimes. It is time to push back, and convert this into a virtuous cycle of recognition, reporting and redress, which must include accountability and reparations as a form of deterrence. That is the key to replacing horror with hope. It is the key to upholding the values of the United Nations Charter, and to saving succeeding generations from war’s oldest and most enduring scourge.
It is time to make rape history. Women’s bodies are no one’s battlefields.