Specialized investigation into sexual violence in conflict is essential for justice, experts say

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Antonia Mulvey, former gender advisor to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar recaps her findings from Myanmar, and emphasizes the importance of timely investigations into sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. © UN Women/Jodie Mann

On the sidelines of the UN Security Council open debate on sexual violence in conflict, experts came together to discuss what it takes to achieve justice for conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes, through investigation and documentation.

Nearly 20 years since the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution 1325, which calls on all parties in conflict to uphold women’s rights and respond to violations, impunity for conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence continues to undermine international peace and security.

“When I interviewed survivors, they said ‘we want justice,’” said Antonia Mulvey, former gender advisor to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. “Many of them cannot read or write, but they know what justice is, and they wanted accountability”.

The side event, co-sponsored by UN Women, the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Justice Rapid Response and the Permanent Missions of Canada, Ireland, Lichtenstein, the Gambia and the United Kingdom to the UN, and moderated by Ambassador Christian Wenaweser, Permanent Representative of the Mission of Liechtenstein to the UN, on 24 April, convened human rights experts and investigators to discuss the importance of quality and timely investigations of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence.

“Information is an essential pre-requisite for accountability for sexual and gender-based violence in conflict,” said Ambassador Richard Arbeiter, Deputy Permanent Representative, Mission of Canada to the UN. “We need to make sure investigation and documentation is gender-sensitive to avoid blind spots and ensure the right approach.”

Since 2010, Justice Rapid Response, UN Women and OHCHR have partnered to deploy a gender advisor or an investigator specializing in sexual and gender-based violence crimes to UN investigations mandated by the Human Rights Council and the UN Secretary-General. In 2018, investigations took place in eight countries and territories, and each investigation uncovered evidence of the gendered impact of human rights violations, as well as specific findings of sexual and gender-based violence.

“Ensuring that the experience of survivors of sexual violence is fully captured is the first step towards gender-sensitive accountability and protection responses,” said United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour. “I truly think that we owe this to the survivors of sexual violence: To help them rebuild their shattered lives and their dignity, and to grant them at least a modicum of consolation by restoring some belief in justice.”

While numbers of rape and sexual assaults are notoriously difficult to confirm, sexual violence against women and girls has been used as a deliberate tool in conflicts in Syria and Myanmar. In Myanmar, where more than half a million Rohingya have fled the country, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as part of the efforts to displace populations. In Syria, sexual violence has been used to extract information from women, and to coerce surrender from male relatives.

Serena Gates, former gender advisor to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, described how rape and sexual assault against women in Syria was used as a military tactic in a number of scenarios. For women raped in detention, such reasons may include rape as a punishment at the end of interrogations and on other occasions, rape in front of men to pressure the latter into revealing information. Rape more generally was also used as a means of intimidation.

“If you can properly understand both the causes and the rationale for sexual violence, then you can not only hope to promote accountability, but also feed more effectively into early warning systems for future conflict,” Gates explained.

She added: “Accountability allows victims to heal, but it's also a significant part of preventing the recurrence of such acts in the future. We must bear that in mind if we want real progress to be made.”

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for the Syrian Arab Republic spoke about how the findings of the Commission of Inquiry related to the work of IIIM, and how IIIM is using the investigative work to further seek justice for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

“We learned the importance of seeing and treating the investigation and prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence as an integral part of investigating and prosecuting war crimes, not as an aside,” Ms. Marchi-Uhel said. “Investigation assures that sexual and gender-based violence is not marginalized or treated as collateral crimes, but is placed firmly within any case against an accused.”

To continue the critical work of investigating and documenting cases of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, the Justice Rapid Response – UN Women partnership has resulted in a Justice Experts Roster on sexual and gender-based violence comprised of more than 230 experts from over 70 nationalities, who are specifically trained to investigate and document sexual and gender-based violence as an international crime.

According to Georgina Mendoza, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Programme Coordinator at OHCHR and Federica Tronchin, Head of Office JRR USA and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Programme Manager, some of the major gains of including gender-expertise have included: understanding the gender dynamics of conflict and violence; gender-sensitive legal analysis and accountability for sexual and gender-based violence; broader understanding of sexual and gender-based violence beyond just rape, and including men and boys and LGBTI persons as victims; fully capturing the experiences of women and recognizing the harm they suffered; and giving a voice to those who otherwise would not have access to justice.

UN Women Policy Specialist on Transitional Justice, Emily Kenney, emphasized the need for the information from the investigations to be available to the UN Security Council to aid in their decision-making, including by hearing directly from investigators in both informal and formal briefings.

“I hope that Security Council members will see a utility in hearing directly from investigations. Hearing directly from investigations themselves is incredibly powerful and useful,” said Ms. Kenney. “We can do more to use these investigations to enhance implementation of the women, peace and security agenda and address gender inequality as a root cause of conflict.”