Government officials, activists, survivors, and members of the media are converging on the outskirts of London by the thousands to attend the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict this week. More than 150 countries are sending representatives – including many government ministers – having accepted the invitation from William Hague, minister of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
High hopes for concrete progress are tempered by the knowledge that when governments assemble to discuss issues perceived to primarily relate to women, there is rarely any agreement to invest financial resources and political capital toward any sustainable solution.
Each person comes to the summit with a story. Survivors of sexual violence in conflict who have experienced the devastating consequences of these crimes – not just for the victim, but also for families and communities – are wondering if this will finally be the moment when apathy and denial are replaced with outrage and justice. The justice system at both national and international levels has persistently failed, sending a message of indifference to those who are victimized.
National and international justice mechanisms have overwhelmingly failed not only to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable, but also to provide survivors with reparations, which serve to restore dignity to victims and prevent further violations. Survivors take many risks and face countless obstacles when seeking justice, and in response, we must invest in justice systems that guarantee that sexual violence will never be tolerated as a tactic of war.
UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2106, which was adopted in June 2013, called for more consistent and rigorous investigation and prosecution of sexual violence crimes as a central aspect of deterrence and – ultimately – prevention. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is attending the summit this week in part to tell the story of how more consistent and rigorous investigations can lead to effective prosecutions of crimes of sexual violence.
A central element of the summit will be the launch of a new international protocol on how to document and investigate sexual violence in conflicts. PHR staff members have served as expert advisors to the development of these guidelines that will be discussed in sessions at the summit. While facing many challenges in getting the criminal justice system to take these crimes seriously, PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones has adopted a cross-sectoral approach to change, engaging with members of the forensic medical community, police investigators, prosecutors, and judges to share best practices for documenting these crimes and ensuring that the evidence is understood.
Despite the UNSC resolution and PHR’s work, many obstacles remain. Resolution 2106 was the fourth such resolution passed by the Security Council since 2008, indicating that – while the issue is garnering more attention – resolutions alone are having little effect. For PHR, working primarily in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya, the success of the work is fragile and largely dependent on the courage of both survivors willing to demand a functional justice system and a few dedicated members of that system who go the extra mile.
This brings us back to the hope that many participants are bringing to this summit. The solutions are clear, as are the laws. Sexual violence in armed conflict is a war crime. When used systematically as a tool of war, sexual violence is a crime against humanity and a threat to international peace and security.
In conflict, commanders must impress upon their fighters that such behavior is never acceptable and that those who commit these crimes will not be shielded from the law. All sectors of the criminal justice system must work together to ensure that when victims come forward, they are treated with dignity and their claims are investigated with the diligence and rigor they deserve.
Civilians should never be targeted in war. But the awful truth is that civilians are an easy mark and sexual violence is a particularly devastating weapon. This must be stopped, and the moment is now; it is time to act.