Sexual violence during conflicts is all too often downplayed and treated as part of local cultural traditions instead of being viewed as a war crime, a senior United Nations official has warned as she called for much greater international action to defeat the scourge.
Margot Wallström, the recently appointed Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, voiced concern about the “lingering assumption that sexual violence is a tradition, rather than a tactic of choice” by groups engaged in war.
“Prevailing opinion would have us believe that what happens in a ‘private hut’ has nothing to do with security,” she wrote in the Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday in a column jointly authored with Jonas Gahr Støre, Norwegian Foreign Minister.
“While bullets, bombs and blades make the headlines, women’s bodies remain invisible battlefields. Yet it is utterly indefensible to downgrade the threat level of sexual violence because it primarily targets women and girls. What makes forced displacement part of the war, and mass rape an intractable cultural trait?”
Ms. Wallström and Mr. Støre wrote that there are only cultures of impunity, and not cultures of rape, as some commentators have argued in certain countries or conflicts.
“Cultural relativism legitimizes the violence and discredits the victims, because when you accept rape as cultural, you make rape inevitable. This shields the perpetrators and allows world leaders to shrug off sexual violence as an immutable – if regrettable – truth. It is time to state, once and for all, that mass rape is no more inevitable, cultural or acceptable than mass murder.”
The Special Representative – who is visiting Norway on her first official visit since being appointed by the UN – and the Foreign Minister stressed that the best way to overcome this problem is to ensure that perpetrators of rape and other forms of sexual violence are held accountable.
“We are convinced that where there’s a political will, there’s a way. Every rape – even in the midst of war – is a crime that can be commanded, condoned or condemned. That is a choice made by those in power, and it is a matter that concerns the guardians of global peace and security.”