Only when rape in armed conflict becomes a liability for armed groups rather than a tool in the struggle for power – a war crime that will bring inevitable punishment – will progress be made in eliminating the scourge, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today.
“We have to raise the cost of committing atrocities to the point where they harm the perpetrators even more than the victims,” he told a news conference on sexual violence in conflicts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is attending an African Union (AU) summit.
“That means that when a peace process begins, perpetrators are never permitted to get or to retain positions of military, political or economic influence. Where sexual violence has been part of the fighting, ending it must be part of making peace.”
Mr. Ban noted that Africa has some of the world’s most progressive legal instruments to address sexual violence in conflict and advance women’s rights, including the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, and he hailed the AU’s decision to ensure that its Peace and Security Council holds an annual session on women and children in armed conflict.
“The challenge now is to ensure these laudable commitments are felt where they matter most, in the marketplaces where women trade, at water-points, and along the roads where girls walk to school,” he said.
“The United Nations wants to work closely with the African Union and African troop contributors to better prepare our peacekeepers to respond to sexual violence as a security threat. We need Africa’s leaders and leaders around the world to support this campaign.”
Stressing that prevention is possible, Mr. Ban noted that in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region, joint so-called “firewood” patrols by the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) have increased women’s freedom of movement and cut the number of rapes. Women were often attacked when they left internally displaced persons (IDP) camps to fetch firewood or water. In Liberia, the presence of female police has improved reporting and response, he added.
Just this month, UN officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reported at least 120 alleged cases of rape perpetrated by both rebels and the national army in the conflict-rife eastern part of the country, where more than 300 civilians, including some boys and men, were raped in a single weekend last summer by members of rebel armed groups.
But Mr. Ban’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström stressed that the scourge is not just African but global. “I have recently been to Sarajevo, where you know 15 years ago, maybe between 15,000 and 16,000 women were held in rape camps,” she said, referring to the 1992-1995 Balkans war between Bosnia and Herzegovina (whose capital is Sarajevo), Serbia and Croatia.
“We know reports today from Haiti. From everywhere, we have heard that this is the weapon of choice because it is cheap, silent and very effective… this is an element, a phenomenon that we have to stop. And it takes political leadership, political ownership of this issue and a very strong sense of the line of command. Because it has to start with the political leaders who say: ‘this has to stop, this is an international crime, it is criminal, not cultural or sexual, it is criminal.’”
Describing the terrible trauma that befalls rape victims Ms. Wallström recounted the story of a woman she met in Sarajevo who had been raped and held in one of these rape camps: “She said ‘sometimes I wish that they had shot me instead because they took my life without killing me.’
“But it is a kind of invisible war damage, the way she has been wounded. And others with visible wounds, they will become war veterans, they will be honoured by their societies, but [there is no access to justice for the woman]. She meets her rapist in the bank, and he smiles at her.”