As the curtain closed on this week’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict conference, held in London, delegates questioned whether commitments would, once again, fall on deaf ears.
Survivors and ministers from 40 countries attended the event, which has been years in the making, including the First Lady of Ukraine, Olga Zelenska.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly used his speech to announce £12.5 million of funding for tackling sexual violence in conflict, and a new strategy of sanctioning those guilty of such crimes.
More than 50 countries and the UN also signed a UK-led declaration to end the scourge of sexual violence in conflict.
But while there was much talk of bringing perpetrators to justice, there was also an acknowledgement that little progress had been made since launching the initiative ten years earlier.
Angelina Jolie, who worked on the programme a decade ago, described the lack of action by governments as “deeply painful and frustrating”.
“There has been some progress … but it has not been nearly enough to meet the needs of survivors or to deter perpetrators from using rape as a weapon of war in almost every new conflict in the past decade,” she said in a video played at the conference.
“Despite the commitments governments made, we have not seen significant, lasting action at the global level.”
Sexual violence in conflict has long been used as a weapon of mass destruction, and today is prevalent in at least 18 conflicts around the world, including in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and South Sudan.
War-time rape was first prosecuted in 1998, in a landmark ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, yet most perpetrators are still not brought to justice.
“Efforts to hold perpetrators accountable are few, and prone to failure. Impunity is the norm: the number of successful international prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict remains in the low single digits,” said Baroness Arminka Helic, a former Foreign Office special adviser.
Nadia Murad, Nobel laureate and one of the leading voices at the conflicts, told the Telegraph that the world lacks the political will to hold perpetrators to account.
“We have heard so many promises, and have been through this over and over again,” she said.
“We have the evidence, the lawyers, survivors read to give their testimonies over and over again. All we need is the political will to hold them accountable. Sexual violence is being repeated because they know that no one has been convicted in the past.”
First and foremost, Ms Murad called on countries like the UK to repatriate citizens who joined Isis and committed rape, to trial them at home.
In 2014, Ms Murad, a member of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, was captured by Isis at the age of 21. She was held as a sex slave, raped and threatened with execution. Ms Murad managed to escape after several months and has since been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism.
Despite thousands of Isis members using rape as a weapon of war against the Yazidi population in 2014, only two people have ever been brought to justice, Ms Murad said. This was by a German court.
“Germany made it clear for anyone that you can hold your own people accountable who joined Isis,” Ms Murad said. She said she has pushed the UK to do the same.
Pramilla Patten, the United Nations’ Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said she did believe progress had been made by governments over the past ten years, and that the increase in reports of the violence is because the crime has “come out of the shadows”.
“Since I took office five years ago, I have signed [political agreements] with so many countries, from Bangladesh, to Myanmar, to DRC, to the Central African Republic,” Ms Patten said.
However, she added that while most governments sign the agreements, some lack the “political will” to follow with action.
“Myanmar is one such example,” she said. “I signed a framework of cooperation with Myanmar but…. it's been very, very difficult to work.” Members of Myanmar’s security forces stand accused of systematic rape and sexual violence.
The FCDO conference was also criticised for platforming the Serbian foreign minister, Ivica Dačić. Mr Dačić was the mentee of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević – known as the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ – who was accused of committing war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
Speaking on the panel following Mr Dačić, Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz, the foreign minister of Kosovo, lamented the decision to host him.
She said that rape victims from the Kosovo – who had been invited to the conference – had been “confronted” on “neutral soil” with “one of their perpetrators”.
Ms Gërvalla-Schwarz’s statement was met with applause and cheering.
The government’s new £12.5 million pledge was also described as a “drop in the ocean” by some delegates, who highlighted that the funding comes as cuts are made to international gender equality programmes.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, acknowledged that much more needed to be done.
“In the last 10 years, we have come a long way,” he said, “but we know that much more must be done, both to help survivors and to prevent others from suffering such violence.”
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