Interview with Margot Wallström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Margot Wallström, UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict

11 November 2010 – Margot Wallström became the first-ever Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict on 2 February 2010. Her portfolio is global and multifaceted, focused overall on leading and coordinating efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence against women and children. Previous landmarks in her career include ministerial appointments in Sweden, senior positions in the non-governmental sector and the European Commission. Throughout all her work, she has been a consistent and vocal advocate for the rights of women.

UN News Centre: Your mandate covers sexual violence in conflict. How would you define this for people who are not familiar with the terminology?

Margot Wallström: The whole nature of war has changed today: civilians are very much the victims of the modern world’s conflicts and unfortunately the majority of victims are women and children. Sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war or a tactic of war.

Historically you can go back as long as you like, unfortunately this is one of the phenomena that appeared in almost every story of conflict.

UN News Centre: The international community has come to accept that rape can be used as a weaponSexual violence in conflict is a global scourge. of war. How is sexual violence a weapon?

Margot Wallström: More and more, we often say that it is a tactic of war and a consequence of war. To say that it’s a weapon is perhaps more debatable. But it is definitely what you see in Walikale, in the North Kivu atrocities late this summer. You can see that it was systematic, it was planned, there were no killings at that time but this was used as a way to spread terror and fear.

It is a way of demonstrating power and control. It inflicts fear on the whole community, it is also to send a message to the men: ‘You are not able to defend your women.’ And it is unfortunately a very effective, cheap and silent weapon with a long lasting effect on every society.

UN News Centre: What are the lessons learned from the UN response following the mass rapes that occurred in July-August in the Kivus?

Margot Wallström: First of all, it’s a matter of getting an answer to the question of why the peacekeepers on the ground did not see the early warnings signs or could not read what was happening in this area.

The rebels started to move around, they closed off roads, they threatened the villagers, so they spread a lot of fear early on. You have to assume rape when these things happen, when the looting of villages happens. Why did nobody come to ask for help? Was that because they were afraid of doing so? Was there capacity on the side of our peacekeepers to actually engage with or communicate with the local population? That is one of the conclusions that has already been drawn: we need to improve capacity to communicate with villagers and between villages through mobile phones, through radio equipment that can help them to send a warning to the next village.

UN News Centre: On the basis of recent experience in the DRC, do you think the UN, specifically UN Women [the new body dealing with gender equality and women’s empowerment], will have to increase psychological support in its operations?

Margot Wallström on a visit to Walikale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Margot Wallström: It is something that has been almost ignored until now; the enormous need for psychosocial support and help for these women. Again, I think that the whole UN system has to learn how to coordinate better to make sure that there is no duplication of work being done on the ground and to be more effective.

Many women say “we want peace, we want these rebel groups out, we just want to live in peace.” They want education for their children, they want access to health, they want the daily basic needs. That’s what they want first of all. There is an enormous gap when it comes to providing psychosocial support.

UN News Centre: The UN has recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325. After one decade, what are the main achievements and what are the remaining challenges?

Margot Wallström: I have to admit we can be far from happy about the implementation of 1325, which was acknowledging the role of women in peacekeeping as agents of changes. They are still heavily under-represented in the political decision-making area and in peace negotiations. And far from being recognized in every peace agreement. It’s a very poor result overall. In terms of normative legislative framework and so on, we can point to some success. But women are far from being fairly represented.

UN News Centre: Does a resolution lead to actual change on the ground? What does it take for a Council resolution to become reality?

Margot Wallström: Well this is how you make decisions that will guide things as you go forward. The guiding documents are important but have to be implemented. Legislation is only as good as its implementation.

It takes political leadership and courage and it takes implementation reinforcement on the ground. I would also say it takes some quotas. That’s my solution. I think we should decide that you can not appoint any team or delegation for negotiating a peace anywhere without including women. This should be prohibited. You cannot negotiate peace without having women at the table. There are large numbers of peace negotiations which have taken place without any women being represented.

UN News Centre: Any examples of a peace process where women have been integrated?

Margot Wallström: If you look at Liberia for example, women had to fight to find a place for themselves. They were the ones at the end that really pushed for a deal and a peace agreement. Without women demonstrating outside and blocking the doors, the men, who were all too happy to be in a nice hotel, many of them had never been in such a nice place, so why would they be eager to sign anything? Women just said ‘you have to sign, get on with this.’ They had to fight. They had not been given a seat at the negotiating table. They had to find their own way showing what an important group they are.

UN News Centre: What will be the next steps necessary to improve the situation of women in conflict?

Margot Wallström: We have a reporting obligation. On 1 December we will handover to the Security Council the reports on resolutions 1820 and 1888.

[Security Council resolutions 1820 (2008) and 1888 (2009) call on States to take action to prevent sexual violence in conflict and put an end to impunity for perpetrators through a variety of progresive measures, including legal and judicial reforms in conformity with international law and ensuring that survivors have access to justice and receive redress for their suffering.]

These are the resolutions that are at the foundations of my mandate. They will include recommendations and proposals. Among those things will be how to improve our monitoring and reporting capacity so actions can be based on proper knowledge. We will continue with advocacy efforts and other efforts we have been engaged in so far, including in addressing impunity in particular. I think the most important signal is to demonstrate that we will go after the perpetrators of crimes. We will find them and they will be punished.

We also want to use culture in our communication. We have met with Angélique Kidjo and some African artists who are willing to contribute. They can do soap operas for radio. They can write scripts and use music to reach people with key messages on sexual violence and rape. If I go back to Liberia, many men said that women were dressing “improperly.” It is not a defence to say that. There is a lot of work to do with social communication.

UN News Centre: The arrest of alleged perpetrators depends on political will. What can be done to end this impunity?

Margot Wallström: We have to go after the perpetrators. We have to also do whatever we can to identify the perpetrators. We have to be willing to use sanctions. We have to use all the leverage that we can to go after them.

UN News Centre: Are you pessimistic or optimistic?

Margot Wallström: I am more optimistic after we managed to get Mayele – one of the Mai-Mai leaders, alleged to be responsible for the mass rapes at Walikale. That’s exactly how we have to do it. We have seen that these rebel leaders and these non-State actors are sensitive to how they are portrayed, to ending up on the Security Council’s agenda. They don’t like that. They think that after negotiating they will be given power. So they are sensitive to perception.

UN News Centre: Aside from the situation of women in the DRC, are there any other situations that you would like to highlight?

Margot Wallström: Yes, of course. Sexual violence in conflict is a global scourge. We are looking at other situations. We are going to Bosnia and Herzegovina in a couple of weeks. I will look at Asia: we have regular reports from Nepal, Timor-Leste, Myanmar, where sexual violence has been used in conflict. We have also received reports from Colombia and other places. We will demonstrate that we have a global war. It’s not only Africa, even if we keep an eye on for example on Sudan and Darfur.

UN News Centre: What is the link between your previous positions and the current one? What makes this one unique? What made you want to work with the UN?

Margot Wallström: I think the issue of gender equality has been an important one in my whole career, and also sustainable development. I just think it makes sense to give women a more important role and representation in society. It makes sense also from the economic perspective actually. It’s not wise to not use their capacity and talent. To me, it’s no deviation from what I have been doing before. There’s definitely continuity, although it is a different and specific mandate.

The beauty of this is that now I feel I am allowed to use everything I have learnt so far. I can use the political experience and capital I have gathered and my managerial skills. I don’t have a personal career to defend or to look at. I can work as an independent advocate for this issue. I think it is a wonderful to be working for the United Nations.

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