Interview with Margot Wallström, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström.

4 June 2012 – Over the past two years, Margot Wallström, a Swedish politician with a long history of defending women’s rights, has served as the Secretary-General’s first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Ms. Wallström has advocated for increased actions by the international community to prevent sexual violence, to protect individuals, to punish perpetrators, and to provide redress to victims. She has met with survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone and, most recently, in Colombia.

It was during her tenure that the landmark Security Council resolution 1960 was adopted in 2010, putting in place the tools for more systematic monitoring and reporting of sexual violence, and for the identification of perpetrators.

The envoy spoke with the UN News Centre on the eve of her departure.

UN News Centre: You are the first person to hold the post of Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. What motivated you to accept this job?

Margot Wallström: It was difficult to say ‘yes’ but impossible to say ‘no’ because this is something that for too long has been seen as inevitable as a consequence of war, as unspeakable, because it has been surrounded by so much shame and stigma, and also seen as a lesser crime. All of that has to change in order to be able to get rid of this impediment to restoring peace and security. So I have been blessed with a meaningful and important and fascinating task over the past couple of years.I have been blessed with a meaningful and important and fascinating task over the past couple of years.

UN News Centre: What did you find most challenging about the job?

Margot Wallström: I leave with a heavier heart because having listened to so many of these survivors, there are stories that will stay with me forever. I think it also depicts the suffering of so many, particularly women and children all over the world. But I also have new hope because, at the same time, women and children represent the future. Their resilience, their strength, their fantastic work is so inspiring and so important. I just hope that this is how world leaders will see it and that they will invest in women for the future.

Ms. Wallström being sworn in. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has hailed Ms. Wallström for bringing “exceptional leadership” to the issue of sexual violence in conflict, channelling the voices of survivors and victims into the Security Council, and demanding greater accountability and justice.

UN News Centre: You cited tackling impunity as a priority when you took on the job. What progress, if any, has there been in this area?

Margot Wallström: There has been progress, but you cannot be complacent. I think the fact that we’ve seen both the ICC [International Criminal Court] have this as an element in the indictments in the cases that it has in front of it, [and] also at the local level, where military courts and others are trying to fight impunity and actually prosecuting these kinds of crimes. I think is important and very promising. So prosecution is also prevention in a way.

UN News Centre: Is there a country or region that has made significant progress in tackling this issue?

Ms. Wallström at a meeting with NGOs and human rights defenders. In 2012, the annual report on the issue for the first time named some of the military forces, militia and other armed groups that are suspected of being among the worst offenders.

Margot Wallström: Unfortunately, less than two years will not make a huge difference but I think that mobilizing political leadership has been part of my task as well. Through [the use of] experts, we can assist in making sure that the whole judicial system is better equipped and has a better capacity to help women get access to justice. I’m hopeful and I know that my team will continue to work relentlessly on these issues, and my successor, of course.

UN News Centre: What has affected or impressed you the most during your term?

Margot Wallström: All these amazing women. They pick up their lives, they go on. They’re very often discriminated against. They live with violence and rapes. At the same time, they contribute so much and they have to be given a voice and influence. Without that, there cannot be a true democracy and there cannot be peace without giving women peace. They are also my biggest inspiration and hope.

Margot Wallström briefs journalists following a meeting of the Security Council on the report of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence. UN Webcast (23 Feb '12)

UN News Centre: Is there any one story that will stay with you?

Margot Wallström: It has been extremely difficult to understand and to take in the suffering, especially, of elderly women that we met in the DRC and elsewhere. They’ve lived very tough lives. They carry everything – they carry water and firewood, and produce to market; they carry children and responsibilities and then, on top of that, they have to carry the shame of having been raped. And some of them told me that they really pleaded with the perpetrators to spare them and said, ‘we have to live through this at the end of our lives even?’ That has been difficult.

UN News Centre: Is there an achievement during your term that you’re particularly satisfied with?

Ms. Wallström speaks with internally displaced persons in Colombia. "These women are very courageous, are very determined and they had decided to speak up although it carries a lot of risks... they want access to justice; they want to see justice done," she said afterwards.

Margot Wallström: I think that we’ve actually managed to get a few perpetrators behind bars; the fight against impunity is starting to yield some results. I’m not saying that this is a quick fix because you also have to change attitudes, the mindset of people. But I think that we have put this firmly on the Security Council’s agenda. And I hope that we can keep it there. They’ve [Council members] promised to use all the instruments available to them to fight this scourge and that’s very, very promising. So, ambitious resolutions and the fight, through the UN system on the ground, all of that has been encouraging.

UN News Centre: What advice do you have for your successor?

Margot Wallström: I think one has to be careful giving advice. I’m sure somebody very competent will come in and take over. I hope that the issues that we identified two years are still very much relevant, and to just use the fantastic platform known as UN Action, which brings together so many UN entities. With passion and love, I think you can achieve a lot, and also with a fantastic team that I will hand over.