Press Conference to Highlight High-Level Colloquium on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Peace Negotiations

24 June 2009

Press Conference to Highlight High-Level Colloquium on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Peace Negotiations

24 June 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Failure to address sexual violence as a core issue in peace negotiations allowed horrendous abuse of women to continue in post-conflict societies, participants in a high-level colloquium said at a Headquarters press conference this morning.

“Ending sexual violence must not be the hopeful side-effect of a peace agreement; it’s the whole purpose of a peace agreement -- to protect the civilian population,” Jan Egeland, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said, following the conclusion of the 22-24 June Colloquium entitled “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Peace Negotiations: Implementing Security Council Resolution 1820”.  Mr. Egeland is currently Director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

Stressing that sexual abuse was the most haunting outrage he had witnessed during his tenure as United Nations humanitarian chief, he said untold thousands of women were ganged-raped in Africa and elsewhere.  It might have entailed the biggest conspiracy of silence, because, up to the present day, it was often kept out of negotiations because none of the parties involved wished to deal with it.

The Security Council had taken up sexual abuse, he said, but the subject had to be a focus every day in every relevant location.  It was essential to ensure that those committing sexual crimes went to jail, and that sanctions were applied against leaders and Governments.  On the other hand, all those who acted against sexual violence must be promoted.  The present was a crucial time for such a focus, since case law was being built up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere.

Accompanying Mr. Egeland were Anne-Marie Goetz, Chief Adviser for the Governance and Peace and Security Section of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); Major General Patrick Cammaert, former General Officer of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC); and Leymah Gbowee, Executive Director of the Women Peace and Security Network in Africa and founding member of the Women in Peacebuilding Programme/West African Network for Peacebuilding.

Resolution 1820 (2008) demands that all parties to armed conflicts around the world stop using violence against women as a tactic of war and take much tougher steps to protect women and girls from such attacks.  Crimes of sexual violence should be excluded from amnesties agreed at the end of conflicts, according to the resolution, which also calls on States to strengthen their judicial and health-care systems to provide better assistance to victims.

Ms. Goetz emphasized that, out of 300 peace accords in 45 countries over the last 20 years, only 18 mentioned sexual violence.  It had not even been discussed at the Nuremburg war crimes trials following the Second World War.  In other places where it had not been mentioned, such as Liberia, there had been a serious escalation of rape.  What mattered, however -- even if the topic was broached in negotiations -- was how the peace accord was implemented.

The Colloquium had come up with recommendations covering all phases of negotiation and implementation of peace agreements, she said, stressing that the prevention of sexual violence should be brought up as early as possible and must be viewed as completely unacceptable.  Sexual violence must be addressed as a major issue in peace accords, which should provide for reparations and other assistance to victims.

General Cammaert underlined the importance of making the Security Council understand fully the kinds of atrocities committed in the field, noting that peacekeeping missions must be fully prepared to deal with them.  Both police and military action must be taken, since shying away from situations in which civilians must be protected forcefully represented a miserable failure of peacekeeping.  Commanders must constantly push to make the protection of civilians a priority.  There must be a constant push for action from the top levels to the bottom field levels.  Member States, particularly troop-contributing countries, must be better informed and the Security Council must push them to act.

Ms. Gbowee said that three out of four women had been raped during Liberia’s civil war, but even women’s groups had not raised the subject of sexual violence during peace negotiations, because everyone had wished the negotiations to go smoothly, and to avoid giving offence.  Resolution 1820 (2008) and the Colloquium, by recognizing sexual violence as a war crime, had emboldened women’s groups to speak out and had changed the dynamics of the peace table.  “Gone are the days when women would go to peace talks and be silent about sexual violence,” she said, maintaining that the United Nations must make it a priority no matter who was offended politically.

Asked whether all perpetrators of sexual crimes in war time should be punished, Mr. Egeland said they should, but it was most important to go after leaders.  President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo must be held accountable for the horrendous actions of his army, and military leaders like Jean Bosco Ntaganda, who had been charged by the International Criminal Court, should not be protected.  MONUC should not be supporting the protection of Mr. Ntaganda, even as a means to smooth implementation of the peace process or cooperation with the Government.  The whole issue of a smooth process was one that must be done away with if it failed to deal with core issues such as sexual violence.

The panellists agreed that the reintegration of ex-combatants, many of whom might have committed terrible acts during the conflict, was a highly problematic area.  In addition to questions of impunity, there had been very little psychological work with former fighters to ensure they “behaved better” than they had in the midst of conflict.

Ms. Gbowee added that child soldiers in Liberia had been indoctrinated to think that rape was normal sex, and there was an urgent need to work with them in order to change such attitudes.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.