Press Conference by Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

6 August 2010

Press Conference by Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

6 August 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict


Rape must not be dismissed as collateral damage, or cultural, or inevitable, for it was one of the great peace and security challenges of our time, said Margot Wallström, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, at a Headquarters press conference today.

Six months after assuming her post, Ms. Wallström said her message to the guardians of global public opinion and global peace and security was that there could be no security without women’s security, and that rape was not a lesser evil on the hierarchy of wartime horrors.  To the survivors, it was a soul-shattering crime.

No one could hear about the destruction of women’s bodies in Congo or Darfur and remain unmoved, said Ms. Wallström, describing her role as sustaining the drumbeat of public outrage and bringing those voices to the policy forum of the United Nations and Security Council.  “All political and military leaders must recognize that mass rape is no more inevitable or acceptable than mass murder.”  

In modern war, rape was not a side effect, but actually a new fault line, she said.  Widespread and systematic sexual violence was both a crime against the victim and a crime against humanity, yet sexual violence was the only crime against humanity that was routinely dismissed as being random or inevitable.  Throughout history, rape had been the least condemned and most silenced war crime — with silence playing “straight into the hands of the perpetrators”. 

However, she asserted, the best way to disarm the weapon of rape was to tackle taboos head on.  It was precisely the stigma and shame attached to sexual violence — turning victims into outcasts — that makes it such a powerful tool of family and community destruction.  It was unacceptable that women still have more to lose in terms of ostracism and reprisals than to gain from reporting rape. 

The United Nations work on that urgent issue did not begin with her appointment, she said, explaining that she had inherited a network created in 2007 of 13 United Nations entities — known at “UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict”—— united behind the single goal of ending sexual violence during and in the wake of war.  The network was working to scale up services for survivors and improve protection and prevention, and to address impunity.

The importance of elevating sexual violence to a place on the peace and security agenda could not be overstated, she said.  That brought the issue to a broad and non-traditional constituency — to security stakeholders, peacekeepers, and military and police institutions — and it clarified that it was a security crisis that demanded a security response.  It was not only a women’s issue.

She said she did not measure her success by the number of reports or meetings, but by the number of women and girls who felt safer in their daily lives.  Recent events reported from Kyrgyzstan, Guinea and Haiti suggested that the challenge was more urgent than ever.  Security Council resolution 1820 (2008) demanded the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians.  Yet, there were too many examples of “total war waged on the bodies of women and children and too few prospects for total peace in which women equally participate and benefit”. 

Last month, she noted, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict had launched an inventory of good practice by peacekeepers to prevent and deter conflict-related sexual violence.  It showed that rape could be prevented “if we build the skill and the will”.  For instance, in Darfur, firewood patrols had reduced the number of rapes.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where more than 200,000 women had reportedly been raped in the more than 12 years of conflict — market escorts had enabled women to resume trade. 

Such ad hoc initiatives, however, must be turned into systematic response, she said, describing her five-point priority agenda: ending impunity; empowering women; mobilizing political leadership and accountability; increasing recognition of rape as a tactic of war and impediment to peacebuilding; and ensuring a coordinated response from the United Nations system.  She also described recent visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia.

Survivors were their own best advocates, she said, adding her desire to compel them, not only to champion their cause, but to create a permanent and global network pressure group.  She also sought to ensure that the United Nations became better attuned to early warning indicators, because crimes on the scale the world had been seeing “are no accidents”; very often, they were strategic, planned, and predictable.  She urged the Security Council to “use all their tools in their toolbox” to address the problem. 

Asked what she meant by urging the Council to use all its tools, she said she hoped it would be willing to expand its use of sanctions for those types of crimes.  It should use the full range of tools available to it.

She thought her team would follow closely the situations of all the countries on the Security Council’s agenda, she replied to a further question.  Asked about what the correspondent called “neglected conflicts”, or those which he said did not make it onto the Council’s agenda, she said it was important to do a “systematic check-up”, but realistically it was not possible to cover the world.  To the examples given of Myanmar, Colombia and Sri Lanka, she said her office received those reports and that it would follow up in due time.  It was very important, meanwhile, to systemize the response within the United Nations family — that the right questions be asked and that a systemized response be in place.

Replying to a question about Haiti, she said she hoped there would be better reporting on the problem there, given all the players on the ground, but for now, it was not one of her office’s priority countries.  In post-conflict Liberia, by contrast, the imprint on the society of the sexual violence could be felt.  She reiterated the need to break the silence generally, including in such places as Darfur, and to better understand the perpetrators’ motivation.  On the latter quest, she acknowledged, “We are at the beginning of doing this.”  Impunity, she added, was the most forceful signal.  If the perpetrators “get away with it”, the crime became much more difficult to address.

Asked how she would respond when troop contributing countries failed to take disciplinary action against any of their peacekeepers found to have committed such crimes, she said that was the responsibility of United Nations peacekeeping, but she was often asked about that, since, if the perpetrator was a peacekeeper — “this destroys so much of our credibility”.  In those cases, the principle of zero tolerance must be applied against sexual exploitation and abuse, and the reaction to it must be rapid.  Follow-up with the Member States was also crucial.  But, she was hearing fewer and fewer reports of such cases.

* *** *

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