13-15 February 2018,
United Nations Office in Vienna
Excellencies, honorable guests, cher ami Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng,
Thank you for the opportunity to join this meeting to discuss the implementation of the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes. Allow me to echo the voice of my colleagues by stressing the key role of this pioneering initiative, which is the first to engage religious leaders to develop context-specific strategies to prevent incitement to violence.
My mandate as a Special Representative on conflict-related sexual violence was created by the Security Council to serve as the United Nations’ spokesperson and political advocate in combatting an atrocity crime that has been silenced for too long, namely war time rape.
Long-standing crises in countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have become entrenched and an extensive list of devastating conflicts in Myanmar, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, the Central African Republic and South Sudan have emerged or reignited in recent years. We now live in a world in which the power to harm in the name of religion is more diffuse and dangerous than ever before. And, in all of these volatile settings, wars are being fought on the bodies of women and girls. Motivated by political, military or economic aims, such as controlling territory, populations or resources, conflict-related sexual violence is frequently and deliberately used to target vulnerable populations, inflicting psychological trauma, humiliation, and displacement. Victim-blame, leading to social exclusion, is what gives the weapon of rape its uniquely destructive power. This includes the power to fracture families and shred the social fabric.
During my visit to several refugee camps in Bangladesh in November 2017, I heard the most heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities reportedly committed in cold-blood out of a lethal hatred for the Rohingya community based on their ethnicity and religion.
Let’s not forget. History demonstrates that religion has been exploited by perpetrators of violence, including sexual violence, to legitimize persecution and has been used to define stark communal boundaries. Hate speech and incitement to violence is most effective when the source is a person of influence, as in the case of religious leaders, and the audience is receptive.
Let’s make a change. I believe that we are here today to counter the narrative of religion as a vector of violence and to amplify the role of religious leaders as agents of positive change. Ideology has been a galvanizing factor during episodes of genocide and mass atrocity. Most notoriously, Da’esh has issued so-called “Fatwas” codifying forced marriage and sexual slavery, and attempting to justify these atrocities through Holy Scripture. While Da’esh has flagrantly publicized its abuses, the women and girls who survive them are shamed into silence – sometimes even suicide – or subjected to “honour killings”. In dark times, religious communities and authorities have often played a role in preventing and countering incitement by spreading messages of peace and tolerance. They have protected vulnerable people by offering sanctuary in houses of worship. And they have promoted social healing and reconciliation in the wake of violent upheavals.
As the Plan of Action states, “Religious leaders and actors…have the potential to influence the behaviour of those who follow them and share their beliefs. Given that religion has been misused to justify incitement to violence, it is vital that religious leaders from all faiths show leadership in this matter.” Indeed, in addition to political will on the part of the State, the willingness of traditional and religious leaders to use their moral authority to support the reintegration, empowerment and autonomy of victims can make a real difference.
For instance, in the case of the Iraqi Yezidi community, the declaration of support for sexual violence survivors issued by Yezidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, enabled many women and girls to return safely from Da’esh captivity to their communities and be embraced by their families.
Similarly, when I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina last year, I met with members of the Bosnian Interreligious Council, which have shown inspiring leadership through its expression of solidarity with survivors of wartime sexual violence. To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is commemorated each year on 19 June, the Council issued a public declaration denouncing the stigmatization of sexual violence survivors and children born of war. This declaration calls for enhanced efforts to improve their status in society and to prevent the intergenerational transmission of trauma. They stressed that crimes against humanity are contrary to the interpretations of all religions. They recognized the need to shift the blame, shame and stigma of rape from the victims to the perpetrators, and urged all religious officials (Imams, Priests and Rabbis) in all local communities to be the voice against stigmatization and victim-blame.
Let’s work together. Preventing and addressing sexual violence is one of the great moral challenges of our time. We need to expand the circle of allies, stakeholders and champions, and sustain the political momentum generated in recent years to propel real change at the community-level. Sexual violence is not a “private” burden to be borne by the victims; it is a social problem requiring a sustained response. Rape is still the only crime that casts a long shadow of social disgrace upon the victim, rather than the victimizer. We must reverse and redirect this stigma, to send a clear signal that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding or condoning it.
It is a moral imperative to ensure that survivors of sexual violence and children born of rape are protected, given the chance to realize their full human potential, and supported to lead peaceful and productive lives.
I am here today to call on all religious leaders, of every faith, to stand in solidarity with the survivors of these crimes, and to help change the social norms and traditions that have, historically, silenced them.
We are all here today to be part of the solution.I believe that faith-based organisations and inter-faith initiatives are uniquely placed to reach out to communities and help change perceptions.
As stressed by the United Nations General Assembly, we should all unite against violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations, as well as sectarian violence.
There is an urgent need in today’s world to undertake concrete measures to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on their identity, religion or belief. I believe that the Action Plan before us provides an important foundation for this endeavour. My Office stands ready to assist States, civil society, and religious actors to prevent incitement to atrocity crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence. I trust that this meeting will generate concrete examples of how this can be achieved.
If we do not act together to find solutions for today’s victims of sexual violence, we will have failed not only this generation, but generations to come.
Allow me to end by saying that the moral urgency of addressing sexual violence transcends all political, ethnic or religious divisions. It is a matter of human rights and human dignity, which are universal.