I wish to thank you for this opportunity to brief the African Union Peace and Security Council, and extend my particular thanks to His Excellency, Ambassador Sebade Toga Dehab in his capacity as Chairperson for placing the issue of conflict-related sexual violence on the agenda.
I also wish to express my appreciation to SRSG Hannah Tetteh and colleagues at the United Nations Office of the African Union for their support.
I note with appreciation the presence, intervention and support of Madame Diop, African Union Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, an African sister, dear friend and steadfast champion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda.
I consider this a valuable opportunity to explore how we can work together to prevent and address the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence, specifically in the 11 African contexts covered by my mandate.
One of the most important developments of the past decade has been the conceptual clarity that has emerged regarding the term “conflict-related sexual violence” – After all, we cannot address what we do not properly understand.
The term is not just synonymous with “rape”, but also encompasses sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, girls, men or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict. That link may be evident in the profile of the perpetrator, who is often affiliated with a State or non-State armed group, which includes terrorist entities; and/or the profile of the victim, who is frequently an actual or perceived member of a political, ethnic or religious minority group. The term also encompasses trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence or exploitation, when linked with situations of conflict.
Unfortunately many forms of conflict-related sexual violence have been observed in the context of conflicts in Africa. For instance, sexual violence employed as a tactic of war in conjunction with looting and pillage; the threat and use of sexual violence to force targeted communities to flee strategic areas, including resource-rich mining areas to enable the illicit exploitation of natural resources, such as cobalt and gold; sexual violence and harassment as a tool of political repression, including to quash peaceful protests and influence elections; as a form of intimidation against women’s rights defenders and journalists covering these issues; as part of reprisal attacks based on political, ethnic or religious identity; in contexts of detention and interrogation; against children associated with armed forces and groups; and as a tactic of terrorism by violent extremist groups, which have used sexual slavery, forced marriage and forced impregnation to give rise to a new generation of children that can be raised in their own image, according to their radical ideology.
Justice for these crimes is rare, and painfully slow. Often, they are addressed through traditional and customary mechanisms, which lack both the due process guarantees and deterrent power of formal prosecutions.
However, the issue of sexual violence employed as a tactic of war, terror, torture and political repression is a global challenge. It is not specific to any culture or continent, region or religion, but in fact traverses all of history and geography. While my mandate focuses on a number of African countries, this issue should not be perceived as an “African problem”. This is a negative and false stereotype that we must fight together.
Excellencies, I come before you today having just concluded a successful visit to the Federal Republic of Somalia where I had the opportunity to engage with the Government, AMISOM and the United Nations system on the on-going efforts and challenges to address conflict-related sexual violence. My dialogue with the national authorities was frank and constructive. They did not deny or downplay the gravity of these crimes. In the past decade we have learnt that such acknowledgement is critical, as no problem in human history has ever been solved through silence. My visit concluded with a reaffirmation of commitment by the Government of Somalia to work with the United Nations, AMISOM and my Office to develop a National Action Plan to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The implementation of this plan will require the support both of the United Nations and the African Union.
My mandate as United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict was established through the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1888 in 2009, following an international outcry over the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators. Through resolution 1888, the international community not only recognized the detrimental impact that sexual violence has on survivors and communities, but also acknowledged that sexual violence is not an inevitable by-product of war, but rather a crime that is preventable and punishable under international law.
Security Council resolution 1888 was preceded by the ground-breaking resolution 1820, which elevated the issue of conflict-related sexual violence onto the peace and security agenda as a threat to security and an impediment to the restoration of peace. This launched the process of presenting annual reports on the subject to the UN Security Council which it reviews in an annual Open Debate format. This marked a paradigm shift in the way sexual violence is viewed as a fundamental impediment to the maintenance of peace and security that requires a security, justice and service response. Today, the goal is not only to respond more effectively to sexual violence during and in the wake of war, but ultimately to prevent it.
Since 2008 African Nations – Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Uganda – have played a critical role as members of the UN Security Council in the adoption of the 5 resolutions on sexual violence and conflict. Therefore, Africa has been instrumental in shaping the trajectory of this agenda.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of my mandate, and I am pleased to be co-hosting an event in October, which will take stock of progress and pay tribute to the survivors, together with the Republic of South Africa in their capacity as President of the UN Security Council for that month. As we reflect on a decade of challenges and progress at the United Nations, it is also an important moment to consider the role of the AU and this Council as we establish the priorities for the next phase of the mandate.
While this is my first engagement with the African Union Peace and Security Council, I had the pleasure of briefing the Africa Group in New York last month, and also met with African Union Member States in Addis Ababa last August. The purpose of that engagement was to revitalize the 2014 UN-AU Framework of Cooperation Concerning the Prevention and Response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Africa, in the broader context of the UN-AU Joint Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security.
In 2014, my predecessor SRSG Zainab Hawa Bangura of Sierra Leone signed the Framework of Cooperation with the African Union Commission in order to drive stronger synergy between our respective Organizations in responding to conflict-related sexual violence. I look forward to resuming discussions on the implementation of this Framework, which concretely aims to combat impunity; build the capacity of national justice and security sector institutions; enhance the delivery of services to survivors; and strengthen relevant legal and policy frameworks. It also calls for the engagement of regional champions to lend visibility to this cause; for efforts to deepen monitoring, reporting and information-sharing, including at the continental-level; and for the systematic integration of sexual violence concerns in mediation and conflict-resolution efforts in Africa, ensuring women’s meaningful participation in all such processes.
My Office is also a substantive contributor to the recently-established UN Task Force in Support of the African Union Initiative on Silencing the Guns in Africa. On 27 February, the UN Security Council held a high-level debate on the AU Initiative on Silencing the Guns in Africa and unanimously adopted resolution 2457 (2019) expressing strong support to the initiative.
The resolution encourages UN-AU collaboration towards strengthening the African Peace and Security Architecture and emphasizes the importance of the cooperation with the AU and the need for joint action to end sexual violence in armed conflict and post-conflict situations.
Excellencies, we are all aware of how excessive accumulation of small arms has been instrumental in shaping the onset, severity and duration of armed violence. Over the past ten years, my Office has documented the various ways in which the proliferation of weapons render civilians, particularly women and girls, vulnerable to conflict-related sexual violence. My Office is committed to contribute to the important work of the UN Task Force.
In 2017 and 2018, I was honoured to participate in the two joint AU-UN solidarity missions on women, peace, security and development to the DRC, Nigeria and South Sudan, as part of a delegation led by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. These visits, in which my sister Bineta Diop also participated, provided a critical opportunity for joint dialogue with an array of stakeholders including Heads of State and senior government officials, women’s civil society groups, and religious and traditional leaders. The women we met in war-torn villages and displacement camps expressed their hopes for stability and peace. We saw, time and time again, how women are a vital constituency for peace and development. We saw how they are the backbone of local economies. And yet, we also witnessed how sexual violence has shattered so many lives and livelihoods, with consequences that echo across generations, including in the plight of thousands of children born of conflict-related sexual violence.
My role as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict is to provide coherent and strategic leadership in the fight against this scourge, and to encourage the expansion of the circle of stakeholders within and beyond the United Nations. Since taking on this mandate in 2017, I have articulated three strategic priorities:
- Firstly, prevention and deterrence – converting cultures of impunity into cultures of justice and accountability through consistent and effective prosecution of sexual violence crimes.
- Secondly, fostering national ownership and leadership for a sustainable, survivor-centered response.
- Third, addressing the root causes of conflict-related sexual violence, with structural gender-based inequality and discrimination, poverty and marginalization as its invisible drivers.
At the level of the UN, I chair the United Nations Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict which is an inter-agency network comprising of 14 UN entities working in a coordinated manner to address this problem.
I am also supported by a Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is mandated to provide assistance to Governments, including in the areas of criminal investigation and prosecution, military justice, legislative reform, protection of victims and witnesses and reparations for survivors.
This Team of Experts is currently supporting national institutions in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Their technical advice and assistance includes: support for legislative reform, training and deployment of magistrates to accelerate the prosecution of sexual violence crimes, capacity-building of investigators, prosecutors and judges and the protection of victims and witnesses.
My methodology is to secure national commitments to prevent and address sexual violence in line with the Security Council resolutions, and to anchor these commitments at the highest level through concrete implementation plans and strategies. To date, my Office has signed Joint Communiqués with almost all the African nations that fall within the mandate’s remit, namely: Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali. There are also on-going discussions with Sudan authorities on the signing of a Framework of Cooperation following my visit to Sudan including the Darfur region in 2018.
Even as we make agreements with national authorities to address this crime, I must emphasize that non-State armed groups constitute the majority of credibly suspected perpetrators that are listed in the annual report of the Secretary-General. In fact, of the 49 parties currently listed, 36 are non-state actors, most of whom have made no commitments to prevent sexual violence. Therefore, the collective challenge that we face is how to enforce the compliance of these parties with international law. I believe that this will require strengthened collaboration between the UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council. We must bring added scrutiny and pressure to bear to ensure they cease these violations and prevent their recurrence. The UN Security Council is also committed to using sanctions and other targeted measures as a way to raise the cost and consequences for those who commit and command sexual violence in conflict.
I consider the constructive engagement with African countries, as well as Africa’s regional and sub-regional organizations, to be critical to the success of this mandate. African leadership is essential to eradicating history’s oldest and least-condemned crime. To this end, I put my Office at your disposal for information, advocacy resources, and technical expertise in support of your efforts.
Moreover, south-south cooperation is essential in this fight, and there must be a concerted effort to ensure the experience gained in one context is shared across the region. For example, the experience of establishing a specialized police unit for the protection of women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helped to inform the development of the Unité mixte d’intervention rapide et de répression des violences sexuelles (UMIRR) in the Central African Republic. Building on the lessons learnt from the special police in the DRC, UMIRR was equipped with not only a specialized protection mandate, but also a mandate to investigate cases of sexual violence and to provide medical, psychosocial and legal services to victims. Similarly, the idea of appointing a dedicated Special Adviser within the Office of the President has accelerated progress in the DRC and is also being considered in the Central African Republic, to support implementation of a Joint Communiqué signed with my Office in April. The African Union can play a central role in fostering such experience sharing and cooperation among your Member States.
The African Union, and sub-regional bodies such as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), have adopted ambitious normative instruments on ending sexual and gender-based violence as part of advancing peace, security and development. In addition, the African Union Transitional Justice Policy adopted in February 2019 sets out strong, practical measures that must be adopted by Member States to ensure effective transitional justice processes. And, the Guidelines on Combating Sexual Violence and its Consequences in Africa adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in May 2017 in Niger, is also an important document. These contributions by Africa is testimony that this continent can lead the way in comprehensively addressing this problem around the world.
In conclusion, Your Excellencies, I would like to stress that despite dramatic normative, institutional and operational progress on this agenda over the past decade, much more needs to be done. Conflict-related sexual violence is preventable, not inevitable. If sexual violence can be planned, it can be punished; if it can be commanded it can be controlled. Political leadership and political courage will be critical in removing these atrocities from our daily headlines and consigning them, once and for all, to the annals of history.
In this respect, I would like to leave four recommendations for your consideration:
- Firstly, I would like to propose adding the issue of conflict-related sexual violence as a standing item on the agenda of the AU Peace and Security Council, as an annual forum to jointly take stock of progress and challenges;
- Secondly, I would like to call upon all governments to make a concerted push to ensure survivors receive reparations, whether individual or collective, material or symbolic, reparative justice is the intervention survivors have demanded most, yet received least.
- Thirdly, we must systematically include the issue of conflict-related sexual violence in the training of national justice and security sector actors and foster regional cooperation in terms of exchanging good practice and lessons learnt. It is critical to adopt zero tolerance policies and to hold all perpetrators accountable regardless of rank. Increasing the presence of women in the national armed and security forces improves their ability to address these crimes, however, security sector institutions must first and foremost be accountable to their own female members by ensuring safe, harassment-free places of work.
- Finally, I encourage all governments to adopt broad, progressive legal frameworks that reflect an expansive understanding of sexual violence, including against men and boys, as well as the rights of children conceived through wartime rape, and to engage with religious and traditional leaders to help shift harmful social norms that silence the victims and shield the perpetrators.
I believe that where there is political will, there is a way. I look forward to working closely with this Council and will continue to seek your valuable perspectives and advice. Our joint efforts can and must yield tangible results and create a better, brighter future for those affected by this terrible scourge. Ending sexual violence, and the long shadow of fear it casts over countless lives, will empower women to actively shape their destiny, and the destiny of the continent.