Mr. President, Distinguished Members of the Security Council,
We meet today to find effective ways to turn commitments into compliance, and resolutions into results. We meet in the spirit of pursuing a survivor-centered approach, which ensures that survivors of wartime sexual violence will not be forgotten, even in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that has captured the attention of the world.
In that respect, I would like to sincerely appreciate the leadership of Germany in convening this debate during exceptionally challenging times, and to particularly thank His Excellency, Mr. Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, who chairs this meeting for the second consecutive year. I also extend my appreciation to the Dominican Republic for its support and collaboration at all stages of the planning process. I warmly welcome the civil society briefers from Myanmar and the Central African Republic, as well as Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, who will lend their unique voices to our collective search for solutions.
The annual Report of the Secretary-General before us today paints a somber and harrowing picture of sexual violence used as a tactic of war, torture and terror, and a tool of political repression, to dehumanize, destabilize, and forcibly displace populations.
This is a crime that shreds the very fabric that binds communities together, leaving social cohesion and safety nets threadbare. It is a biological weapon; a psychological weapon; an expression of male dominance over women, and of one group over another. Conflict-related sexual violence is a crime that sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace. These are interlocking issues: more gender equality means greater social stability, and the inverse is also true.
The report before us documents almost 3,000 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence committed over the course of a single year. The vast majority of incidents targeted women and girls (96 per cent), though over a hundred confirmed cases also affected men and boys, and LGBTQI individuals. 848 cases were attacks on children. Behind every figure presented in the report, is a human story. Too often, it is the story of a survivor who walks in shame, while the perpetrator walks free. It is the story of a military or political leader who feels above the law, and a civilian who has fallen beneath the scope of its protection.
Accordingly, the report emphasizes the imperative of a survivor-centered approach, as articulated by this Council for the first time in resolution 2467 (2019). A survivor-centered, rights-based approach requires tailored solutions that build resilience, restore voice and choice to survivors, and address the diverse experiences of all affected individuals. In this way, it tackles intersecting inequalities and root causes to ensure that no one is left behind or excluded from the dividends of peace and development.
As I have seen firsthand in the field, war does not speak with just one voice. There are countless stories that are shrouded in silence and left off the historical record. Diverse life experiences must inform policy, operational, and funding decisions. If these decisions are not gender-based in their design, they will be gender-biased and exclusionary in their effect.
The report spans 19 countries of concern. Each country section includes a targeted recommendation that can be cited at relevant moments such as peacekeeping mandate authorizations; country-specific deliberations; sanctions decisions; or the design of peace negotiations, ceasefire agreements, and transitional justice processes.
To highlight a few key examples: Following my visit to the Central African Republic in May of last year, I advocated for the government to nominate a Special Advisor to the President to work with my Office on advancing implementation of the Joint Communiqué on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. In other settings, key legislative reforms are recommended, such as the adoption of the long-pending Sexual Offenses Bill in Somalia, and the draft law on the Prevention of Violence Against Women in Myanmar. In South Sudan, the United Nations has been engaging with armed groups following the abduction of hundreds of women and girls in Western Equatoria. Many are still languishing in military bases, and the report calls for their immediate release. Likewise, in Syria and Iraq, many Yazidi women and girls have not yet been released from ISIL captivity and remain missing, in desperate need of services and family reunification. In post-conflict contexts, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, survivors of sexual violence are still fighting to realize their rights and status as legitimate victims of war, in order to access reparations and redress. Moreover, although sexual violence has been widely used as a tactic of terrorism, in contexts such as Iraq, Nigeria, Mali, Somalia, and Syria, it has not been prosecuted as such.
Every report about wartime rape also testifies to its underreporting. This is linked with fear of stigmatization and reprisals; lack of access to services and the justice system; and harmful social norms around honor, shame and victim-blame. The Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Arrangements (or MARA) have deepened the evidence-base for action. Yet, the MARA is only as effective as the resources and capacity behind it. Women Protection Advisers (or WPAs) who convene the MARA have improved the quality and quantity of information. 86 per cent of cases documented in the report come from settings where WPAs are deployed.
The report also lists 54 parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence in situations on the agenda of this Council. Over 70 per cent are persistent perpetrators, having appeared on the list for five or more years.
For the first time, this year’s report features an assessment of compliance gaps, which notes the prevailing disregard for international norms and obligations by parties to armed conflict. It finds that the majority of persistent perpetrators have not made meaningful commitments to curb violations.
There is, accordingly, an urgent need for greater coherence between the practice of listing, and the practice of imposing targeted and graduated measures to leverage behavioral change. We know that sexual violence is characterized by staggering rates of impunity and recidivism. It is time to usher in a new era of enhanced monitoring and enforcement, bringing all tools to bear. It is time to change the calculus of belligerents who operate on the assumption that rape remains “cost-free”. Eight sanctions regimes now include sexual violence within their designation criteria. Designating parties for these crimes sends a powerful political signal.
Since 2009, my mandate has engaged constructively with numerous parties, resulting in the signing of 10 Joint Communiqués or Frameworks of Cooperation with States, and has encouraged the adoption of unilateral communiqués and codes of conduct by several non-State armed groups. This experience has shown that strategic dialogue is most effective under the shadow of a credible threat of accountability and enforcement.
As the report notes, we have rarely seen linear progress from commitments to compliance, owing to an ever-more complex global security environment. Sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum, but is tied to broader risks, such as the resurgence of hostilities, rising violent extremism, militarization, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, population displacement, and collapsed Rule of Law. These factors trigger renewed patterns of sexual violence, which the report finds to be concentrated in contexts of abduction, captivity, displacement, detention, and in remote, rural areas where women undertake essential livelihood activities. In addition, there is constant oscillation between progress and regression, forward momentum and backlash, on women’s rights.
We began 2020 anticipating a jubilee year for the Women, Peace and Security agenda, with the 20th anniversary of resolution 1325 (2000), the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), and the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter (1945), with its founding promise of gender equality. Yet, we find ourselves fighting to prevent the rollback and reversal of hard-won gains. The report draws attention to the global political climate of pushback on women’s rights, evident in reprisals against women’s human rights defenders; physical and financial risks to women’s civil society organizations; and shrinking civic space.
Anniversaries and annual reports are not just about looking back, but also looking forward. They serve not only to measure progress, but to inspire and accelerate it. It has been said that, “the one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, is an idea whose time has come”. The Women, Peace and Security agenda, reflected in 10 robust resolutions, is that idea. It is not an issue that can wait until urgent matters are resolved; it is a strategy for resolving them more equitably and fully. It is a way of adapting to the changing face of conflict in the 21st Century.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected the work of the United Nations, and my mandate has not been spared. But what the virus has not changed are the needs of survivors. What has not changed is the right to physical integrity and bodily autonomy. Also unchanged is the fact that war and rape rage on in the Central African Republic, the DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, and elsewhere. In this climate of intersecting crises one thing is clear: it is time to silence the guns, and to amplify and unmute the voices of women. The Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire means that all parties must cease the use of sexual and other violence.
Mr. President, Distinguished Council Members,
Today’s debate sets the stage for a new decade of decisive action, along three main lines:
- Firstly, empowering survivors and those at risk through enhanced resourcing and quality service-provision, to foster an enabling environment in which they can safely report violations and seek redress;
- Secondly, acting on the reports and information received to bring parties into compliance with international norms; and
- Thirdly, enhancing accountability as a critical pillar of prevention and deterrence, ensuring that when parties fail to comply with their commitments, they are duly held to account.
Prevention is the best response. Yet we have struggled to measure – or even define – progress on the prevention pillar of this agenda. Compliance is a concrete example: sexual violence persists not because existing frameworks and obligations are inadequate, but because they are inadequately applied. Resolution 1820 of 2008 demanded nothing less than the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians”. This resolution wrote a new norm and drew a red line. Now, we must clearly demonstrate the consequences of crossing it.
We must keep these crimes and their perpetrators in the spotlight of international scrutiny. As the well-known legal maxim reminds us: Justice must be done and be seen to be done. Survivors must be seen by their societies as the holders of rights that will, ultimately, be respected and enforced.