Mr. President, Distinguished Members of the Security Council,
Today’s meeting is a critical opportunity to take stock of both the persistent and entrenched, as well as new and emerging, challenges in our collective efforts to eradicate the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence. Building upon our debate last year, which focused on turning commitments into compliance, and pursuing a survivor-centered, rights-based approach in all prevention and response efforts, we now meet to assess and address the gaps that remain. Many of these gaps and challenges have been exacerbated over the past year by a pandemic that has arrested the attention of the world. Concerted efforts are needed to ensure that survivors of sexual violence are not obscured beneath the long shadow cast by this unprecedented crisis.
In that respect, I would like to sincerely appreciate the leadership of Vietnam for convening this debate, which shines a spotlight on the issue during dark and difficult times. I warmly welcome the civil society briefer from South Sudan, as well as our Senior Women’s Protection Adviser from the Central African Republic, and Nobel Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege, whose first-hand, front-line perspectives will enrich our search for solutions.
We meet at a moment when this crime, which should have been consigned to a closed chapter of history, is once again in the headlines. In the remote, mountainous regions of North and Central Tigray, women and girls are being subjected to sexual violence with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension. Healthcare workers are documenting new cases of rape and gang-rape daily, despite their fear of reprisals and attacks on the limited shelters and clinics still in operation. The report before us records allegations of over 100 rape cases since hostilities erupted in November 2020. It may be many months before we know the full scale and magnitude – the extent and impact– of these atrocities.
There is no question that this Council has adopted groundbreaking resolutions to combat sexual violence. But the question could be asked: What do these resolutions mean right now on the ground in Tigray? When history looks back on this painful episode – as part of the long litany of battles fought on the bodies of women and girls, from Bosnia, to Rwanda, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – we will rightly be asked what we did to honor our commitments. For its part, my Office has engaged with the authorities at the highest-level to offer technical assistance and support, and will continue to closely monitor the situation, calling for restraint, humanitarian access, service-provision, and effective investigation.
The chasm between resolutions and reality, between aspirations and operations, is also evident on every page of the 12thannual Report of the Secretary-General before us today. This report covers 18 country situations and documents over2,500 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence committed in the course of 2020. As in previous years, the vast majority of these incidents targeted women and girls (96 per cent). Reports of sexual violence against men and boys were recorded in almost all of the countries examined, with the majority occurring in detention settings. Eight verified cases were found to target LGBTQI individuals. While such figures convey the severity and brutality of verified incidents, they do not reflect the global scale or prevalence of this crime.
The chronic underreporting of wartime sexual violence, due to stigma, insecurity, fear of reprisals, and lack of services, has been compounded by COVID-19 containment measures. Lockdowns, curfews, quarantines, fears of contracting or transmitting the virus, mobility restrictions, and limited access to services, as shelters closed and clinics were repurposed for the pandemic response, added a layer of complexity to existing structural, institutional and sociocultural barriers to reporting. Proactive measures to foster an enabling environment for survivors to safely come forward and seek redress have become more urgent than ever.
Many survivors have broken their silence; but many others have been broken by the silence forced upon them. Shame, isolation, rejection, and the anguish of having nowhere to turn, has shattered lives and livelihoods. Alongside the data, the report also surfaces human stories:
- The mother and daughter in eastern DRC who fled a rebel attack on their village, only to be raped by government soldiers arriving to fight the rebels;
- The displaced families who live in constant fear of being forced to marry their women and girls to armed elements in the Central African Republic;
- The girl who was gang-raped by four armed men in Tripoli whose family refused to file a complaint due to social norms around honor, shame and victim-blame, coupled with fears of retaliation;
- The adolescent girl who was gang-raped by three soldiers as she harvested fruit near a displacement camp in Darfur;
- The survivors of ISIL captivity who were forced to abandon their children conceived as a result of rape due to a lack of social acceptance; and
- The Bosnian woman who was raped in 1995 and is still seeking redress for the physical and psychological trauma she endured.
Each of these cases cries out for justice. The survivor-centered approach articulated in resolution 2467 (2019)demands that their voices be heard and heeded in policy and programmatic decisions; that they be treated with dignity and provided with quality, multisectoral assistance; and that they be seen by their societies as the holders of rights that will, ultimately, be respected and enforced.
Protection is tied to participation and power. Yet, this is imperiled by a global political climate of pushback on women’s rights and shrinking civic space, evident in a disturbing trend of misogynistic attacks on women’s human rights defenders and reprisals against women who are vocal and visible in public life.
At a time when the Secretary-General has called for a global ceasefire to focus on defeating this disease, COVID-19 has given rise to new gender-based protection concerns. The report records cases of sexual violence against women detained for alleged violations of curfews and quarantines; as well as violations by armed groups that have taken advantage of the pandemic to intensify their operations and gain ground. The report makes a case for survivors’ rights, needs and voices to inform national response and recovery plans, as part of fostering a more equitable post-COVID era. At the same time, the report recognizes that the UN system, service-providers, and civil society organizations swiftly pivoted to virtual approaches, such as hotlines, remote case management, and new referral and coordination networks, thereby avoiding a data “black-out”. Despite these innovations, many of those hardest hit by the overlapping crises of conflict, displacement and COVID-19 have also been hardest to reach, notably in crowded displacement settings where access to information and services is scarce, and women are forced to navigate the gendered digital divide.
Marginalized women tend to be left further and further behind in times of crisis and social stress. To bring the structural root causes of sexual violence into focus, the report views the issue through the lens of intersectionality, ensuring that survivors are not simply treated as a homogenous group. It demonstrates how intersecting forms of inequality, based on ethnic or political affiliation, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, income and migratory status, increase the risks faced by diverse individuals, in a context of historical power asymmetries, which are structural and systemic.
The report illustrates the nexus between sexual violence, conflict-driven trafficking in persons, and violent extremism, which requires cross-border cooperation and regional response capabilities, notably in the Lake Chad Basin where the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency exacts a heavy toll on women and girls. While some patterns of conflict-related sexual violence transcend national borders, others persist at the subnational level. The intensification of entrenched, localized conflicts is a concerning trend that perpetuates cycles of sexual violence including in the context of tensions over transhumance corridors, in the Central African Republic and Sudan. Community-based militias have used rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery as part of identity and resource-based conflicts in the DRC, Somalia and South Sudan, though this rarely features on the radar of global security bodies.
The lack of service coverage in isolated areas, due to weak State presence and infrastructure, has become all the more acute during the pandemic. The report calls for sexual and reproductive healthcare to be designated as an essential service in order to avoid its de-funding and de-prioritization, in light of the painful lesson from past epidemics that more women die from a lack of access to reproductive healthcare than from the disease itself. In rural and remote regions, the distance to health structures is vast, and transportation is limited, preventing many survivors from accessing care within the 72-hour post-rape window needed to prevent HIV, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy.
Service-delivery and material assistance cannot be dismissed as a secondary issue for security stakeholders, but is in fact the ultimate expression of political will. Meeting the basic needs of survivors and communities at risk doubles as a form of protection against exploitation and abuse. Greater attention must be paid to the risk of desperate families resorting to harmful coping mechanisms, such as early and forced marriage, in response to physical and financial insecurity.
As a critical pillar of prevention and deterrence, the report calls for enhanced efforts to close the accountability and reparations gap. While important developments took place at both the national and international level in 2020, such as the trial and conviction of notorious warlords Sheka and Lion so for war crimes including rape in North Kivu, and the first conviction by the International Criminal Court for the crime of forced pregnancy against a member of the LRA, in other cases, investigations were stalled and prosecutions paralyzed owing to COVID restrictions. Although committed on a widespread and systematic scale by terrorist groups, sexual violence has not been prosecuted in the context of counterterrorism trials. This means that no legal precedent has been set recognizing victims of sexual violence as legitimate victims of terrorism on a basis of equality before the law.
In terms of transitional justice, momentum was observed in South Sudan where the authorities announced the establishment of the African Union Hybrid Court. Last month, the Iraqi Council of Representatives adopted the Yazidi Survivors’ Law, which provides support for victims of ISIL atrocities. My Office has also developed model legislative guidance on conflict-related sexual violence to assist States to harmonize domestic laws with international standards. The report notes that in some cases the adoption of protective legal frameworks stalled not only due to COVID constraints, but following opposition from traditional and religious leaders, as seen in Somalia. This highlights the need to mobilize a broad constituency in both the formal and informal spheres, to promote social change. While reparations have been awarded in many cases, they generally remain unpaid, leaving victims empty-handed, even as illicit arms and revenue flow into the hands of the perpetrators.
This year’s report lists 52 parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence in situations on the agenda of the Council. Over 70 per cent are persistent perpetrators, having appeared on the list for five or more years without taking remedial or corrective action. It is critical to ensure greater coherence between the practice of listing and the practice of levying targeted and graduated measures by sanctions committees. If applied in a timely and consistent manner, sanctions can change the calculus of parties that operate on the assumption that rape is “cost-free” – or even profitable– in the political economy of war in which women are trafficked, traded and sold.
Sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum, but is tied to broader security dynamics such as the resurgence of hostilities, the rise of violent extremism, arms proliferation, 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, in the vicinity of military bases, in private homes during raids, at checkpoints, and in rural areas where women undertake livelihood activities. All tools must work in tandem to protect civilians at risk, support survivors, reform security sectors, and compel compliance by parties. This comprehensive approach is reflected in the 11 Joint Communiqués and Frameworks of Cooperation that my Office has signed with conflict-affected countries to anchor national ownership. The most recent is the Framework of Cooperation I signed with the Government of Sudan in March 2020, which includes efforts to address sexual violence as an integral part of the broader political and democratic transition. In all contexts, it is critical to emphasize that policies of zero tolerance cannot carry zero consequences.
Mr. President, Distinguished Council Members,
Building back better in the wake of this pandemic requires an inclusive, intersectional, and gender-informed approach. Let us not miss or misunderstand this moment. This is not just a point in time; it is a turning point in history. The pandemic demands a paradigm shift: to silence the guns and amplify the voices of women; to invest in public welfare rather than the instruments of warfare. We need to shift the leadership paradigm to ensure the representation of women and survivors themselves. We need to shift the public spending paradigm to reduce military expenditure and strengthen institutions. And we need to shift the security paradigm to foster human security and resilience to social and economic shocks.
The pandemic has laid bare the intersecting inequalities that plague our societies, as compounded by conflict, displacement, and institutional fragility. The only cure for these overlapping ills is an injection of political resolve and resources equal to the scale of the challenge. It is not the time to return to the status quo, but rather to dig deeper and tackle the root causes of this problem as never before.
From Tigray to Tripoli, from the Kivus to the camps of Darfur, women across the world look to this Council to realize the vision set out in its ten transformative Women, Peace and Security resolutions. A gender-responsive global pandemic recovery is everyone’s business, it is unfinished business, but it cannot be business as usual. It is time to write a new social contract in which no military or political leader is above the law, and no woman or girl is beneath the scope of its protection. It is time for decisive action to mitigate the risks of sexual violence before it has begun. As history has taught us: prevention is the best and only cure.