Women, Peace and Security: Sexual Violence in Conflict - Security Council Open VTC - Part 2

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17-Jul-2020 00:50:11
Sexual violence shreds ‘very fabric that binds communities together’, Special Representative tells Security Council, stressing survivor-centred approach.

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Sexual violence is used as a war tactic and a political tool to dehumanize, destabilize and forcibly displace populations across the globe, the United Nations expert on the issue told the Security Council in a 17 July video conference meeting, pressing countries to adopt a survivor-centred approach that ensures victims will not be forgotten.

“This is a crime that shreds the very fabric that binds communities together, leaving social cohesion and safety nets threadbare,” said Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Describing wartime sexual violence as a biological weapon, a psychological weapon and an expression of male dominance over women, she stressed that this abuse “sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace”.

Updating the Council on the Secretary-General’s report (document S/2020/487), which documents almost 3,000 verified cases over the course of a year, she said 89 per cent of these incidents target women and girls. It emphasizes the imperative of a survivor-centred approach, as articulated by the Council in resolution 2467 (2019), which requires tailored solutions to build resilience, restore voice and choice to survivors, and address the diverse experiences of all those affected.

“War does not speak with just one voice,” she explained. There are countless stories shrouded in silence and left off the historical record. Therefore, 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,” she assured.

Highlighting examples from the report, which covers 19 countries — including the Central African Republic, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina — she drew attention to the problem of underreporting, which is often linked with fear of stigmatization and reprisals, lack of access to the justice system and harmful social norms around honour, shame and victim-blaming.

She also highlighted the problem of non-compliance. “We know that sexual violence is characterized by staggering rates of impunity and recidivism,” she said, cautioning that there is rarely linear progress from commitment to effective action against it. Sexual violence is linked to broader risks of renewed hostilities, violent extremism, militarization, the flow of small arms and light weapons, and the collapse of rule of law. “It is time to usher in a new era of enhanced monitoring and enforcement, bringing all tools to bear.”

She called for decisive action to empower survivors and those at risk through greater resourcing and service-provision. Acting on reports and information is also important for bringing parties into compliance with international norms. Better accountability would serve as a “critical pillar of prevention and deterrence”, ensuring that, when parties fail to comply with their commitments, they are duly held to account.

While prevention is the best response, she said the Council has struggled to measure — or even define — progress on this pillar of the women, peace and security agenda. “We must keep these crimes and their perpetrators in the spotlight of international scrutiny,” she insisted.

Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on sexual violence in conflict, broadly agreed. “Entrenched discrimination in society and the gendered impact of sexual violence demands that actions are taken for survivors.”

She acknowledged that resolution 2467 (2019) was the first to place survivors and their needs at the centre of all action. But, words are promises. “What counts, is if those promises are kept”, she said. Having met child survivors everywhere, she said there is no country, rich or poor, that should not take a hard look at its own laws, agencies, immediate reporting, treatment of survivors and social attitudes.

She drew particular attention to the plight of Yazidi women and children in Iraq, who were abducted, enslaved and tortured by the thousands by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) terrorists in 2014. Many children were murdered. Nearly 2,000 returned and now suffer from post-traumatic stress — many from having witnessed the murder of their relatives and the rape of their mothers.

Yet, there are “very few” services available for Yazidi child survivors and children born of rape, she said. According to a new Amnesty International report, psychosocial services for Yazidi children fall “far short” of meeting their long‑term specialist needs. “I have heard this replicated in every conflict setting that I have visited for nearly 20 years with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),” Ms. Jolie said, stressing that the lack of services stems from the international community’s failure to offer funding or political will.

Stressing that sexual and gender-based violence is the most chronically underfunded sector of United Nations humanitarian appeals, receiving less than 1 per cent of assistance, she pressed the Council to “think of how many lives could be saved if we simply doubled that percentage”.

She described today’s world as one where child survivors live with stigma and fear of retaliation at the hands of powerful perpetrators. More often than not, including in Syria and Myanmar, not a single perpetrator of alleged systematic conflict-related sexual violence was held to account. “These are all choices,” she said, pressing countries to “do the hard work” of supporting survivors, changing laws and attitudes, and bringing perpetrators to account.

Speaking to that point, Khin Ohmar, Founder and Chair of Progressive Voice on behalf of NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, said that, as an advocate for gender equality and peace in Myanmar for more than 30 years, she has met the survivors of unspeakable crimes committed by the country’s military against ethnic and religious communities. “I stand here today in solidarity with my sisters and brothers still waiting for justice,” she declared.

Horrific accounts of Rohingya women during the 2016 and 2017 “clearance operations” remain shocking and unique in their ferocity, she said. They also represent a pattern of gender-based violence by the military against Kachin, Shan, Ta’ang and Rakhine communities. One of the first pieces of documentation was produced nearly 20 years ago by the Shan Women’s Action Network, which detailed incidents against 625 Shan women and girls — 61 per cent of them gang-rapes and 25 per cent resulting in death.

Noting that findings by Kachin, Karen and Ta’ang women’s organizations, as well as by the Women’s League of Burma — an umbrella organization of 13 ethnic women’s groups — corroborate many of these conclusions, she said the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar itself found that “sexual violence was a hallmark of the Tatmadaw’s military operations”, with rape used as “part of a deliberate, well‑planned strategy to intimidate, terrorize and punish a civilian population”.

Recalling that the military announced as recently as June, clearance operations against the ethnic Rakhine and the Arakan Army in western Myanmar, she said that, unless the international community acts now, these human rights abuses will continue. The confiscation of land, along with patriarchal land-owning practices, Government development plans and the encroachment of business interests, mean that women’s dispossession risks becoming permanent.

She pressed the Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or to create an ad hoc international tribunal to fully investigate crimes suffered by the Rohingya and other ethnic communities — beyond the Court’s current limited investigation. It must work to ensure that Myanmar complies with the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice, and that actions are more broadly taken to repeal discriminatory laws, restore citizenship to the Rohingya and lift restrictions on free movement and humanitarian access.

“It is vital that the United Nations sees this moment as a key turning point,” she said. The Karen, Kachin, Rohingya, Rakhine and others have all faced great suffering at the hands of the Tatmadaw. “Who is next?”

Describing the situation in the Central African Republic, Nadia Carine Fornel Poutou, Executive President of the Association of Central African Women Lawyers, recounted the experience a 17-year-old young female in Bangui, who survived an attack by four members of the Séléka group in 2013. “They were tall and dressed in military garb, their faces veiled by black cloth,” she said, recalling how one of the soldiers ripped off clothes of the young woman’s sister and pushed her to the ground. As the young woman watched in tears, the leader said they should do the same to her, and despite her screams, they did not stop. She was taken to the hospital in Bimbo, where she was told she was pregnant but that the child had died in her belly.

Against that backdrop, she said there were a total 13,028 cases of gender‑based violence cases in 2019, managed and recorded by organizations in the Central African Republic; 12,249 of them involved women. Noting that men are likely underrepresented, as they are even more stigmatized when they fall victim to these crimes, she said such abuse is rooted in prevailing gender and sociocultural norms. Often, armed groups target people based on their ethnic or religious background, or because their area of residence is supposedly populated by rival militias. In some cases, the security forces deployed to protect civilians — both national and international — commit atrocities.

She urged the Council to ensure that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) protects civilians against violations of international humanitarian law. It should help strengthen the Central African Republic’s armed forces and internal security forces and support civil society groups — notably by consulting them on ways to improve access to United Nations prevention mechanisms. Finally, the Council must support development of the judiciary by strengthening the Joint Rapid Intervention and Repression Unit, which fights sexual and gender-based violence.

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