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

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15-Apr-2021 02:26:55
Women still suffering in war zones, Special Representative tells Security Council, highlighting unmet global commitments to victims of sexual violence.

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Facing pandemic lockdowns, spiking violence and eroded access to services and legal protections, women in war zones continue to suffer and global commitments remain largely unmet, the United Nations senior official on sexual violence in conflict told the Security Council today, calling for a “paradigm shift” in how resources are allocated in the post-COVID-19 world.

Pramila Patten, who is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, briefed the 15-member Council’s quarterly debate on women, peace and security, which was held in a videoconference format. Spotlighting worrying increases in misogyny and attacks on women who are visible in public life, she urged States — many of whose resources are dwindling amid the pandemic’s economic shocks — not to cut funding to crucial health care and protection programmes for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Instead, she said, they should shift their historically massive military expenditures towards human resilience.

“The only cure for these overlapping ills is an injection of political resolve,” she stressed, insisting that the COVID-19 moment must be more than “just a point in time” in human history. Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on sexual violence in conflict (document S/2021/312), she underscored his strong case for national COVID-19 response and recovery plans that include stronger protection efforts and more access to victim-centred support services. During the pandemic, humanitarian workers in conflict zones across the world are reporting new cases of rape and gang rape daily. Chronic underreporting of crimes and limited access to care has only been compounded by the movement restrictions, lockdowns and cuts in service.

Proactive measures are urgently needed to help survivors come forward, she said, noting that shame, isolation and fear of rejection continues to plague many of those struggling with sexual and gender-based violence around the world. Recounting many personal stories, she said each of those cases cries out for justice. Council resolutions demand that they be treated with dignity and be seen by their societies as the holders of rights, she said, emphasizing that victims and survivors must be treated as individuals even as they face broad systemic challenges. Among other trends, she said the Secretary-General’s report also cites particular challenges wrought by terrorist organizations and community militia — including the high toll on women in the Lake Chad Basin amid the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency.

Emphasizing that in past pandemics more women have died as a result of lack of health services than from viruses themselves, she went on to praise recent strides in prosecuting sexual and gender-based crimes. However, many other investigations remain stalled and cases paralysed. As sexual and gender-based violence has not yet been prosecuted in the context of terrorism, no precedent exists in that regard. As such, she advocated for sanctions regimes that effectively target sexual and gender-based crimes, which can “change the calculus” of parties who assume they can commit such crimes with no repercussions. In all contexts, it is crucial to emphasize that “policies of zero tolerance cannot carry zero consequences”, she said.

Denis Mukwege, a doctor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, agreed that progress made in international law should not mask the fact that the scourge of sexual violence continues in all conflict situations around the globe, and that responses remain underfunded. “We are still far away from being able to draw a red line against the use of sexual violence in war and conflict,” he stressed, calling for efforts to render the Council’s important resolutions into tangible obligations and results. Recalling that no individual perpetrator was targeted by Council sanctions specifically for sexual or gender-based crimes in the first 10 years of the Special Representative’s mandate, he welcomed the organ’s recent imposition of sanctions against the Return Reconciliation and Rehabilitation (3R) group in the Central African Republic in 2020, adding “we hope this important precedent will not be a one-off”.

Appealing to the international community to take a firm stance against the use of rape as a weapon of war, he stressed that effective responses must include blacklists, sanctions and prosecutions. Describing the victim-centred model used by his hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where impunity against sexual violence crimes remains one of the main obstacles to peace and stability, and continues to feed the conflict in the east of the country — he outlined its holistic “one-stop shop” that provides physical care, psychosocial support and judicial assistance.

More than a decade since the publication by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of a human rights violations mapping report for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he described it as unacceptable that none of its recommendations have yet been implemented. As plans progress for the gradual drawdown of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he urged the Council to pay close attention to sexual violence crimes and include access to internationalized prosecution mechanisms as a key part of the transition.

Beatrix Attinger Colijn, Senior Women Protection Adviser with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), recalled the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangui, where it was predicted the country’s weak health system would not be capable of dealing with a large virus outbreak. After pausing initially, internal flights have long since resumed and most United Nations staff who left the country have returned. “With testing being rare, COVID-19 looms over the country with an unknown magnitude,” she said, noting that most of the population does not wear masks and little social distancing exists.

All of that is taking place against the backdrop of continued efforts to push back armed groups, she said, noting that the national army and bilateral forces carried out a range of military operations in the past five months. Many humanitarian organizations’ installations were destroyed or occupied by fighters, and hospitals were looted, bringing service provision to a halt. Humanitarian access to many regions has moved from risky to impossible. Spotlighting hopeful developments — including broad participation in the country’s elections in December 2020 and the continued provision of support to survivors of sexual violence, despite the pandemic — she described her role, which is to advise and support MINUSCA’s civilian, police and military components in implementing the Mission’s mandate to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence.

She went on to cite two crucial areas that define the extent of the response to conflict-related sexual violence, namely the social obstacles that impede survivors from reporting violations and access to justice. In most places outside Bangui, the capital, there is no functional chain of justice, with courts non-operational and prosecutors absent. Similarly, access to health facilities is difficult or impossible due to weak infrastructure and lack of transportation in much of the country. Describing her own recent interactions with survivors of sexual violence — including with a father and daughter who had walked 15 kilometres to wait by the side of a road, hoping to report a rape to MINUSCA — she emphasized the urgent need to connect people in remote areas with essential services and justice.

Caroline Atim, Director of South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, also briefed the Council, emphasizing that despite the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan the country remains engulfed by conflict. Gender-based violence is deliberately used to humiliate women and girls, and over 65 per cent of South Sudanese women have experienced sexual or physical violence — double the global average. Women and girls with disabilities are at even greater risk, she added, noting that she herself is deaf.

“A lethal combination of impunity for perpetrators and deep-rooted inequality and discrimination means that gender-based violence, including sexual violence against women and girls, is not taken seriously as a crime, nor is its devastating impact addressed,” she said. Even before the current conflict, rape in marriage was considered acceptable in South Sudan and more than half of all girls married before the age of 18. The pandemic has only exacerbated the rate of child, early and forced marriage, and the survivors of sexual violence are often forced to wed the men who raped them. Girls in South Sudan are sometimes raped to compensate for crimes committed by relatives, and women are raped to bear children to replace dead kin.

Globally, she said, women and girls with disabilities are two to three times more likely to experience gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation — especially during conflict. She shared the story of a 14-year-old deaf girl in Bor, the capital of South Sudan’s Jonglei state, who was raped several times in 2014 after having been abandoned by family members fleeing the fighting. Only through sign language could she explain not only that she had been raped, but that she was also HIV positive. Noting that persons with disabilities are easy prey for perpetrators, she said both they and their children can find themselves targets of extreme stigma and discrimination, ostracized by their communities and left with few resources.

“The rights, experiences and voices of survivors must be at the centre of any response to gender-based violence,” she continued. Survivors have fundamental rights that entitle them to services based on their specific needs, including psychosocial support, sexual and reproductive health and rights, access to legal counsel and vocational training. She added that the proliferation of firearms in South Sudan’s highly militarized society is putting women at risk. Calling for those responsible to be held accountable through the country’s Hybrid Court, she said all parties to the peace agreement must prioritize the full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership of women — including those with disabilities — in the peace process, and fully respect human rights.

In that regard, she warned that, if the suffering of women and girls is forgotten, “our wounds will never heal”. She urged the Council to ensure that a holistic, survivor-centred, accessible and rights-based approach is designed in partnership with women. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan must fulfil its protection mandate and respond to gender-based violence wherever it is deployed, she said, also calling for justice accountability, compensation and reparation and a halt to the flow of illicit weapons.

As Council members took the floor, many reiterated their support for the Council’s women, peace and security agenda, as well as frustration that the global community’s unified stance against sexual violence in conflict has yielded few tangible results for women on the ground. Several speakers praised the various Council sanctions regimes that have increasingly begun including sexual and gender-based crimes as standalone criteria for targeted measures against individuals and entities, while others echoed the Special Representative’s call for a reallocation of resources in post-COVID-19 national recovery plans. Still others emphasized that Governments’ “zero-tolerance” policies on sexual and gender-based crimes in conflict must finally be given the teeth they need to succeed.

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