The number of victims involved is utterly chilling. In Rwanda alone, up to 400,000 women are estimated to have been raped in the 100-day genocide of 1994. The vast majority of victims are women and children, but men are often targeted too.
Guilt lies with those who commit these crimes, but the shame falls on the whole world. For we have failed to act in a concerted way against this problem and have allowed a culture of impunity to develop. The shocking truth is that very few perpetrators have ever been put on trial for rape in conflict and even fewer have gone to prison. In wartime Bosnia, up to 50,000 women were raped, but only 30 men have ever been convicted. Given this record, the government forces and militia committing rape in Syria today probably expect they will simply get away with it.
As a man I feel appalled by this, and as Foreign Secretary I believe that it is within our power to do something about it. Moreover, I am convinced that this is a cause that Britain must champion. Ours is one of the few countries in the world with the global reach, resources and diplomatic network to be able to set a lead and so it is our responsibility to do so.
I believe that the time has come for a concerted international effort to challenge the use of rape as a weapon of war and to shatter the culture of impunity. Our predecessors came together to abolish the 19th-century slave trade and drive it from the high seas. In our generation, the world has come together to act against landmines and cluster munitions. And after ten years of campaigning by charities and members of the public, we are coming closer to agreeing a historic Arms Trade Treaty. In each case hope, vision and determination prevailed. In each case people seized a moment and pressed boldly forward. It is time to act in the same way against rape as a weapon of war and other forms of sexualised violence, seizing another crucial moment to shape our world for the better.
We have to establish a culture of deterrence by increasing the number of successful prosecutions. We have to give the UN and other agencies the support they need to support and empower survivors, and to increase women’s participation in peace-building. Many organisations have done incredible work in conflict-affected countries and at the UN over many years, including achieving a framework of UN Security Council Resolutions. Now, it is time for us as governments to muster the will to act.
I’ve heard it said that preventing sexual violence from happening in war is simply impossible. It is an inevitable by-product of conflict, so the argument goes; a problem as ancient as war itself and far too complex to tackle. For many people the issue of the use of rape in war is as distant as slavery would have been to most Britons in the 18th and 19th century: something that happened far away and barely touched their lives.
But I have been able to meet female rape victims in Darfur and survivors of the Srebrenica massacres in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I have seen for myself how the lack of justice for survivors inflicts terrible suffering, makes recovery from war even harder and undermines our common security.
Survivors often endure shame, ostracism and disease, unwanted pregnancy, psychological trauma, an inability to work and family breakdown. Their communities are deeply affected too. Tackling sexual violence in conflict is not only a moral issue, it is central to peace-building and conflict prevention.
So our government has begun a major new initiative in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that I will lead. First, we are setting up a specialist team of experts that will be deployed to conflict areas to support efforts to prevent and investigate sexual violence in conflict. It will include police, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, forensic experts, experts in gender-based violence and in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses. It will support UN investigations and civil society organisations, and help other countries to develop their own capabilities. We have already recruited 65 members of the team, and their first pilot deployment will take place before the end of this year. We hope that by setting this example we can help to support successful prosecutions and encourage other countries to set up similar teams.
Second, we are significantly increasing our support to the UN. We are giving £1 million over the next three years to support the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence and urge other countries to do more too.
Third, when the UK takes on the presidency of the G8 in January, one of our objectives will be to secure new commitments from some of the world’s most powerful nations. We will urge G8 countries to enter into partnerships with conflict-affected nations. We will call for new financial commitments, and development assistance focused on legislative reforms, economic empowerment and support for survivors, which we hope to broaden beyond the G8 over time. And we are assessing if there is a need for a new international protocol on the investigation and prosecution of sexual violence in conflict and the protection of survivors.
I know that if the world can act more effectively against this problem we will not only prevent appalling injustices, but also help to break the cycle of instability and injustice in conflict-affected countries. That is our ambition and we are calling on governments, civil society and concerned citizens around the world to join us in making it a reality.