How to seize the huge opportunity created by the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict
“What a fabulous suit. She was perfect, perfect,” said a French woman standing behind me on the escalator. We had just emerged from two hours in a giant auditorium on the outskirts of London where we heard politicians, UN officials, and Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee speaking at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, billed as the largest gathering ever to focus attention and develop effective solutions to ending rape in war. With treaties and UN resolutions firmly in place, and ministers and representatives of more than 150 countries attending, the message of this summit was #TimeToAct. The suit in question was that of the movie star and humanitarian Angelina Jolie.
It’s hard not to be cynical when dozens of cameras flash for a glamorous celebrity and follow her through exhibits of survivors speaking out, more focused on her appearance than on the words of the assembled experts.
Many of the more than 400 international advocates attending the summit were rightfully dismayed when a day scheduled for ministerial dialogues failed to allow for serious interactions between government leaders and members of civil society living and working in places like Burma, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. Many of our colleagues responded to the call to act now by wondering what they’ve been doing in the trenches all these years, if not that.
Yet despite this expected cynicism, the summit created a huge opportunity. The initiative of UK Foreign Secretary William Hague convened world leaders with a single-minded focus of engaging government representatives and civil society actors in ending sexualized violence in conflict. And Jolie’s presence helped draw the global media, at the very least raising the issue to a higher rung on the international agenda. Doctors and police officers from remote areas of eastern DRC marveled at the enormity of the attention on rape in conflict. For them, this summit broke their isolation and sense of toiling in silence, anonymity, and—all too frequently—fear.
Sexualized violence in conflict is a complex problem requiring a range of parallel and complementary solutions. The three pillars of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, which brought a delegation of 90 representatives of civil society to the summit, focus on prevention, protection, and prosecution. Progress in these areas requires multiple, simultaneous initiatives by states and civil society organizations. While the summit included dozens of sessions during which experts explored lessons learned and next steps, in the end, concrete change depends on political will and resources.
Starting with prevention, heads of state must declare and implement policies of zero-tolerance for crimes of sexualized violence, including during times of conflict. Public awareness campaigns and training, especially for men and boys, as well as military and security forces, are critical. Serious disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation (DDR) programs must focus on former combatants who have known nothing but murder, rape, and pillage since their youth so that they can turn their minds and bodies to building roads, schools and farms instead of destruction. Peacekeeping and peacemaking forces must respond early and effectively to prevent minor conflicts from escalating into full-scale violence that enables mass atrocity. And, significantly, women must have the opportunity and resources to participate in all peace negotiations.
To protect individuals from sexual assault, hotlines and safe houses must be established and appropriate medical care and psychological support for survivors must be expanded. To minimize risk of assault in and around refugee camps and other vulnerable communities, development programs must be designed to bring water, latrines, electricity, and work closer to communities and in safe locations. Governments also need to deploy properly trained security and police forces with specialized gender personnel to the scenes of crimes where rape occurs.
Effective prosecution requires building entire justice systems from the ground up. As Physicians for Human Rights has witnessed in the DRC and Kenya with our Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, prosecution requires extensive training and the deployment of investigators, law enforcement officials, social workers, and witness advocates to support survivors who come forward and seek justice. These countries need training on how to properly document crimes and facilities to store the evidence. Networks must also be built among doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and the judiciary in order to properly support survivors in legal proceedings and hold perpetrators accountable. The challenges continue even in cases where convictions are successful, as the implementation of reparations is often nonexistent.
Building a judicial system that can respond comprehensively to these crimes requires years of consistent training and collaboration among professionals and their institutions. Prosecutors and judges need to be independent, but this requires support and protection when they bring senior officials to justice. A proposal to implement a hybrid judicial mechanism with mixed international and national judges in DRC, which would improve the legal process for addressing mass crimes, will require national political leadership to achieve its passage in parliament.
This kind of overhaul costs money and requires sustained effort. The summit in the UK did not yield significant pledges of resources—nor was it intended to. But the resources allocated globally to this problem are woefully inadequate relative to the needs and in comparison to other issues that the international community has addressed, such as maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS. A paltry few million announced here and there by governments at the summit, although welcome, is ultimately an insult to victims and minimizes the work necessary to address the problem of sexualized violence. We are talking billions. The resources available at the Victim Trust Fund of the International Criminal Court are miniscule given the scale of the fund’s intent to support tens of thousands of survivors of mass crimes in all of the court’s situation countries. A new global fund to end violence against women, or similar mechanism, should be considered as a first step following this historic summit.
Another key step must be shaming those countries that actively chose not to participate, including China, Kenya, India, Iran, Russia, and Syria. And while the summit had a huge turnout and more than two-thirds of the world’s nations made a verbal promise to address this issue, advocates must now call out countries that fail to meet their stated commitments.
In spite of the long road ahead, the summit offered great visibility, presence, and participation of global leaders and activists. There is no longer, if there ever was one, an excuse not to act. We will continue collaborating daily with our local partners to meet the challenge while also demanding that governments and other powerful actors make good on their promises.
For more stories about the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, see:
"Siege talks to BBC about the UK summit: ‘Listen to the grassroots organizers,’" by WMC's Women Under Siege
"Ignoring the evidence at the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit," by Amelia Hoover Green
"UK summit on sexualized violence: ‘A time warp in the wrong direction,'" by Jody Williams
"Do we really need Angelina Jolie?" by Lauren Wolfe
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, War, Law