9 June 2015

A year on from the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence: What has been done?

Guest blog by Sarasvathi Arulampalam.

With Angelina Jolie as its face, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in June of last year was admirable in both its message and the participants. Delegations from 123 countries participated together with experts in the largest meeting on sexual violence in conflict in history.

With four identified key areas (accountability, support, security and justice, and international cooperation) the Summit ended on a high note with Special Envoy Jolie closing: “There is no doubt, after these four days, that we know what to do…” But as many critics stated, no real concrete commitments were made. A year on, the question becomes: what has been done?

Creating awareness around the subject of sexual violence in conflict is fundamental to increase both investigations and prosecutions. The Summit’s inclusions of leaders of various faiths to increase awareness as well as decrease stigmas is condemnable in understanding that sexually violent crimes not only leave the victims’ harmed but also often ostracised by societies due to traditional gender perspectives. Following through on this, the UK government has co-hosted meetings with international faith leaders urging them to challenge these harmful social norms. https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2015/02/worldwide-anglicans-gather-to-speak-out-on-sexual-and-gender-based-violence.aspx

In February of this year, the centre on Women, Peace and Security was launched at the London School of Economics. The centre is the first of its kind, with a unique focus on the often sexual crimes targeted at women during conflicts, will hopefully contribute to raising awareness as well as creating strategies in order to end sexual violence in conflict.

Further, the support for victims can be seen in practical measures such as reparations. One of the Summit’s victories was the resources various governments promised to the cause, the UK for example pledged £1 million to the International Criminal Court Trust Fund for Victims. It must be noted, however, that the ICC has yet to secure a conviction for sexual violence.

Improving accountability lies in the fundamental importance of ending the culture of impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. By making the perpetrators responsible for their crimes, the visibility of these crimes is increased as well as the acknowledgement that sexual violence is not a given in conflicts, but a crime in itself, as punishable as any other.

At the Summit’s conclusion, the DRC committed to a National Strategy to Fight Sexual Violence - a commitment that can be seen in March of this year when Congolese military commanders signed a declaration aiming to prosecute perpetrators under military command as well as sensitise soldiers on sexual violence. This is vital in ending impunity as it removes the barrier that protects military offenders.

However, much still remains to be done by individual States. The action plan for Somalia, which gained international support at the Summit, has yet to be fully implemented, as seen in the Security Council report this year. The same report noted that despite Burma’s government signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence, and subsequently participating in the Summit, little has been done to tackle the impunity enjoyed by state actors who perpetrate sexual violence. http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2015_203.pdf

Conflict as the pretext for sexual violence occurring worldwide is referred to in the Summit with the Arms Trade Treaty. In order to reduce conflict, the Summit encouraged all governments to sign and ratify the Treaty - to date 69 States have ratified the treaty. The Summit also refers to the rights of those recognised under the 1951 Refugee Convention, an interesting reference considering one of the main criticism of the Summit was the UK government omitting to mention those asylum seekers in their country whose experience of sexual violence has not been handled in an efficient or sensitive manner.

One of the major practical outcomes of the summit was the introduction of “The International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict”, a UK government funded collection of expert written content on everything from instructions on how to conduct interviews with victims as well as collection of physical evidence. The Protocol, which the UK has committed to implementing, includes among other things the right to a female interpreter. Alarmingly, within the UK, an asylum seeker has none of these rights.

With the UN’s major presence at the Summit, the very real problem of peacekeepers using their position to sexually abuse the very people they are trying to protect was another talking point. Despite strong urging in June 2014 to efficiently tackle this problems, an internal report leaked earlier this year detailed a failure of the UN to investigate cases of UN personnel suspected of abuse. Critics have argued that the UN’s reaction, or rather lack of, to this report is only creating the same culture of impunity that the Summit so zealously committed to dismantle.

Ultimately, the Summit, no matter how ambitious the participants, could not eradicate sexual violence in conflicts, an issue which is immensely complex, widespread and obscured. However, in its still early stages it has had some effects. The importance of the International Protocol as a resource can not be understated. The commitments undertaken by governments such as the UK’s are a step in the right direction in creating awareness that encourages the allocation of resources to combat sexual violence in conflicts. And while much work still needs to be done, especially by individual states, fundamentally, the Summit pushed sexual violence onto the agenda of many States who would prefer to sweep it under the rug. If concrete action can now follow from these States’ declarations and commitments, this problem is one step closer to finding a solution. 

Guest blog by Sarasvathi Arulampalam, a law student at the University of Dundee with a strong interest in the rights of girls and women. 

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