Can governments end sexual violence in war?

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 June 2014 17:00 GMT

Mzanga Minani of the Red Cross (L) encourages victims of sexual violence to get medical help at Mugunga camp for war-displaced people near the eastern Congo city of Goma, July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Julia Sestier

Image Caption and Rights Information
London summit on ending sexual violence in conflict is part of a growing international focus on the issue

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rape is one of the most horrifying and least understood aspects of modern warfare, affecting hundreds of thousands of civilians worldwide – but it’s not inevitable and should be stopped, experts say.

The largest ever meeting on sexual violence in conflict will take place from June 10 to 13, 2014, in London, where representatives of most of the world’s countries will discuss how to end this use of rape. This follows the September 2013 U.N. Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict  in which signatories pledged to hold perpetrators to account, improve support for victims, and do more to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

Here’s a quick round-up of the problem and possible solutions.

Who uses rape as a weapon of war?

All kinds of armed groups – national armies, rebel groups and militia groups – may rape people during a conflict. But not every armed group rapes, and many conflicts involve little or no sexual violence by armed groups.

Government soldiers are more likely to rape than rebel groups, though states sometimes delegate sexual violence to militias, according to recent research.

The reasons vary from lack of discipline and opportunism, to the strategic use of sexual violence by armed groups to destroy communities and instil terror. Rape is cheaper than bullets.

How can this crime be prevented?

Many think punishment is an important way to stop rape and other forms of sexual violence. The logic is that if people know they won’t get away with rape, they are less likely to do it in the first place.

International law bans armed groups from sexual violence, but many soldiers and other armed groups don’t know the law exists.

History shows that few cases of rape in conflict ever come to court and, if they do, charges are often dropped because of lack of evidence.

One of the main aims of next week’s summit is to help end the current culture of impunity by increasing the number of convictions.

Ending the culture of impunity?

Many rape prosecutions have failed in the past because the evidence hasn’t been good enough. In many conflict zones there are no doctors or equipment to collect DNA evidence, and police and others are not trained in collecting witness statements that can be used in court.

An International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict will be launched at the summit to help improve the way evidence of rape is collected.

It’s a practical tool that spells out what kind of evidence is needed and the best way of obtaining it. People on the ground will need training so that they can obtain quality evidence while protecting the safety and confidentiality of survivors, and minimise their further traumatisation.

The idea is to get more convictions in international as well as local courts, and to make sure commanding officers as well as their foot soldiers are charged.

The summit will not only issue the protocol, but also take steps to help set up training and structures in war zones, so that a rape victim knows exactly where to go, who to complain to, and what evidence can be gathered.

The summit organisers also hope for agreements to:

- revise military doctrine and training

- improve peacekeeping training and operations

- provide new support to local and grassroots organisations and human rights defenders

- develop the deployment of international expertise to build national capacity

- improve support for survivors

- form new partnerships to support conflict-affected countries

Will all this change anything?

Experts say it’s a small but important step in the right direction, and that a lot of energy has gone into the summit.

But some also say that the only way to end sexual violence is to end conflicts, and therefore more effort needs to go into peacebuilding.

Another aspect to this is that governments should be held accountable for protecting their civilians and for the way their armies treat civilians. Sometimes it can be as simple as making sure soldiers are properly fed and trained.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.