No more impunity for sexual violence in conflicts

Jane Gabriel

The next session followed immediately and was announced as an ‘UN Action Event’. Under the title of ‘Stop Rape Now’ the UN is launching a new cross-UN initiative to take action against sexual violence in conflict. 10 UN agencies are working together and say they are “committed to end all forms of gender-based violence”.

Fatou Bensouda from the ICC spoke of last weeks naming of the first two suspects in the Darfur War Crimes Case. Two men are charged, with 51 counts of war crimes. The case is of a group of young women who were taken to a military garrison, tied to trees with their legs apart and raped continually through the night. The women’s testimony is now a public document. As deputy Prosecutor at the ICC Fatou said “we can’t talk publicly, but you can together send the message that there is no longer impunity for these crimes”.

Commander Daniel Opande, UN force Commander, Liberia and Sierra Leone, spoke next. He called for an end to the ‘diplomatic language’ and said that this war against sexual violence will only be won when the UN spells out clearly to every peace keeping mission that it is a key responsibility at all times, a mandatory task to be undertaken by all peace keepers. He called on all troop contributing countries not to compromise by protecting their own perpetrators. He ended by saying “this war must be won”.

Sapana Pradhan Malla, Director of the Forum for Women Law and Development spoke next. She told of the rape women in Nepal have suffered from the both the Maoists and the Security Forces. She said now that the Peace Accord has been signed, and international Peace Keeping forces have arrived, rape is still being used as a weapon of war.

“Now is the time for us to speak out in Nepal. I’m really feeling a deep pain talking about these de-humanising experiences. There will be no enduring peace without justice. We are different but we are equal”.

Sapana demanded that the UN challenge patriarchy and the culture of violence. “Protect the right of survival . Enough is enough.Stop sexual violence in conflict“.Eve Ensler then read from the Vagina Monologues – which she wrote as a result of the young Bosnian girls who were returned from a ‘rape camp’ in 1994. Yes, you read this correctly, from a ‘rape camp’.

Eve was sitting between Commander Opande and John Holmes who is the new Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. She read with power and conviction, her voice rising and the silence in the room deepening. When she called for an end to “evidence based date collection” and “evidence based advocacy” and demanded “isn’t it the rape of one woman enough to shame and motivate us?” the room broke into cheers. She said that the UN had an obligation to rise up, that this is “not an issue that you will get to later”. She ended saying “I promise you that you will intensify your efforts because there is nothing else you can possibly do”.

John Holmes, on only his third day of work at the UN chose to attend this session on Stop Rape Now. He sat sideways in his chair watching Eve read throughout the performance. The word vagina was said again and again and again. And Pain. And Loss. And “her legs were ripped apart”.

Here are some of the things that John Holmes said when Eve stopped reading:

“The fact that I’m here is a statement of my commitment to give real priority to the protection of women and children….The message has registered with me very fully. I was aware of this issue before. I have three daughters. But I am shocked at the extent to which sexual violence is used as a deliberate tactic in war to destroy individuals and communities. He went on to say that it is crucial that the “UN put its own house in order, that it is a shameful stain on the UN otherwise”.

John Holmes announced four measures he would put in place.

1. In the camps. Patrols for the women when they go to collect fire wood and water
2. More care medically and psychologically and more rehabilitation work for the women who have been raped
3. More resources and funding for sexual violence programmes
4. Better coordination and partnerships between the UN and NGOs

He ended by saying “This is a terrible scurge, we must all speak out and act decisively where ever it occurs… I believe that this war can be won and I’ll be proud if I can play some small part in ending it”. I believe that he is serious. The task is enormous. It is world wide. It is to do with the power and gender.This is an age old struggle.

The UN has come up with a new sign for those against rape: you cross your arms below the elbow and make a fist with each hand and raise your arms. As the session ended Commander Opande and John Holmes did exactly that. We all did.


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