Sexual Violence in Conflict

Contamination of Beef Products – in the House of Commons at 3:25 pm on 14th February 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

[Relevant documents: Written Evidence and uncorrected Oral Evidence from the International Development Committee, on Violence against Women and Girls, HC 934 and HC 934-I.]

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon 3:27 pm, 14th February 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of preventing sexual violence in conflict.

My favourite ever quote is not particularly erudite, which is not very good for an Oxford MP. It is from “The West Wing”, when Leo tells one of his members of staff:

“Never let the urgent crowd out the important.”

In a nutshell, that is why, with all the domestic pressures crowding in on us at the moment, I still prioritise my work with the all-party associate group on women, peace and security, and why I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to preventing sexual violence in conflict.

Major General Cammaert, the former peacekeeping commander in Democratic Republic of the Congo, said in 2008:

“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.”

In that year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in DRC. Since 1998, it is believed that more than 200,000 Congolese women have been raped. Today, we still hear of widespread sexual violence in DRC, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan. Just last week, there was a report of a Somali woman who spoke up about being gang raped by state security forces only to be sentenced to a year in prison, along with the journalist who reported her story, for daring to speak up. This reflects the exponential growth of conflicts that target civilians, especially women and girls, as a means of intimidation and ethnic cleansing. Films such as “Hotel Rwanda” and “Shooting Dogs” mean that most people now know that the abuses that these women suffer are among the most horrific that any of us can imagine. Nevertheless, as if the failure to prevent this violence in the first place was not bad enough, these women are still routinely denied access to any form of justice, or any engagement with the peace processes that follow.

Male victims, crimes against whom are even more chronically under-reported, face extreme stigma and almost non-existent access to services. It is almost impossible to estimate the scale of an abuse that remains largely unreported and unrecorded. I hope that the House will forgive me, however, given that I am chair of the all-party associate group on women, peace and security, if I focus my remarks on the issues affecting women in conflict. It is meant not to imply that the abuses suffered by male victims are less grave, but only to acknowledge that the protection challenges are different and that it is not my area of expertise. Whether the victims are male of female, however, the unpalatable fact is that the perpetrators prosper with impunity and that there remains little if any deterrent against sexual violence in most fragile and conflict-affected states.

The primary responsibility for prosecuting these crimes must lie with the states themselves, of course, but where the rule of law has collapsed or is failing to enforce domestic and international laws to protect victims, the international community has a constructive and effective role to play in capacity building and challenging those states over the need for justice and accountability. Security Council resolution 1325 is the cornerstone of policy on gender and conflict. It was the first resolution to acknowledge that women experience different impacts from conflict and that this matters for global peace and security.

In 2008-09, further resolutions concluded not only that violence against women was a criminal matter that could be addressed by justice systems once countries had stabilised, but that sexual and gender-based violence was often a deliberately deployed weapon of war, that a failure to stop violence against women was a failure to stop an abuse that catalysed and perpetuated conflict, and that until we started seeing violence against women as a security threat, we would never be able fully to achieve our defence, foreign policy and international development goals of conflict prevention and stabilisation.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

My hon. Friend deserves great credit for having tabled this important motion, not least because, as she pointed out, girls and women are at the forefront of violence in the areas she identified. That is why so many of the Department for International Development’s programmes around the world specifically combat violence against women. Does she agree that it is hugely to the Government’s and particularly the Foreign Secretary’s credit that they have put this item squarely on the agenda for the G8 meeting in Britain later this year and that that helps to build on the international agreements that are aimed at tackling this subject and those which she has just mentioned?

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

I do indeed, and I thank the former International Development Secretary for his intervention. I know that he was a great champion of women’s rights when he was in that role. I hope that when the Foreign Secretary speaks, he will update us on progress at the G8 on this issue.

All the statistics and stories tell us that women are most vulnerable to the worst human rights abuses imaginable, but they are more than that. Among the women I have met are those such as Jineth Bedoya, a Colombian journalist who will not stop challenging arms dealing in her country, despite being abducted, tortured and raped by paramilitaries and then being told that there would be no prosecutions, but that she could have either bodyguards or a ticket out of the country.

Then there is Ikhlas Mohammed, a Darfuri survivor who speaks out continually about the abuses that women and girls have undergone in her community. The story she told still haunts me and demonstrates that practical solutions such as the preventing sexual violence initiative are not just western follies that tinker at the edges, but exactly what those who survive sexual violence are calling for. She told me this story: “I was in Tawila town when a girl’s primary school was attacked. The little girls in the school were raped, some in front of their families. Many were less than 10 years old. How do you stand being made to watch while someone rapes your daughter, or your mother or your sister? It is better to die than that. They use rape as a weapon. Now the women who were raped are pregnant they are unacceptable in their families. Most of the girls did not tell anyone they had been raped because of the stigma. If there is no justice, if there is no law, then everything has collapsed. We cannot stop women’s violence. We cannot stop rape. We cannot stop any kind of sexual violence towards women. We need justice. I am a representative of Darfurian women and we are looking for justice.”

Those women who speak up after they have survived sexual violence and who challenge it regardless of the risk are not just victims. They are not even primarily victims. Many whom I have met have become exceptional human rights defenders and leaders in their own countries, calling for their right to live free from the fear of all kinds of violence, for their right to access services and, just as importantly, for sustainable stabilisation. They are calling for women to be considered and included in peace processes so that they can hold their own leaders to account. Those women are indomitable agents for change whose determination and strength of purpose is a resource for peace and security that we can ill afford to ignore. They are, in short, a good investment.

I am delighted to welcome the Foreign Secretary’s preventing sexual violence initiative. I know from discussions with him and with the PSVI team that tackling sexual violence in conflict is a genuine personal passion of his, and I thank him for his leadership in driving the matter up the international agenda in a way that we have not seen since resolution 1325 was signed in 2000.

Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian

Does the hon. Lady agree that we in the developed world also need to address this issue? Is she aware that 20% of US female veterans report that they have experienced sexual assault during their careers?

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

There is no question but that sexual violence is a problem in every country, and every country needs to take responsibility for tackling it. It is also a fact that in certain countries the rule of law has entirely collapsed, and in those countries there is much more scope for capacity building and support. The G8 countries and the international community can offer support in a way that will make an extraordinary difference to women’s lives.

The all-party parliamentary group and our co-ordinating group—Gender Action for Peace and Security—have already taken every opportunity to engage with the PSVI team as the initiative develops. We have been making the case for participation, as well as protection and impunity, to be part of the PSVI package. We have emphasised that, in this sensitive area of policy, we need to take a “first, do no harm” approach, particularly by ensuring that support and protection are in place for the survivors of sexual violence and for those women human rights defenders who are brave enough to stand up but who face extreme intimidation and abuse.

We must also ensure a sustainable impact by integrating the PSVI with the national action plans developed around resolution 1325, with the building stability overseas strategy and with other DFID and peace-building programmes so that there is no risk of duplication. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will give us an update today on his progress on the PSVI with the G8 member states, and on his plan for taking the initiative forward following the April Foreign Ministers’ meeting and beyond.

The practical measures that the PSVI offers are the missing link in our international response to the risks that women face in conflict. A frequent problem is the failure to understand the risks in the first place. Much of the rhetoric around women in conflict-affected states fails to address the full range of roles that women might have played in the conflict. Some take part as combatants, others as field operations supporters and some as sex slaves. Their inclusion in peace processes, in disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration, repatriation and resettlement programmes and in intelligence networks is every bit as important as the inclusion of their male counterparts, whom we would not dream of excluding.

Women represent 80% of refugees, along with their children. The number of war widows and female-headed families increases exponentially immediately after conflict, and those groups continue to face survival crises in post-conflict situations, making them even more vulnerable to sexual violence. They need access to employment programmes and to health, education, social and justice services if they are to protect themselves and, if they are already victims, to recover. However, post-conflict reconstruction and development analyses rarely prioritise and target women in conflict-related scenarios.

This is a matter of seeing the protection and inclusion of women as an integral part of the security challenge of stabilisation. For example, roads and ports are needed for commerce, but they might not help women to access local economies if they do not connect to the smaller, rural markets that the women frequent. Employment programmes almost always target young men, to absorb them, away from conflict-related activity, but that can leave women without assistance of any kind. One capacity solution is to focus on recruiting women to front-line services such as criminal justice, health or education. That would serve the dual purpose of ensuring that women found the employment that they needed to prevent poverty and vulnerability, as well as ensuring that they had access to those services. Both those outcomes would offer stability and security benefits in peace-building efforts.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I have looked at the support our country provides for policing internationally, and our Departments now work together much better in that regard. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that there is further work for the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office to do in ensuring international policing support operates in the best possible way and also that such policing projects are adequately funded, given our domestic financial constraints?

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

My hon. Friend makes a good point about cross-departmental working. This is clearly an area in which MOD, FCO and DFID need to work well together, and there has been an enormous improvement in the approach to conflict situations over the past two years, and the conflict pool—BSOS—has played a big role in that. There will always be more work to do in ensuring Government Departments work together better, however.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

Does my hon. Friend agree that the National Security Council, set up by this Government, has made a huge difference to that cross-departmental co-ordination? In Afghanistan, training the police is enormously important, and that greater co-ordination has had a major impact on the ground.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows much more about this matter than I do, as he speaks from considerable experience. I will say, however, that we should be working to recruit more women to the Afghan police, and ensuring that they can play a role in enabling women to have more secure lives in that country, where they face extreme violence daily.

Whatever role women play, we need to get women involved in making peace, because without them peace-making and post-conflict stabilisation is more difficult and less likely to take into account the central issue of stopping the abuse of women or to be sustainable. There is a direct correlation between more inclusive models of negotiation and a greater chance of keeping the peace. The impact on the ground is clear. Melanne Verveer, who until last Friday was the first ever US ambassador for global women’s issues, noted at the end of 2010 that 31 of the world’s 39 active conflicts were recurrences of conflicts after peace settlements had been concluded, and that in all 31 cases women had been excluded from those peace processes. It is impossible not to conclude that, despite vocal support for the women, peace and security agenda, there has been negligible improvement in women’s participation in peace-building since resolution 1325 was signed in 2000.

I hope the G8 agreements and the preventing sexual violence initiative will lead to a recognition that the protection of women from sexual violence and the participation of women in peace processes are two sides of the same coin. In the quests to end conflict-related sexual violence and to stabilise fragile and conflict-affected states, we do not get one without the other. In order to achieve our goal, we must get a commitment to put into practice the EU guidelines on human rights defenders.

Over the past few years there has been an increase in geopolitical upheaval in the Arab world, which none of us could have anticipated. There has been famine in areas of east Africa and the Sahel, too, which is increasing the pressure on already fragile states, and international economic instability is widespread. As a result, the PSVI and related strategies to tackle violence against women and girls and the BSOS have never been more relevant. As the rate of political change accelerates in so many countries in the Arab world, and as conflict emerges and re-emerges unexpectedly in Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria, and as the status of women becomes increasingly uncertain in those countries and many others experiencing instability, I hope we, too, can accelerate our rate of political change and embed the 1325 agenda as a fundamental part of our foreign policy response to fragile and conflict states.

Ms Joy Ogwu, former president of UN Women, has said:

“No one can run fast on one foot.”

A security agenda that fails to prevent sexual violence in conflict, that fails to support women human rights defenders and leaders and that fails to ensure women’s participation has been a limping beast, but I believe that the PSVI and the Foreign Secretary’s personal commitment to championing this issue at the G8 can mark a turning point in the international rhetoric on women in conflict situations, so that we can finally begin to put into practice changes on the ground that will protect these women, who so desperately need it.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:44 pm, 14th February 2013

I congratulate Nicola Blackwood on her excellent speech in opening this debate. She began with a “West Wing” quote. I originally had a reference to “The West Wing” in my speech, but had taken it out; I shall now put it back in. I wanted to mention the episode “The Women of Qumar”. For anyone who recalls it, the President and his staff are managing a situation with the fictional country of Qumar—over an arms deal, I think. The President’s press secretary, C.J. Cregg says:

“They beat women; they hate women; the only reason they keep Qumari women alive is to make Qumari men.”

Unfortunately, I fear that that is not just a fictional situation for some women around the world.

I feel that I cannot do justice to this subject today, not because of time constraints but because of the horror of some of the situations the debate is about. I had the privilege of attending a meeting here in Parliament in January 2011, addressed by Margot Wallström, the first ever special representative of the UN Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict. Her term in the position came to an end last year, and she has been replaced by Zainab Bangura, a senior politician from Sierra Leone. I am sure that we all wish her well in that role.

I am always struck by how we seem to accept that sexual violence is something that just happens—that it is a “fact of life” both at home in the UK and when it occurs in conflict. I do not accept that, and I think much more can be done to tackle it. In preparing for this debate, I unfortunately stumbled across some truly horrifying discussion boards, with comments illustrating appalling attitudes towards rape. While we are absolutely right to shine a light on these issues in a conflict setting, it is also true that the attitudes that lead to this behaviour exist in all societies. The issues we face here in the UK were well highlighted in our earlier debate.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

Does the hon. Lady recall a recent case this year in which a Muslim man found guilty of rape was exonerated by the judge on the grounds that he had received education in whatever educational establishment he attended, which had taught him that women were of no value? Does she agree with me that this attitude permeates fundamentalist thinking, and that it can be traced in many of the conflict situations emerging, particularly in north Africa?

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight that issue, but I believe that these attitudes can be found across all societies. They are absolutely not acceptable; we should do everything we can to combat them.

Just as I believe that we will never entirely eliminate violence, it is unlikely that we will ever entirely eliminate sexual violence. The issues we are debating here today are depressing, upsetting and tragic—yet I think we have reason to be optimistic. If everything that could have been done had been done, and still no progress had been made, that would be a hopeless situation. I am optimistic because not nearly enough has been done, and I think that with the will and the resources we can drive down sexual violence in conflict. The investigation teams announced earlier this week were very welcome, and I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment, too, although we need a greater emphasis on prevention, along with a focus on investigation.

There is no doubt that sexual violence is used as a weapon in war. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found that an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women and girls had been raped during the conflict; the Special Court for Sierra Leone estimated 50,000 to 64,000 had been similarly affected; and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found that an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 girls and women had been raped.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I do not. I want to make a bit of progress.

Disgracefully, in all those examples, only relatively small numbers of men faced prosecution for their crimes, and most got away with them. The extent to which people can get away with such crimes is illustrated by what was said by Korto Williams, of ActionAid Liberia, in October last year:

“It was routine during Liberia’s war for women to be raped at check points. Men who committed these crimes never faced the law and were allowed to act with impunity. Today we have had reports that at least one even became a Member of Parliament, representing the country, while the women he violated still wait for justice.”

It is no wonder that women have no confidence in their ability to seek justice in the aftermath of such conflicts. Justice for crimes of sexual violence remains far too distant for far too many women, and they are often marginalised during the subsequent process of resolution. In far too many cases, the rights of women have been sacrificed in attempts to secure formal peace deals. In only 18 of more than 300 existing peace agreements is there any mention of sexual, gender-based violence, and even in modern peace agreements, the position and rights of women in society are still being threatened. I agree with ActionAid, which suggests that that is partly because women are not at the table during discussions, and considers that we should make it a priority to seek to guarantee places for them. Organisations such as ActionAid, Amnesty and Oxfam are working around the globe to try to tackle these issues, and I think that we should try to make progress by harnessing their knowledge and their networks on the ground.

Earlier today, my right hon. Friend Mr Murphy, the shadow Secretary of State of Defence, made an important speech outlining his ideas on early intervention, emphasising the need to work alongside our NATO colleagues in conflicts, and to monitor fragile states and, when we can, intervene to stop them from falling into conflict. Experience over the years has shown us the mistakes that have been often made in foreign interventions—mistakes that have cost women dearly in, for instance, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

I think the fact that for the first half of the current Parliament there was not one woman in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development or the Ministry of Defence was an enormous step backwards. If we argue that women should be sitting around the table in peace negotiations throughout the world, we must surely accept that they should also be sitting around the table in the Departments that make so many decisions that affect women’s lives.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am sorry; I am about to end my speech.

There was no mention of sexual violence in conflict in the strategic defence and security review, and no recognition of that specific and particular weapon which is most commonly directed towards women. That is not unusual—I suspect that the subject has never been mentioned in a defence review—but it cannot be said that there was no place for it. There are parts of the SDSR in which it would have been entirely appropriate to raise the issue. Sexual violence is a weapon of war. It is about power, and about the abuse of power to humiliate and degrade. It causes untold misery, and it is the most obvious example I can think of that requires preventive work that can and should be done.

Al-Jazeera has reported a 22% increase in crimes of violence against women in Afghanistan. Many people repeat the statement that we did not go into Afghanistan to improve women’s rights. That is true, but it does not negate our responsibility to those women, given that we have been in the country for more than a decade. We have an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy there in the context of women’s rights and, in particular, their basic security, which is the cornerstone of their rights. I do not doubt the sentiment of the Ministers who are involved in the discussions on Afghanistan’s future, but I am sure they will agree that warm words will be of no comfort to those women if the progress that has been made is whipped away.

I have previously asked Foreign Office Ministers if they will support a guaranteed 30% women’s representation at the London 2014 summit on Afghanistan’s future. I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary is to respond to the debate, because that enables me to put the challenge to him again today. I urge Ministers—in fact, I beg them—not to let this issue slip to the bottom of their negotiating list. All of us who enjoy protections and freedom in this country, regardless of our gender, have a responsibility to the women of Afghanistan and to women all over the world.

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 3:54 pm, 14th February 2013

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood on securing and launching this debate, and welcome the words of Gemma Doyle. I also welcome the opportunity this debate gives me to update the House on our initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict and to take into account, in developing that initiative, the issues that have been and will be raised by hon. Members.

We have set ourselves a very important and very practical goal: to use the United Kingdom’s diplomatic influence and resources to increase the number of perpetrators of sexual violence who are brought to justice and to help to build up the legal and practical capability of other countries to tackle these crimes. We are determined to confront the culture of impunity, to overturn the age-old assumption that rape is somehow an inevitable by-product of conflict, and to rally the world to do more to help survivors. I have made it my personal priority, as has been said, during the UK’s presidency of the G8 this year to ask all the G8 nations to make practical commitments to help us towards that goal. We have had representatives of the G8 here in London this week, and I have met them in advance of the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in April. The agreements we reach at the G8 we will then take to the United Nations.

We are pursuing this initiative for many reasons, many of which have been mentioned already, so I shall not dwell on them. In our lifetimes, millions of women, men and children have endured the horror of rape and sexual violence in conflict, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnia, South Sudan, Colombia and Afghanistan, and in Syria today. The sad truth is that the perpetrators of these appalling, life-shattering crimes still go unpunished far more often than not. In many situations, survivors endure the fear and torment of their abusers living freely in their communities. This shocking culture of impunity is a moral issue. Survivors face emotional and psychological pain, physical injuries, disease and social ostracism. They have a right to justice and support, and to live dignified lives.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon pointed out, tackling the use of rape as a weapon of war is also central to a just foreign policy, because the psychological and physical trauma suffered by survivors affects whole communities, exacerbating ethnic, sectarian and other divisions long into the future, and preventing reconciliation. I have seen the consequences with my own eyes in some of the countries I have visited as Foreign Secretary and that has left a deep impression on me.

Ours is a country that can actually do something about this issue. Many countries might feel powerless in the face of it, but we have one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world and one of the largest development programmes of any nation, and we have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and play a leading role in UN agencies. Given that we have those assets and resources, and that concern for human rights and development in other countries is part of our national DNA, we should use those resources. I am absolutely convinced that shattering the culture of impunity for sexual violence in conflict is one of the great global challenges for our generation.

Some 200 years ago, this Parliament confronted the Atlantic slave trade. Now we are seeking, across parties, an international arms trade treaty. Our objective on this issue must be global action to end the use of rape as a weapon of war. Indeed, we have an even greater responsibility in the case of tackling sexual violence, because it affects women disproportionately. Ours is a world in which women in many countries still suffer discrimination, oppression and exclusion, and any effort that advances women’s rights must be pursued with the greatest resolve and commitment. I pay tribute to hon. Members from all parts of this House and in the other place who have drawn my attention to this issue, and who have championed women’s rights for many years.

Our aspiration is, of course, an end to violence against women—in any context, not just conflict, although that is what this initiative is particularly focused on. The Foreign Office works very closely with the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 as a whole as well. I am proud that our Government have a ministerial champion on tackling violence against women and girls overseas, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone.

The initiative, which I announced nine months ago, has three main practical components. First, we have set up the first ever unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office entirely dedicated to working on the issue. The unit comprises officials from the FCO as well as from the Department for International Development and it is working full time to lobby other Governments and international organisations. It is focused extensively on our presidency of the G8, but the work will continue beyond this year.

Secondly, we have created a new specialist team of experts that can be deployed to conflict areas to address sexual violence. We have now recruited more than 70 experts. I met many of them a couple of weeks ago and they include police, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, forensic experts, gender-based violence experts and experts in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses. The objectives for each deployment of the team of experts will, of course, depend on needs in the country concerned but they will usually support a UN mission, assist a non-governmental organisation working on the ground or be deployed at the request of the national authorities of that country.

We have already deployed the team to Syria’s borders, alongside the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, to train local health professionals in how to respond to reports of sexual violence. We will expand that work this year and will deploy a team again to help Syrian refugees. The prevention of sexual violence was included in our project with the Syrian opposition on raising awareness of the rules of armed conflict.

I announced a few weeks ago that we will deploy the team of experts to at least four other countries this year: to Libya, to support survivors of sexual violence committed during the revolution; to South Sudan, to work alongside the UN and Government to strengthen local justice; to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, to help doctors and lawyers to investigate crimes against the hundreds of women and girls who are raped each month; and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to help courts and prosecutors to address the backlog of war crimes cases and to protect survivors and witnesses for the thousands of women who are still waiting for justice 20 years after the war.

An effective response to sexual violence needs to be built into every aspect of conflict prevention and peace-building overseas. We have offered members of our team of experts as part of the EU military training mission to Mali to provide human rights training to the Malian armed forces on preventing and responding to sexual violence in the conflict taking place there now.

Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian

I welcome all the action that the Foreign Secretary is driving forward and the leadership he is giving. Does he agree that it is vital that the Prime Minister, in his leadership role in agreeing the post-2015 framework, should ensure that women’s rights are always on the agenda?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Yes, absolutely. The Prime Minister is supportive of the initiative and determined that it should be part of that agenda, too. Our initiative is focused particularly on sexual violence in conflict and we should maintain that focus. Of course, we can add more to it but it is important to make great progress—and to show the world that we can make progress—on this aspect of sexual violence with the particular characteristics of rape when systematically used as a weapon of war.

At the same time as taking the other actions I have mentioned, we have significantly increased our support for the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict. We have provided £1 million in funding to her office and this week I announced that we will contribute an additional £500,000 to the International Criminal Court’s trust fund for victims, bringing our total support to £1.5 million in the past two years.

Thirdly, we have pledged, as I mentioned briefly, to use our presidency of the G8 this year to seek new commitments from some of the world’s most powerful nations. We have consulted UN agencies, the International Criminal Court and NGOs on how to make the most of that opportunity, and we have listened to the views of 75 experts from more than 26 countries who attended a conference we ran at Wilton Park in November, which I also attended. On the basis of those consultations, when I chair the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in London in April I will ask them to declare that rape and serious sexual violence amount to “grave breaches” of the Geneva conventions, signalling that we are prepared to pursue domestic prosecution of such crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

We have also proposed a set of practical commitments to promote greater accountability and to overcome the most significant barriers to progress in this area. Those barriers are the poor quality of investigation and documentation of incidents of sexual violence in conflict; the inadequate support and assistance to survivors; the failure of wider peace and security efforts to address such issues; and the lack of international co-ordination.

In developing the commitments we have been careful to identify suggestions that we believe will have a real practical impact and will make concrete progress on the ground. Our proposed new international protocol, for example, on the investigation and documentation of sexual violence in conflict should improve the evidence base from which investigations and prosecutions can be drawn.

We will suggest that the G8 provide greater protection and support to women human rights defenders, one of the target users of this new protocol, which will result in better documented cases, further building the evidence base. Doing so will also strengthen the support they provide to the survivors of sexual violence, as would broader G8 support for health, psychosocial and rehabilitation services, which will result in survivors feeling readier to pursue prosecutions.

We will also press the G8 to ensure that an improved response to sexual violence is reflected in their own security and justice sector reform programmes, as well as in any support that they provide to national legislative reform. Such actions would help to provide the domestic legal and institutional framework within which survivors can act which, if supported by more coherent international support to strengthen UN efforts, would further build this national capacity.

These commitments are ambitious. I am firmly of the view that taken together they will begin a comprehensive global response to tackling impunity for sexual violence through a combination of legal and practical interventions which complement existing international activity, but target gaps in the current global response. We have had encouraging and supportive responses from G8 partners and from others, including Australia, New Zealand and countries most directly affected by the issue, such as the new Government in Somalia. There is also enthusiasm to do more in the OSCE, the African Union and NATO. This is a time to take the issue forward. I believe we can develop a critical mass of support which will lead to serious concrete progress over the next couple of years.

What we started nine months ago and what we are going to do at the G8 is just the beginning of a long effort. We will do our utmost to galvanise greater collective action. We will take this cause to the United Nations, including to the UN Security Council in June when we hold the presidency of the council, and at the UN General Assembly in September, when we will hope to increase support for the concept of a new international protocol on the issue. I hope that the Government will have the support, advice and encouragement of Members across the House in taking forward this vital issue at a moment in world affairs when we genuinely have the opportunity to pursue it and to make a difference, for the sake of hundreds of thousands and millions of people affected by these appalling crimes.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 4:07 pm, 14th February 2013

I congratulate Nicola Blackwood on securing this important and timely debate in the House today. It is timely, not least because of recent developments at the United Nations and in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and it represents a significant issue that deserves proper time, attention, debate and indeed action.

I welcome the personal interest shown by the Foreign Secretary in advancing work on this issue and recognise his personal efforts to raise the issue on the international agenda. Where there is agreement in all parts of the House, it is only right that it be acknowledged, and on this issue, the Foreign Secretary has our full support in the efforts that he has made to prioritise the prevention of sexual violence in conflict both for the United Kingdom and for the wider international community. His efforts have been widely acknowledged and are rightly praised.

However, the recent work of the Foreign Secretary builds on decades of vital and important work done by countless charities, non-governmental organisations, political leaders and human rights activists. I am sure the Foreign Secretary would agree with me when I say that their unrelenting commitment to this issue is what has helped ensure that the issue today is becoming more of a focus for Governments right around the world. Our efforts today build on the work of many and it is only right that we pay tribute to their contribution. In particular, it is right to single out the work that women human rights defenders do on this crucial issue. Those working in this area are often subject to the gravest threats and risks, facing intimidation, abduction and even killings by those who oppose the work they do. They do it simply because they are there to do the right thing. Much more must be done to support these groups and promote their agenda so that theirs is not a struggle they face alone.

I welcome the work already being done by the recently appointed UN Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Bangura. Hers is a crucial and difficult task, which is why we fully support the recent pledge Her Majesty’s Government made to offer direct financial support to help fund her office.

Given the degree of cross-party support on the issue, I will echo some of the sentiments already expressed by colleagues in the Chamber before turning to the specific package of measures the Foreign Secretary has set out. When debating policy responses on this issue, it is only right that we first take time to acknowledge the sheer scale of the challenge, and indeed the extent of the suffering, that we are seeking to address. More than 75% of rapes in England are never reported to the police, so it should come as no surprise that we know very little of the true extent of sexual violence committed in conflict. However, there must be no doubt that rape and sexual violence are used today as weapons of war, and indeed as weapons of torture and mass persecution. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has rightly described sexual violence as

“the most pervasive violation of human rights across the globe”.

It is time for the international community to step up its efforts to respond to that harrowing truth.

The conflicts that have in part defined the last decades of war have themselves in part been defined by the prevalent and tragic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, more than 250,000 women were raped, and 50,000 women were reported to have been raped during the war between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the post-election violence in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010-11, sexual violence was widespread, with over 50% of reported incidents involving children. Although deeply disturbing, the statistics cannot do justice to the scale of human suffering involved; it is only the personal accounts that come close to beginning to shed light on the scale of the horror that the use of sexual violence in conflict inflicts on its victims. The horrors continue today in the conflicts that still rage across the world.

It is therefore right that the UK has made the issue a priority for our presidency of the G8. We sincerely welcome the steps that the Government have taken to help direct efforts at both UK and international level towards addressing the issue. The Foreign Secretary will therefore have our continued support in his efforts to ensure that tackling sexual violence in conflict receives the attention and, crucially, the resources that it rightly deserves.

However, I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would agree that the real challenge we face collectively is how to influence the facts on the ground in conflict areas. The true measure of the success and effectiveness of any steps agreed by the G8 will be their capacity to effect change in some of the most difficult and dangerous regions of the world.

Let me turn to the specific package of measures the Foreign Secretary has set out. We welcome the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative. It is right that one of its key components is trying to overcome the apparent impunity that has existed on the issue until today. Sexual violence as a tool of war remains one of the least prosecuted crimes. We need to do more to improve accountability on the issue more generally. That is why the work of the specialist teams the Foreign Secretary spoke about, which will be deployed to conflict areas, is welcome. The work they do to gather evidence, help build local capacity and help civil society to investigate alleged crimes will be vital. Tragically, however, demand will always outstrip the capacity of even those groups when documenting and prosecuting crimes on such an horrendous scale. That is why we support calls to ensure that this UK-led taskforce is also focused on building up local in-country capacity to deliver the necessary accountability without leaving countries totally dependent on welcome but necessarily outside support.

Also key to any effective response are efforts to improve international co-operation and co-ordination to prevent sexual violence in conflict on the ground. That level of co-ordination is best achieved through the United Nations, so it is vital, as we have heard, that the necessary resources are made available to the relevant departments so that well-meaning objectives can be turned into concrete outcomes. That is why we hope that the Government will consider recent reports that the gender-based violence area of responsibility within the United Nations remains chronically underfunded. Effective prevention must also extend to regulations on the supply of arms and trade in arms, which are too often ultimately used in so many of the conflicts where sexual violence becomes prevalent. In effect, the irresponsible transfer of military equipment across borders fuels gender-based violence within global war zones, and the equipment is also transferred outside war zones, remaining in operation long after conflicts have officially ended.

In that regard, we will be encouraging the Government to clarify their position in relation to the upcoming negotiations on the arms trade treaty at the United Nations. As the Foreign Secretary will be aware, article 4.6 of the draft text, which explicitly refers to gender-based violence, requires states only to “consider” taking measures to prevent arms sales from facilitating such abuses. Many argue that this provision must be strengthened if the treaty is to have a hope of providing effective prevention, and must therefore stipulate that all practical measures to ensure weapons are never used to perpetrate or facilitate acts of gender-based violence be included in the treaty.

Let me turn to the specific regions where I am sure that the Government recognise that we have not only a strategic interest but, potentially, an operational advantage. It is only right to acknowledge that the prevention of sexual violence in conflict is not confined to those countries that are technically defined as being at war.

Afghanistan still reels from the effects of conflict in recent years. Given our operational capacities on the ground there, I would welcome the Government’s making it a priority area for UK efforts on this issue. The Government’s stated objective of making Somalia’s stabilisation and development a UK strategic priority means that any UK-led initiatives in that country should focus on responding to the reported use of sexual violence during decades of conflict and on ensuring that everything possible is being done to prevent its re-emergence in future.

No one can deny that at its core the issue we are debating is a moral one. The suffering and scale of the terror alone should be justification enough for the international community to act. However, the Foreign Secretary is right to say that it is also a foreign policy issue and therefore a strategic imperative for the United Kingdom in working together with the international community in its efforts to do more. The use of sexual violence in conflict not only makes the conflicts themselves harder to resolve but contributes to making their legacy even harder for local communities ever to overcome, in turn perpetuating precisely the type of insecurity that it is in our collective national interests to prevent.

Ultimately, the best remedy to prevent the use of sexual violence in conflict is to put an end to conflict. That might seem to be straightforward common sense, but it should inform all our efforts on this issue, because that means that any approach to tackling it will always be embedded within a broader strategy for preventing conflict, promoting stability, and protecting against insecurity. Where the Government are taking steps, as they are, to advance this kind of approach, they will have our full support.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 4:17 pm, 14th February 2013

I want to express my pride that Britain is leading the world in tackling this important issue. Given that so many conflicts around the world are ethnic in nature, it is perhaps not surprising that sexual violence as a weapon of war is becoming increasingly prevalent. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make every effort to take the rest of the world with him on his quest.

We have talked about some of the countries around the world where rape is being witnessed. I remind the House that we should not think that this is limited to faraway lands or countries that are less developed than our own, because it happened right here in Europe less than 25 years ago. I feel some shame that it happened so close to our doorstep. It is also shaming that so few people in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been brought to justice for the many rapes that took place there. The intent to dehumanise and degrade was an obvious weapon of war in that ethnic conflict.

I am mainly moved to address the House because of a story from Kosovo that I heard. I had the privilege of visiting Kosovo some 18 months ago. I met a very inspirational lady there, and I want to share some of the things she said. We can talk glibly about sexual violence in theoretical terms, but this story really brings it to life.

Flora Brovina is a Member of Parliament in Kosovo and a well-known Albanian feminist and poet. She was a paediatrician by profession. As the political situation in Kosovo deteriorated in the 1990s and fighting broke out, Flora was one of the community leaders. She rallied support for women and got involved in giving health care to victims of the war and giving shelter to those who were orphaned.

As a consequence, she became a high-profile target for the Serb paramilitaries and, sure enough, she was abducted in 1999. She was tortured and interrogated before being tried and convicted of terrorist activities, but thankfully, due to international pressure, she was eventually released. By then her family had claimed asylum in the US. It was probably anticipated that she would follow them, but that was not for Flora. She wanted to go back to Kosovo to help the women and children who were victims of the war.

Flora is doing a great deal of work to support that conflict’s victims of rape. She has told me in great detail about the impact it has had on some of those women. The circumstances of the rapes that took place are horrifying. They have been well documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I will not go into the details, but I would encourage other Members to do so, because they bring to life the horror of the use of sexual violence in conflicts.

Flora also told me about how families treat women. Although this is a European society that is not very far from us, it is very rural and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, a society in which women’s rights are not as advanced as they are here. Given the ethnic nature of the conflict, the Serbs knew how those of the Muslim faith would treat victims of rape, so it was deliberately used as a weapon.

The rights that we enjoy in the UK mean that it is difficult for us to grasp the impact on those women, who are often ostracised. It is natural for people to look to their families for support but, often, these families witnessed the rapes, so there is a double crime and it is very difficult for the women to grasp what has happened to them. It is difficult to understand just how lonely the victims’ plight can be. Flora was anxious for me to highlight the fate of those women and I am pleased to be able to do so today. I am also humbled by it, because all I am doing is talking. The day-to-day suffering of the women and, often, the children born as a consequence of what happened to them is very real.

That is why I am so proud of the initiative being taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We must go after the perpetrators. It is unacceptable that only 30 people have been convicted in Bosnia. We must also make sure that we do our bit through our humanitarian work to give support to victims, so that they are not left alone, as they have been in Kosovo.

I cannot do adequate justice to the forgotten victims of sexual violence in Kosovo, but I hope that today I have done my bit to bring to life what it means in practice and to give added resolve to the Government to ensure that this issue is central to our humanitarian and diplomatic activities.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian 4:23 pm, 14th February 2013

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall show myself to be the mistress of self-discipline.

It is a pleasure to follow Jackie Doyle-Price. I am particularly glad that she referred to the war in Bosnia. Amnesty International’s report, “When everyone is silent”, was published last October and sets out for the Foreign Secretary—I am pleased that the International Development Secretary is also present—the scale of the challenge that we face in ensuring, first, that women feel able to come forward and tell their stories and, secondly, that justice will be done if they find the courage to do so.

I also congratulate Nicola Blackwood on securing this debate, and I am sure she will not mind me mentioning that, although the Order Paper does not reflect it, there was cross-party support for it. She should not apologise for not talking much about violence against men, because I remember following her when she made her maiden speech in the Chamber in which she spoke with passion about a project in her constituency for men who were suffering domestic violence. Although the prevalence of men who suffer sexual violence in conflict zone is not as great, the stigma for them is considerable. They can even find themselves criminalised and imprisoned because they are deemed by the nation to have taken part in an immoral crime.

I am pleased to be speaking in this debate because I am a member of the International Development Committee, which is currently undertaking an inquiry into violence against women and girls. I know that the Foreign Secretary said that it was important to realise that we are talking specifically about sexual violence in conflict zones, but we wanted to broaden our report to make it more general. I do not feel like we have had two separate debates this afternoon because every issue that was raised in the last debate affects our capacity to have an impact on sexual violence in conflict zones. If women are not supported by the justice system in their state or know that they will have to return to a community where they will be stigmatised, they will not come forward or seek justice.

I wrote to a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about a woman who was raped in Egypt. When the doctor was collecting the forensic evidence, he could not find the correct instruments and used a pair of scissors to try to take swabs. The woman said that that examination was worse than the rape. We need to be honest and admit that that is the situation in many countries. Although we want to support women, there is a lot of work to be done not just by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but by the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence to ensure that women, girls, boys and men who are victims of sexual violence get the justice that they seek when they come forward.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s speech and his commitment. It is clear that he has real passion for this issue. However, I have some questions and hope that we can get a bit more detail about how he intends to achieve his aims. I am glad that he told the House that he will be working closely with DFID. I do not intend to be critical or to score party political points, but it is important that we are honest. What does he believe would be an indication of success? Does he have any numbers in mind or any particular areas that he wants to concentrate on? How is he working with DFID? It is important that the resources are given directly to projects in other countries that support women and girls who are the victims of sexual violence. It would be helpful to have more detail on how the two Departments are working together.

It is important, unpleasant as it is, for us to try to get inside the minds of the men who carry out these dreadful violent crimes. We must understand that when a soldier comes from a country where there is no respect for women and where women have no rights and are excluded in every way, it is much easier for them to take the final step of committing an act of sexual violence. That is why it is vital that the work with DFID continues. We must try to effect change in those countries. If we do not change the situation with regard to sexual violence against women and girls in peace and in conflict, at home and in developing countries, we will not achieve the laudable aims that the Foreign Secretary has set out.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Without wishing to compromise the focus of the Foreign Secretary’s initiative, which I support wholeheartedly, as I am sure she does, I agree with her that women’s unequal status and the misogyny that exists in many societies are both a cause and a consequence of the sexual violence that we are discussing this afternoon.

Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian

I thank the hon. Lady. I would go even further and say that countries that have such an attitude toward women are far more likely to be involved in conflict in the first place.

Let us call today for a swift and just international response to sexual violence against women, girls, boys and men. We have to acknowledge that the most effective way for us to improve the lives of women and girls, so that they can live free from the fear of violence and its devastating effects, is to work to bring about change across a whole range of issues—education, training, employment, access to finance, health care and justice. Those are the ways in which we can protect women and make it possible for them to come forward and tell their stories, so that we can deliver justice and so that their daughters will have a different story to tell.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Conservative, South Derbyshire 4:30 pm, 14th February 2013

I appreciate that time is short, so I will get straight to the point.

There are two major areas in which girls and women who are raped in situations of armed conflict are repeatedly discriminated against. The first is the routine denial of safe abortion services to those victims of war, in violation of their right to non-discriminatory medical care under international human law, and the second is the failure to treat rape and the deliberate transmission of HIV as prohibited weapons or methods of war.

The denial of abortions to girls and women raped in armed conflict was recently the focus on debate in the House of Lords, and it has been the subject of many parliamentary questions. The Government responded by acknowledging that they considered girls and women raped in armed conflict to be the “wounded and sick”, and that they are entitled to non-discriminatory medical care, including abortions. They have also acknowledged that international humanitarian law, not national law, is the legal framework that must be obeyed in the provision of humanitarian aid. However, those acknowledgments are insufficient without concrete action to ensure that that right is granted to the wounded women who need it.

What concrete action could the Government take? To begin with, they could recognise that the right to abortion for girls and women raped in armed conflict is protected under humanitarian law and is not subject to national laws on abortion. That should be explicitly included in all relevant Government policy guidance, including the Department for International Development’s “Safe and unsafe abortion” practice paper.

Rape and the deliberate transmission of HIV are acknowledged as being used as weapons of war, but neither is treated as a prohibited weapon or method of warfare. Despite global recognition that they are used as weapons of war, they are invisible in weapons regulation. They none the less violate core principles of humanity in international humanitarian law, and as such they should be treated as prohibited weapons of war. The failure to treat war rape like other illegal weapons prevents victims from being entitled to reparations for their injuries. Victims should be entitled to have the perpetrators held accountable for their crimes. For that reason, the failure to treat rape as part of the international framework that regulates the means and methods of warfare is particularly confounding. We regulate starvation under that framework, so why not rape and sexual violence?

In April, the Government will work to secure a clear political statement from the G8 of its determination to make real, tangible progress on combating the use of sexual violence in conflict. However, if we are truly to lead, we must speak up for those who do not have a voice and bring awareness to issues that are often neglected or left out of the conversation. Acknowledging the issue is not enough, and talk is not enough. The UK must take concrete steps to ensure the provision of abortion services for women raped in war and to bring rape into the prohibited weapons or methods of war framework.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Labour, Feltham and Heston 4:33 pm, 14th February 2013

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. It is a pleasure to follow Heather Wheeler, my hon. Friend Gemma Doyle and others. This is the year of the UK’s presidency of the G8, and G8 Foreign Ministers will be meeting in London. I am glad to hear the Foreign Secretary’s assurances that the issue will be high on the agenda. I thank Nicola Blackwood for initiating the debate, as well as my hon. Friend Stella Creasy and the V-day One Billion Rising campaign that has called for and set the scene for today’s action.

The V-day campaign, which continues to drive the global movement to end violence against women and girls, has a strong history. In 2009 I joined its campaign to end sexual violence in the Congo and signed a letter urging the G20 to take steps to stop the war and violence. I extend my appreciation to all those who tackle violence against women and girls in our local communities and across the world, often placing themselves at risk. In Feltham and Heston I mention especially the new Hounslow one-stop shop, which last November launched a free advice service for victims of domestic violence and those who have suffered violence in other ways. The project is run jointly by the Met police, Hounslow community safety unit and the Hounslow domestic violence outreach service. Our communities also contain those who have suffered from sexual violence in conflict—I had a constituent who came to see me; the war has stopped, but her suffering, and that of her family, continues.

We know that in war zones, victims of sexual violence do not have their own local support networks or local crime prevention teams. For many, however, there is no protection, which is why the international community must stand together. Sexual violence in conflict is, of course, a moral issue and, as has been discussed, central to foreign policy. I am glad that the issue finds agreement on all sides of the House.

Rape in war is the darkest of military tactics, used to degrade and humiliate victims and undermine their families or the ethnic, religious and political groups to which they belong. Last year’s annual UN report on sexual violence during conflict provided horrific examples of how sexual violence has threatened security and impeded peace building in post-conflict situations such as those in Chad, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone. In addition to the thousands of women who we know have been raped, it has been estimated that 50,000 women were raped in the war in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, 250,000 in Rwanda, and 64,000 in Sierra Leone. From Syria we see in our newspapers today examples of women being raped in prison and in their homes. We have also seen the rape of men in many conflict zones, and that will be part of the agenda of tackling sexual violence. The major-general at the helm of the UN peace-keeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo stated:

“It has become more dangerous to be a woman fetching water or collecting firewood than to be a fighter on the front line.”

As we move forward with the G8 this year, I am sure we will continue the momentum to secure new international action against the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. I hope that action will focus on both investigations and prosecutions, as well as on prevention. Conviction rates of sexual violence in conflict are an international disgrace.

The strategy to end sexual violence must be couched within a strategy of support for women’s rights. Yesterday I welcomed to Parliament some key members of the global women’s rights movements. Activists from Africa and Asia were brought together in London by the charity Womankind to share their experiences and expertise of women’s leadership, tackling gender violence in their own countries, and political participation. Sexual violence is not just a problem in conflict areas. The brutal rape and murder in India at Christmas of a 23-year-old on a bus showed that we must tackle violence against women in all its forms and in all countries of the world so that attitudes of acceptability are not shaped for current or future generations.

This debate, along with our earlier debate, is important and seeks to end the continuing violence against women and ensure that that issue is a priority for us and our partners abroad. In conclusion, this is a challenge of enormous scale and a campaign that must cross nations and cultures. I am pleased it is on the agenda for the Foreign Secretary, and I hope that in his remarks he will answer a few questions. First, what support has he achieved from the international community? It should be not just on the agenda, but high on the agenda. Secondly, how will the strategies that are beginning be sustained by the G8 and other international bodies? How will they be reflected not just in foreign policy, but in our defence and international development policies, so that there is an end to sexual violence in conflicts in our generation?

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 4:40 pm, 14th February 2013

I saw rape used as a weapon of war when I was in Bosnia in 1992-93. Between 25,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the Bosnian war. At Foca, Visegrad, Omarska and Prijedor, rape camps were deliberately set up to be used by visiting Bosnian-Serb soldiers when they felt like it. My wife, Claire Podbielski-Stewart—she was then Claire Podbielski—was involved as a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross in visiting Prijedor to try to stop what was happening there.

Elsewhere, individually, women were raped in front of their families—their husbands and their children. Do Members really understand how ghastly that must be for the families? The woman and the husband are demeaned, and the children are terrorised and horrified. They will be horrified for the rest of their lives.

Too often, once that foul crime has been committed, everyone is killed. I found a family outside a house near Vitez—mother, daughter, son and husband in a line. The daughter was holding a puppy. She was killed by the bullet that killed the puppy. I took the family to the local morgue. I went past the same place the next day to discover they had been returned. They were the wrong religion in the morgue. How ghastly is sexual violence in war. How foul.

My soldiers buried 104 people in a mass grave, which I revisited last year. We think there were a 104 people. Most were women; a lot of them were children. It was foul, it was ghastly, and it was most definitely something that we should campaign to stop. I applaud what the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development and others are doing to try to stop the revolting practice of sexual violence in war.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I will, if my hon. Friend is quick.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

I will be quick.

I would draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that not only the rape itself is ghastly, but the conviction and prosecution rates. In the field where he fought, only one in 20,000 perpetrators of those crimes were prosecuted.

Will he therefore join me in welcoming the international protocol proposed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which will ensure prosecution and investigation?

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I thank my hon. Friend—that was quick. Of course, I agree with him. I have given evidence in five trials. I am thrilled that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has brought charges against people for rape as a crime against humanity, and secured convictions. I am fully aware that not even one in every 100 people guilty of such crimes in Bosnia have been brought to justice.

I am delighted that in Europe, for the first time ever, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is bringing rape convictions. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda started the process, and it is a great move. We must send a firm message to the whole world that sexual violence is considered as one of the gravest crimes.

I will end by commending our British soldiers. Shall I tell the House what a solider said to me when a previous Foreign Secretary—a Conservative one at that—gave me an order to start planning a withdrawal from Bosnia in December 1992? I wandered out and said to a soldier, “I am planning our withdrawal.” He said, “We’re not withdrawing, sir.” I said, “Well, we might have to if I am ordered by the Government to do so.” He said, “Not me, sir.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Our duty is here protecting these women, children and the vulnerable. That is what we are here to do.” We never did withdraw, but my goodness that shows the quality of our soldiers. We hear far too many stories about how badly our armed forces behave, but here was a soldier who showed the quality of person we send out to put our values into the world outside our country.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 4:46 pm, 14th February 2013

It is a privilege to follow Bob Stewart, who knows exactly what the situations are like, and can tell us so graphically the experiences he has seen with his own eyes. It was important that this debate was secured, and it is appropriate to pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary, the shadow Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development. I mention the first two in particular, because they have given up their time to be here for the whole of this important debate. That is significant, and it sends a message that we see this as a very important issue. Some people may watch this debate, possibly at some unearthly hour of the morning on the Parliament channel, and think that there were not many people present, that it looks a bit thin, and that we cannot really think of the subject as important. However, the fact that senior figures have given up their time shows that it is very important.

As several hon. Members have said, this subject challenges those of us who would prefer no conflict at all, who would like to say that the answer is for there to be no war and that we should not get involved. It is a challenge to decide when to intervene, how to intervene and what ways there are to intervene. The examples we have heard from the former Yugoslavia vindicate intervention. The violence was occurring anyway; it did not happen because we intervened. Hopefully, some women, who might otherwise have been affected, were saved The challenge remains, because in all situations we have to ask ourselves whether it is right to intervene, or whether we would provoke an existing conflict. Some conflicts arise from some of the gross inequality in the world and its resources, so there are many things that we can do to prevent such situations.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

Given that sexual violence is recognised as a key factor destabilising and catalysing conflict in the first place, does the hon. Lady not agree that tackling sexual violence and preventing it in the first place is one way to prevent conflict and achieve exactly the aim she calls for?

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

I agree absolutely. With a subject this big, it is sometimes tempting to think, “Well, it’s always been there throughout history.” We know that. The history of conflict going back hundreds of years contains examples of such behaviour, but 40 years ago, when the big campaigns on violence against women started in this country with the setting up of domestic violence refuges and so on, people said the same thing: “You’ll never change it. It’s always been there. It’s endemic.” Although we heard earlier how far we have left to go, even in our own country, progress has been made. Sometimes, when dealing with difficulties in the justice system and so on, it feels like three steps forward and two steps back, but nevertheless we have made some progress and changed attitudes. I do not wish to sound complacent, but those of us who started campaigns in the early days have seen a difference. If we make an effort, we can begin to change how people think and behave and how they are treated, so although, with a subject this big, people might think, “What can we do? What can anybody do?”, we must make an effort and start to change things.

Members of peacekeeping forces have a particular responsibility when it comes to their behaviour and attitudes. It is crucial that our own armed forces—and I am sure that they do—lead by example in how they treat women, including female members of the armed services in the field. One way to change things is by involving far more women in the process of change in their own countries and peace processes. As many people have said, far too few women feature in the big meetings and peace conferences. Where are the women? It is important that their voices be heard and that they be encouraged and given the tools to start to change things, not just for their own generation but for future generations.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Women need to be represented at peace conferences, but they can be only if they are leaders in their own communities. That is how we can assure their representation; we have to try to do that.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Many people who have been in conflict zones have fantastic stories to tell about women who can speak up, who have spoken up and who need to be heard. Admittedly, there are not enough of them and building from the bottom up is clearly important, but some are there already. We need to hear from them.

Yes, this is a big subject, but let us not just come back in a year or two and have the same discussion; let us instead come back and feel that there has been real progress.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree 4:53 pm, 14th February 2013

I would like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for indulging me in my request. I was trying to be in two debates at once. I spoke in the eating disorders debate elsewhere and unfortunately the winding-up speeches took a bit longer than I thought.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood on securing this important debate, which I was happy to co-sponsor. She knows the enormous interest I take in this issue, and not only in the international context; I have also spoken about domestic violence in this country, and as I have said before, if men knew the odds of getting caught and prosecuted—the prosecution rate is 6%, so they have a 94% chance of getting away with it—they would probably go for it. The international statistics are even more dramatic. In the former Yugoslavia, men have a 1:20,000 chance of being prosecuted, and in Rwanda, where I have spent the past seven years travelling, the figure is 1:50,000. That is a disgrace, and the Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to take a lead in this important initiative.

As I have seen in Rwanda, the by-product of rape as a weapon of war are the orphans who live on after the conflict, infected with AIDS. I have spent time over the past seven years working with such children in a school in Kigali. Their mothers have been killed off by AIDS, but the children live on with the condition; they effectively have a time bomb within their bodies. They could die at any time. It is important to consider not only rape itself. We must investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of rape, but we must also think about what happens afterwards. We need to think about the children who were born as a result of rape, many of whom have AIDS. Perhaps through the International Development Secretary of State, we can see what we can do to give them more support.

I also want to pay tribute to the International Commission on Missing Persons, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows. I am spending a huge amount of time working on our taking a lead in supporting the excellent work of the commission in Bosnia over the past 15-plus years. It has done great work, and it is important that the UK should take the lead in securing a future for it. Finally, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s international protocol to investigate and prosecute sexual violence against women, because prosecution is extremely important.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon 4:56 pm, 14th February 2013

I would like to thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. As the shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Alexander, said, it is timely and important. Also, the subject could not be more sensitive, and everybody who has contributed today has risen to the challenge.

I thank Gemma Doyle for sharing my passion for “The West Wing”. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for

Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for sharing her experiences in Kosovo, and Fiona O’Donnell for her cross-party support in sponsoring the debate. She is a great champion of these issues, and her support today is greatly appreciated. My hon. Friend Heather Wheeler got straight to the point with her comments.

I thank all the other hon. Members who have spoken today, particularly my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, who spoke of his arresting personal experiences. Although she did not make a speech, I would also like to thank my hon. Friend Margot James, who has been a long-term supporter on these issues and who supported us in securing the debate. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State for recognising that this issue transcends party boundaries and that it is a moral and strategic imperative for the UK.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s progress and his announcement on the G8 issues that we are facing. I am particularly pleased that there will be an emphasis on capacity building, on justice and accountability and on an end to impunity. I am also pleased that the preventing sexual violence initiative will build on existing peace-building efforts, and that he is committed to ensuring that United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 will be central to our vision. I am pleased that a key priority of the PSVI will be to integrate support services for survivors with protection for women human rights defenders.

For too long, the international community has uttered warm words and passed many resolutions on the violence and exclusion facing women and girls in conflict. It has recognised the problem and proposed solutions, but it has not implemented them effectively on the ground. It is now time to reject, once and for all, the myth that violence against women and girls is a cultural and inevitable consequence of conflict; it is not.

The proposals for the PSVI, in conjunction with the national action plans for resolution 1325, the building stability overseas strategy, the plans for violence against women and girls and the Foreign Secretary’s personal commitment to drive this agenda through the G8 and the United Nations, mean that there is now a real chance finally to get action on the ground to deter conflict-related sexual violence and genuinely to put an end to the flagrant impunity that exists today. In order to do that, we must make the most of all the resources at our disposal.

The message I most want to convey is that the women I have met and heard about have proved that, despite all the odds stacked against them, they are not just victims: they are a resource for peace and security, and without them peace will be harder to find and to keep. Many lives will be lost and ruined through the sexual and gender-based violence we have heard about today while we try to find that peace without them.

Question put and agreed to,


That this House has considered the matter of preventing sexual violence in conflict.