That is why the Government worked with partners to refer the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court, to establish a commission of inquiry through the UN Human Rights Council with the support of Ukraine, and to establish an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission of experts. We brought allies together to expedite an ICC investigation into the situation in Ukraine through state party referral. With 37 countries joining the UK, it was the largest referral in the ICC’s history. The international community is isolating Putin on the world stage.
It is vital that the ICC is able to carry out that investigation, which is why the UK will provide military, policing and financial support to help to uncover evidence of such crimes and ultimately seek justice. On
Sadly, rape in war is not new. Before the war started in Ukraine, the Foreign Secretary committed the UK to do more to tackle sexual violence in conflict, including, but not limited to, its use as a method of warfare. We are working with countries and international partners to strengthen the international response. All options are on the table, including a new international convention that would help to hold perpetrators to account.
The UK continues to act decisively with its allies to punish the Putin regime for its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, and we will do all we can to bring the perpetrators of war crimes, including sexual violence, to justice.
It is a tragic reality that, in conflicts and crises around the world, rape and sexual violence have become weapons of war. They are the tools of the vicious and the violent, and the consequences have such long and far-reaching impacts on the individuals, their families and their communities. It is happening in Tigray, in Myanmar, in Iraq, and now it is happening in Ukraine. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, there have been widespread reports of Russian troops resorting to rape and sexual violence against women and girls.
Just two weeks ago, this House and the Prime Minister welcomed four Ukrainian Members of Parliament to Westminster and to No. 10. They highlighted the fact that Putin
“has changed his strategy to target the most vulnerable groups of women and children”.
They went on to report that women were being raped and executed, and those who were not executed were killing themselves.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative as well as the Conservative Friends of International Development. The UK’s action and leadership on this subject matters and has proven to be world leading. However, we must have more steps taken now in relation to Ukraine.
Yesterday, Sarah Champion raised this issue in the Liaison Committee. She asked the Prime Minister whether we had deployed our PSVI team to support survivors and victims of sexual violence into Ukraine or the surrounding areas. The Prime Minister said that we had. Can the Minister please confirm that, and provide details to the House of how many we have supplied to the area and whether we will provide more?
It is particularly welcome to see the appointment of Sir Howard Morrison QC as the independent adviser to the Ukrainian prosecutor. Can the Minister confirm that all crimes of sexual violence will be documented and prosecuted, and where this will take place?
Many of us who support the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative have been calling for a new independent international body to investigate sexual violence in conflict wherever it takes place, as a body that will support survivors, document crimes and, working with local courts, prosecute perpetrators. Does the Minister accept that that is needed now—not in six months, not in 12 months, but now—with our global leadership and our determination?
Finally, the PSVI and gender-based violence need a long-term strategy, with full and transparent funding formulas. Ukraine is unfortunately, as I have said, on a long list of countries where rape and gender-based violence is perpetrated without fear of justice. We must end the culture of impunity, and the Government must act now on behalf of the people of Ukraine.
I thank my hon. Friend for this question, and for pointing out the incredible importance of our work on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Indeed, the UK is a world leader on this issue. The UK has committed over £50 million since the launch of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in 2012. We have funded more than 85 projects in 29 countries to respond to conflict-related sexual violence. We have trained 17,000 police and military personnel, and deployed UK experts over 90 times since 2012. That has helped to build the capacity of the UN and non-governmental organisations in countries such as Ethiopia, Mali, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
It is incredibly important that women—it can be men as well as women—who have suffered sexual violence are supported. As hon. Members know, we have put considerable funding into the humanitarian situation in both Ukraine and neighbouring countries. We are supporting internal efforts to investigate violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ukraine, including the ICC investigation, as I have said. On
I thank Anthony Mangnall for this hugely important urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. As ever, Labour Members stand absolutely with the people of Ukraine, including all the women and girls of Ukraine who are suffering horrendously in this conflict started by Putin. This war of aggression has had a terrible toll on civilians across the country.
We know that, throughout history, rape and sexual violence have been used by aggressors to punish, terrorise and destroy populations, from the rape of women during the 1937 Nanking occupation to the estimated 200,000 women subjected to rape during the fight for independence in Bangladesh. We have also seen victims of sexual violence in Bosnia and, more recently, as I have raised with the Minister, in Tigray and Myanmar. It is because of those heinous examples, and countless others, that rape and sexual violence have had to be explicitly prohibited under international humanitarian law and the Geneva conventions. As war ravages Europe once again, the grim reality is that we hear horrific reports of rape and sexual violence being used as weapons of war once more.
This week, one Ukrainian woman told The Times that she was raped on multiple occasions by Russian soldiers in her family home after they murdered her husband and while her four-year-old son was in tears nearby. That is utterly horrific and heinous. As the hon. Member said, we have also heard direct testimonies in the House. We were told:
“We have reports of women gang-raped. These women are usually the ones who are unable to get out. We are talking about senior citizens. Most of these women have either been executed after the crime of rape or they have taken their own lives.”
Every part of the House will condemn those appalling crimes, but condemnation is not enough. We need accountability and justice must be done. Putin and his cronies, and all those breaking international laws of war in his name, must face the full force of the law for the crimes and atrocities that they are, no doubt, committing.
The Minister made a number of important points, but will she set out clearly the steps that the Government are taking, crucially to gain the evidence to document these incidents? She mentioned the role of the Metropolitan police and other initiatives. What are we learning from past examples, particularly in the Balkans and elsewhere, about what we can do to ensure that evidence is collected and collated so that people can be brought to justice? How are we working with human rights organisations and others? What is her assessment of access for such organisations? Will she back Labour’s call for a special tribunal so that all war crimes, including the crime of aggression, can be prosecuted? Will she explain the detail of how humanitarian aid is being used in particular to support women in crossing the borders?
We have heard concerning reports about cuts to health and conflict in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which are crucial areas that affect the situation for women and girls. Will she assure us that they will not take place? Labour will always support what it takes to protect victims of sexual violence in Britain and Ukraine and across the world.
I thank the hon. Member for his support for women and girls. I, too, read the truly harrowing story of Natalya in the papers. It was so brave of her to come forward and tell the world that story. Indeed, the women who come forward to give their testimonies about the sexual violence that they have faced in conflict are incredibly brave. Recently, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came forward to give testimony that led to a conviction at the international court of a senior military leader for war crimes, including sexual violence. That was a true moment to show that we can—and will—hold these people to account.
The Government are supporting the ICC investigation. As I said, the UK was a leader in getting that set up and we have given it £1 million of funding to allow efforts to get started. Indeed, Karim Khan, who is the leader of the investigation and is from the UK, recently visited Ukraine. We are working with humanitarian organisations. In fact, just this week I met the head of the Charity Commission to discuss safeguarding issues and to remind UK charities on the ground about the risk of safeguarding concerns, including trafficking, child trafficking and so on. We will support the efforts of the ICC rather than trying to build an entirely new tribunal from scratch. That process could take many years, so we believe that it is best to ensure that it works through the ICC, which is why we are funding it.
We have not deployed to Ukraine at the moment, but we stand ready to do so if that becomes appropriate.
My hon. Friend asks, “Is Putin a war criminal?” There is very strong evidence that war crimes have been committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. It will be for the ICC prosecutor to identify the individuals who may have committed those crimes. That is why we are supporting the work of the ICC prosecutor in every way that we can.
I warmly congratulate Anthony Mangnall on securing this urgent question on a very difficult but very important subject. It is vital that we take due note of what is going on in Ukraine. We can all agree that rape as a weapon of war is beyond despicable. I will focus my remarks on urging the Government to take action on only three points, because much has been said that I agree with.
SNP Members have called for a specific atrocity prevention strategy. Work is under way across the FCDO on these issues, but we think that bringing that into a coherent atrocity prevention strategy would be helpful in not only holding the Government to account on what is being done, but urging more action on that.
On accountability, I agree with the Government’s approach of supporting the ICC, rather than creating new structures. That is proportionate and the best way to do it. I was glad to hear about the funding, but as we have seen from Syria, we can have all the evidence that we like, but if there is not the political will to carry it through, we will not see the necessary accountability on the ground and the fear of justice to end the culture of impunity that we are hearing reports of from Ukraine. I urge the Government to do more on that and to publish as one document the efforts that are being made to help accountability mechanisms in Ukraine, because that would again help the coherence and strategy to be clear to us all.
I echo the points about people trafficking and safeguarding, on which I know the Minister has been very active. However, perhaps we can have a specific statement on the risk of trafficking of vulnerable refugees and what the UK and other partners have done to help and assist. I am aware that the German police have been doing very useful work on that, but, sadly, a lot more work needs to be done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his care and concern on this really dreadful issue. His last point was about the risk of people trafficking and other safeguarding issues and that is precisely why I met the head of the Charity Commission this week. We want to ensure that we are getting the alert out to charities on the ground about the risk of infiltration by people who they would not want in their organisations—let me put it like that. It is a very serious risk. That is one of the reasons we encourage the British people, if they want to contribute, to do so through the Disasters Emergency Committee.
How do we try to change the dial on this issue? The hon. Gentleman is right that more needs to be done. That is precisely why, at the end of last year, the Foreign Secretary said that we need to look at a new international agreement or convention on dealing with sexual violence in conflict. There is no single treaty that is dedicated to conflict-related sexual violence, and we believe that consolidating all the legal obligations could help to prevent that and to ensure that SV is seen as an early warning sign. We think that having a new international agreement or convention would have a symbolic and practical value, because it could help to increase the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, strengthen states’ commitment to supporting survivors and, importantly, improve the mechanisms to hold perpetrators to account. It will take time. We are not going for quick political wins; we are working with experts internally and internationally towards a new UN General Assembly resolution to set up a convention on the process.
The Minister will know that there are three components of fighting power: physical, conceptual and moral. Does she agree that any violations of the Geneva convention in Ukraine are likely to galvanise the Ukrainian forces to become an even more formidable adversary, and galvanise the ICC, the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies to generate the necessary evidence for future prosecutions?
I completely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend. Furthermore, he used exactly the right word to describe the Ukrainian people: formidable. I would add brave, caring and just absolutely unbelievable. I do not think that there is a single person in this House who does not have huge admiration for what Ukraine is doing to support its own people.
Lesia Vasylenko, an incredibly brave Ukrainian MP and mother of three, spoke recently of women being raped and hanged, some in front of their very young children. Putin has changed his strategy to target the most vulnerable groups in this illegal and unethical war. It is always women and girls who pay the highest price. They are being targeted and raped and having their own bodies used against them as we speak. What will the Minister do differently now to prevent more unimaginable suffering for women and girls and ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid into the country?
I thank the hon. Member for her deep concern for women in war. It is the most vulnerable who suffer the most, and that is very often women. We have also heard reports of forcibly removing citizens from the country, which would be a violation of international human rights law.
We have led the efforts to launch the ICC investigation, the commission of inquiry and the OSCE investigation. The Deputy Prime Minister has chaired a meeting of 38 Governments in The Hague to ensure that international efforts, including on evidence collection, are co-ordinated. As I said, the Metropolitan police have operationalised their war crimes team to ensure that it can collect evidence from the brave women who would like to give it, so that we can hold the perpetrators to account. It is so important to show that we can hold people to account, because that is the way that we can try to prevent this hideous crime from continuing.
I thank the Minister and especially the Foreign Secretary, who I know has made the matter a priority. However, given the woeful levels of prosecution, there is clearly an issue with the collection and recording of evidence in the existing system. That is why Lord Hague of Richmond, the former Foreign Secretary, has called for an international, permanent long-term body to collect and record crimes around the world. Can the Minister tell us whether she has at least had any conversations with her counterparts about establishing that permanent body?
We are working through the ICC, because we believe that that is the best way to take people to court for war crimes. Setting up a new body could take many years. We have seen from the experience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that the ICC can be effective in holding people to be account, but it is incredibly important that the evidence is gathered, which is why we are funding it now and supporting other organisations. However, we believe that a new convention or a new international agreement is needed. That is one of our key priorities for this year; it was a key priority for this year even before this hideous war started. The tragedy is that in wars across the world these awful crimes happen, which include the terrible situation for the women of Tigray.
I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on bringing this deeply emotional question to the House. The use of rape as a weapon of war is reprehensible, it is repugnant, and it has no place anywhere in the world.
The Minister was right in saying that we are starting, through sanctions, to isolate Putin and his cronies, but I find it deeply disturbing that although we have imposed some sanctions, there are still gaping holes, especially in respect of golden visas. A question from my noble Friend Baron Jones of Cheltenham revealed that we had given golden visas to eight people. That is an embarrassment. It is disgusting in itself, and it prompts us to ask how many more people used Putin’s blood money to buy their way into this country. Will the Minister have a word with the Home Office, and the Home Secretary in particular, to speed along the review of golden visas so we can ensure that none of this money has been used—
Order. I am sorry, but we are shortly to have another urgent question on visas. This urgent question is about rape and the use of women in war. The hon. Lady might be getting the two mixed up, and it would be more appropriate for her to raise that issue following the next urgent question. However, I invite the Minister to try to deal with the question that she has asked.
We are implementing the strongest set of economic sanctions ever imposed to debilitate the Russian economy and degrade funding for Putin’s war machine, because this war has to stop, and the rape and violence against women has to stop.
There is absolutely no doubt that the rape of women in Ukraine is one of the burning issues. However, the Minister made a helpful reference to the successful prosecution of a senior military commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What can we do to ensure that those in the command structure of the Russian forces are aware that they themselves become liable to prosecution if they fail to prevent rape from being committed by troops serving under their command? That would be a powerful message to send.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I also think that this Chamber is sometimes a very powerful place from which to send messages, so let me send this message again. Rape and sexual violence in war can be a war crime. It is always a crime, but it can be a war crime, and we are working with the international community to ensure that those who commit war crimes are held to account.
Anna McMorrin mentioned the MP Lesia Vasylenko, who was so brave in telling the world the stories of some of the women. It is Lesia’s birthday today. She is 35. Can we all take a moment to send her our best wishes, and our deepest thanks for what she is doing for women at this time? [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”]
Accountability and ensuring justice and consequences are hugely important, and I do not want to detract from that, but they are not helping survivors on the ground right now. Could the Minister give us a bit more clarity on what her Department is doing to help those who either are in Ukraine or have fled Ukraine, and who are survivors of sexual violence in conflict? What support are they being given on the ground, and if such support is not currently being provided, how does the Minister intend to ramp things up so that it is provided now?
The tragedy is that, as the hon. Member will know, getting support into Ukraine itself can be particularly challenging at this time, especially in the most affected areas, but we have provided a very significant amount of support through humanitarian aid. Many of those who are working in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries are extremely experienced in this field.
As I said earlier, I met representatives of the Charity Commission this week to discuss safeguarding issues and to ensure that charities are thoroughly aware of them. As I also said earlier, the Metropolitan police have operationalised their war crimes division in order to be able to collect evidence from those who have come here, and I know that many other countries are doing the same.
All refugees will need support, which is why we are providing that humanitarian aid—and God bless the British people, too, for being so generous—but we understand that those who have suffered from sexual and other violence will need additional support.
The Minister has talked about another consequence of war being human trafficking, particularly for sexual exploitation. Can she say a bit more about what we are doing as a country to aid international investigations into human trafficking? Secondly, will she speak to her colleagues in the Home Office about the role of the National Crime Agency, particularly in relation to Ukrainian women who might be advertised for rape on pimps’ websites that are on a lot of social media platforms?
These are really important issues, and I completely agree with the right hon. Lady about how important it is to highlight them, especially the issue of safeguarding. That is why I had a discussion about safeguarding with the Charity Commission earlier this week. Significant work is also happening through Interpol to look at the situation on the ground. It is important to remind people that they are at risk of sexual exploitation and of modern-day slavery, which can involve sex workers. As I said earlier, we are aware of reports of civilians being forcibly removed, which is another violation of international humanitarian law. That is why we continue to support efforts to investigate the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law.
I recently tabled a named day question asking about the requirement for refugees from Ukraine to obtain visas to enter the UK, and the assessment of the level of risk to women and children from human traffickers in that context. The response to that question is now nine days overdue. I know that this is an incredibly difficult situation, but it is even more difficult to properly safeguard women and girls if we have not identified and assessed the risks. Is the Minister able to commit to that being taken forward as part of the work she has set out today?
On the issue of visas, there is about to be an urgent question on that subject. It is important to have proper processes for visas and for those who have offered homes to Ukrainian refugees precisely because of those safeguarding concerns.
Violence against women and girls is unacceptable in any circumstances. The use of rape as a weapon of war is abhorrent, and those who perpetrate it must be brought to justice for the sake of the victims. Some of those women will reach these shores safely, and we have a duty not just to protect and look after them but to assist them in coming to terms with the absolutely awful experiences they have had. What extra resources are the Government putting into mental health services for those people who have fled Ukraine?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that conflict-related sexual violence is truly hideous. In 2020, a report from the UN Secretary-General found conflict-related sexual violence in 18 different countries. I will need to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific question on mental health support, but I point him to the fact that on
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I also thank Anthony Mangnall for asking it and giving the House the opportunity to expose and denounce rape as a weapon of war. It must not be normalised and, as the Minister has said, perpetrators must be brought to justice. Will the Minister confirm whether there have been discussions about the UK introducing atrocity prevention strategies to FCDO country offices to give early warning and training and to stop atrocities such as sexual violence in this and other conflicts?
As the hon. Member knows, because she came to meet me, a huge amount of work goes on with our conflict prevention strategy not only in Ukraine but around the world. Right now, we are focusing on supporting the people of Ukraine. It is incredibly important that Putin stops this war and stops the violence. Our priority at the moment is to help to reduce the impact of that conflict on those people. The hon. Member is right to say that we work across the world to try to reduce conflict. Indeed, I was in Nigeria recently, which is one of the most challenging countries from the point of view of attacks on civilians, even though it is not what we would describe as a warzone. The work we are doing there to try to reduce conflict is absolutely part of our approach, and it has to be done in the right way for a particular place.
Earlier this week I met Amnesty International, which is working on the ground in Ukraine and has growing concerns about the use of sexual violence against women and girls. Will the Minister assure the House that when the evidence is collected and people are called to account, this hideous and despicable crime is not simply lumped together with other crimes but is seen as a stand-alone offence and will be punished as such to the full extent of the law? That would send a clear signal that it is not acceptable and that the perpetrators will be hunted down, called to account and punished for what they have done.
May I use this opportunity to thank Amnesty International, including the branch in my constituency of Chelmsford, which does a fantastic amount of work to raise concerns about human rights issues right across the world? The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that sexual violence in war is completely unacceptable. That is why, as I have said, the Foreign Secretary has made it a priority to work internationally on a new agreement or convention in order to strengthen the global response, to increase prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, to strengthen the state’s commitment to survivors and, most importantly, to improve our mechanisms to hold these dreadful perpetrators to account.
Given their proximity to Ukraine, some of the poorest countries in Europe are already looking after huge numbers of refugees, many of whom will have been victims of rape and sexual violence or will have been traumatised by what they have witnessed. These countries do not have the resources to provide the specialist support that these refugees need urgently. Has the Minister considered making an offer to countries such as Moldova to send specialist support from the United Kingdom to work with women there while we cannot get anyone into Ukraine? Has she asked the Chancellor for, at the very least, a temporary increase in funding so that the support given to the victims of sexual violence in Ukraine does not come at the expense of resources for other work around the world to protect the lives and rights of women and girls in other areas of conflict?
I assure the hon. Member that the UK is one of the largest donors not only of humanitarian aid—we have recently pledged £220 million—but of humanitarian teams. An emergency medical team has been deployed to neighbouring countries, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova, which he mentioned.
I thank the Minister for her obvious appreciation of the issue and understanding of how to address it. May I also say, with absolute honesty, that her response to the urgent question shook me to my core? It highlighted once again the depravity and evil of men. Rape has been considered a war crime for many years, but it is not enough merely to cite evidence of it. Russian war crimes are multiple, targeting schools and hospitals, and killing babies, women and the elderly and disabled. Will the Minister lead the charge? Evidence is already being collated—I think Ukrainian MPs already have evidence. Will she stop at nothing to make sure that those responsible are held to account and that punishment for those who carry out these awful crimes will be certain?
The hon. Member is absolutely right that it is vital that we hold people to account. That is why it is essential that the ICC can carry out its investigation, and it is why the UK will provide military, policing and financial support to help uncover evidence of such crimes. Ultimately, it is crucial that we seek justice, because only through justice will we be able to prevent such crimes from happening.