Well William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary, has made tackling impunity for conflict-related sexual violence a priority for British foreign policy. One of the biggest challenges that has been facing this UK effort has been garnering broader international support. Sadly, urgent issues like rape are not exempt from the world of real-politik. Post Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, many states are wary of anything that might resemble ‘humanitarian intervention’ and therefore question the UK’s motives. Equally many states chose to use gender issues to play out their own political power games – as we saw earlier this year at The Commission on the Status of Women, when a so-called ‘unholy alliance’ of anti-women rights governments tried to block a UN agreement on violence against women and girls to placate conservative elements back home.
Not just a Western concern
Yesterday’s declaration represents an effort by the British government to broaden the international coalition of governments pledging support for action on conflict-related sexual violence. It follows the UK’s push for a G8 communique in Spring this year and other efforts to build partnerships with developing country states on the issue. As such, while the signatures of Denmark and US on the declaration are welcome, the endorsement of the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Senegal and Indonesia carries more weight in demonstrating that action to prevent this kind of violence is not just a Western concern.
So what next? Well there remains the list of states not yet signed up to this declaration and still sceptical or unsympathetic to this agenda. So the follow-up will require sustained diplomacy using every opportunity to highlight how such violence is not just an unfortunate or inevitable symptom of war, but is of strategic relevance in efforts to promote peace and security around the world. Also work will need to be done to follow up on linking commitments in the declaration to existing UN mechanisms and national government policies on sexual violence.
Support for grassroots action required
However, CARE International highlights that more support is also required for the champions of grassroots action on sexual violence – women’s rights activists and community-based civil society associations providing support to survivors of the violence. While politicians debate the issue at national or international level, there are many brave women and men working to prevent such violence and respond to its consequences at the frontlines of conflict. Yet both women’s rights activism and health and other projects to address the basic needs of survivors of rape in times of conflict remain chronically underfunded.
To support their efforts, we would highlight two key opportunities following the UN General Assembly in New York this week:
The first is bringing women’s voices effectively into the peace process in the Great Lakes region. On Monday this week, a set of ‘benchmarks’ were launched for monitoring progress on the so-called ‘Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region’. Women met with the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region, Mary Robinson, and provided the process with detailed recommendations on how to bring gender considerations into the Framework. So we look to the implementation of the ‘benchmarks’ as a key opportunity to involve women in monitoring progress on a range of peace and security priorities, including rape as a tactic of war.
The second is providing funding for activism and humanitarian services to support survivors at the grassroots level. Later this year, the UN and donor governments will convene for a high-level event in London to review efforts to address violence against women and girls in humanitarian crises. This will be a moment not only for governments to put their money where their mouth is, but for the UN and agencies like my own to sign up to practical steps to more effectively respond to this kind of violence.
It goes without saying that preventing sexual violence in conflict is not an easy task. The declaration adopted yesterday represents an important step at the political level, which should not be sniffed at. Yet how it translates into action in the DRC peace process, and in funding for those working to prevent and respond to this violence on the ground, will be the test of its rhetoric.