Sexual violence as weapon of war

Sexual violence in conflict is an appalling aspect of war. It is an abuse of human rights and is happening across current crises—in Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, the Sahel region and Ukraine. To strengthen the global response against sexual violence, the UK government recently hosted the International Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) Conference, with more than 50 countries participating.

In his opening remarks, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “Conflict-related sexual violence is morally abhorrent, it is illegal, and yet it is still happening all around the world. We naturally and rightly feel revulsion at the idea of chemical or biological attacks in war. And with our conventions and treaties—and the power of world opinion—those weapons signal a huge escalation and demand an international response. Sexual violence in conflict is equally immoral. It is a clear breach of international law, and should be a line that is never crossed.”

“Today, we stand in solidarity with survivors, determined to bring justice. And I want to send an unequivocal message to those who order, allow or perpetrate sexual violence against women and girls: it isn’t combat; it isn’t strength; it is cowardice. We will not rest in our efforts to protect those potential victims, and prosecute the perpetrators,” Cleverly said.

Speaking at the conference as an advocate and campaigner against sexual violence in conflict, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad said: “It’s time to use every tool we have: sanctions, international trials, and universal jurisdiction to show that sexual violence in conflict will not be tolerated. We must make state and non-state actors think twice about the consequences of these crimes.” Murad was awarded the Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. She advocates for survivors of genocide and sexual violence, and she has written about her own experience as a prisoner of ISIS in Iraq.

In an article published by The Telegraph—Castration, gang-rape, forced nudity: How Russia’s soldiers are using sexual violence to terrorise Ukraine—Harriet Barber quoted a United Nations report: “Since Russia’s soldiers first stormed Ukraine, women have been gang-raped, men castrated, children sexually abused, and civilians forced to parade naked in the streets.”

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office said Moscow’s war on Ukraine “is aimed at exterminating the Ukrainian people” and that Russia’s use of sexual violence intends “to spread a state of terror, and cause suffering and fear.”

Dr. Ingrid Elliott, MBE and one of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict experts, said that the Russians have two methods of sexual violence—the first of which is staged during an attack on a village.

“People are dragged out to the streets and paraded, men and women,” Dr. Elliott said. “There are circumstances where the man would be killed and the woman would face sexual violence afterwards. Sometimes the women are rounded up, and held in basements, where repeated sexual violence is inflicted upon them, for days of even weeks.”

The second pattern of abuse happens in detention centers in occupied territories. While it is hard to document this abuse, people who have fled or been liberated have come forward with information.

“What we see then is sexual torture against men,” Dr. Elliott said. This can take the form of genital electrocution, castration or sodomy.

The Kremlin has denied these allegations.

In October, a UN Commission documented what it described as “patterns” of rape and sexual violence inflicted on Ukrainians throughout the war. “Victims range from four to over 80 years old,” the report said, detailing a series of appalling accusations. One Russian soldier forced a four-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him in the presence of her parents, according to the report. The 22-year-old mother was raped, her husband sexually violated, and the pair were also forced to have sexual intercourse in the presence of the armed forces. An 83-year-old woman described how, while her village was occupied by Russian forces, she was raped by a Russian serviceman in front of her physically disabled husband. In the summer, a video circulated showing a Russian soldier with blue surgical gloves castrating a Ukrainian prisoner.

“Sexual violence is a threat to every individual’s right to a life of dignity, and to humanity’s collective peace and security,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “It is no longer seen as an inevitable by-product of war, but constitutes a crime that is preventable and punishable under International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law and International Criminal Law.”

The UN has recognized this detestable crime as a threat to international peace and security. The menace of sexual violence as a weapon of war requires immediate international condemnation and swift action to deter those attacks before they occur.

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