Australia’s Role in Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Next week, from 10-13 June, the United Kingdom government will host the largest ever gathering of high-level government representatives, civil society experts and academics in London for the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Summit comes on the heels of UN Security Council Resolution 2106 (2013), which outlined a comprehensive framework for preventing conflict-related sexual violence, and the UN General Assembly Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which has now been endorsed by 148 countries.  The London Summit aims to build on these developments through a concrete platform of action that creates ‘irreversible momentum’ toward ending the scourge of sexual violence that terrorizes communities in conflict-affected countries across the globe.

Since its launch in May 2012, the UK’s Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) has been based in a broader normative project aimed at dramatically altering how the world understands conflict-related sexual violence. The PSVI underscores that sexual violence is neither an unfortunate reality of war nor an inevitable collateral damage of warfare, but rather a product of the strategic calculations of warring parties and opportunistic environments of impunity.  Sexual violence must be understood and treated as a serious crime under international law—as war crimes, crimes against humanity and/or acts of genocide.

jb-pm-esvcAs an indication of Australia’s strong commitment to the UK initiative, on June 2 Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and British High Commissioner to Australia Paul Madden co-hosted an Australian Dialogue on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. Government, NGOs and academic experts from across Australia were invited to Parliament House to discuss practical measures for Australia to take to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. The outcome of the dialogue will feed into Australia’s contribution to the Global Summit next week.

The dialogue focused on two critical areas of concern: strengthening accountability and access to justice, and responding to sexual violence and providing services for survivors.

The extremely low rate of prosecution for sexual violence in conflict evidences the need for stronger systems of accountability at both the international and state level. Part of the problem has been poor standards of investigation and evidence gathering. To address this, next week the UK will launch a Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which includes innovative forms of evidence gathering that rely on technology rather than survivor testimony, and establishes standards of good practice for investigation. Yet, meeting the burden of proof is but one part of the accountability gap. The woefully poor record of successful prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict is also attributed to the tendency to limit indictments to rape, and overlook the full scope of sexual crimes under international law (such as sexual slavery, abduction and forced marriage). Further, as discussed at the Australian Dialogue, higher conviction rates for perpetrators of sexual violence rely on prosecutorial and judicial agents and bodies taking seriously their gender justice mandate.  That is, much like Navi Pillay’s groundbreaking effort to include sexual violence in the indictments of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and to push for a ruling that defined rape as an act of genocide in the Akayesu case, current criminal justice proceedings must demonstrate similar determination to interpret sexual violence as a serious crime under international law. But accountability cannot focus on international mechanisms alone. It is the state, after all, that bears the primary obligation to prosecute serious crimes. Many national systems tolerate or disregard sexual violence. Strengthening accountability requires national criminal codes that expressly outlaw sexual violence, and national judicial systems that undertake to prosecute these crimes.

In addition to improving standards of investigation, documentation and prosecution, participants highlighted the importance of improving women’s participation and gender expertise in the security sector. Major General Gus MacLachlan noted that the prevention of sexual violence has not consistently been part of Australian military concepts of operations. Gender analysis, of which preventing sexual violence is a component, should be integrated as a standard part of mission planning. A starting point, which is already underway, is a national training program for Australian military and police on the complexity of sexual violence within conflict environments, and the roles and responsibilities for frontline responders in preventing such crimes.

Finally, the dialogue highlighted that strengthening accountability requires greater focus on local and community level initiatives. Efforts should be made to consider a range of innovative accountability measures outside of court-based proceedings such as supporting community-level protection strategies and providing reparations to survivors. Participants stressed the importance of multi-sector services for physical, psychological, health, livelihood and other support to survivors, including support for men and boy survivors as well as children born of wartime rape. Survivor services should recognize and strengthen existing capacity, and prioritize increased training and funding for women’s human rights defenders.

Two cross-cutting themes for Australia’s advocacy and action on PSVI stood out: the need to understand sexual violence within the broader context of the promotion and protection of women’s rights, and the need for Australia to focus its practical efforts to the Asia Pacific region.

In numerous interventions, participants of the Australian Dialogue stressed that while attention to high thresholds of conflict-related sexual violence is important, widespread and systematic sexual violence in conflict cannot —and should not—be categorically separated from less spectacular but no less pernicious levels and forms of violence against women. The status of women in times of relative peace impacts upon women’s vulnerability or resilience when war rages. In the long run, gender equality and gender empowerment are essential to reshaping the masculinized institutions that render women more likely to suffer sexualized attacks during war and to continue to suffer such violence in war’s wake. The normative project is both re-thinking political and judicial responses to sexualized violence in conflict, and re-visiting the permissive structural conditions at the root of endemic and extreme violence against women. Australia’s advocacy should therefore stress that women’s political participation, representation and leadership is as essential to PSVI as frontline protection and criminal accountability efforts.

Second, participants stressed the need for Australia to focus advocacy and practical assistance to the Asia Pacific region. Of the 14 global champions of the PSVI, four are committed to advancing the initiative in the Asia-Pacific region. These include the Prime Minister of Timor Leste and the Foreign Ministers of Australia, South Korea and Indonesia. Australia is well placed to work with these regional champions to raise awareness of the PSVI and to encourage increased commitment in the region. The record of accession to international human rights instruments is poor in the Asia Pacific in comparison to other regions; it is vital to address this gap and encourage states to commit to universal human rights and protections. Dialogue and training should focus on the ratification of the Rome Statute in the region, best practice for establishing gender sensitive national criminal codes, and ratifying other key human rights instruments including the Optional Protocol of the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

As a first step, Australia could act in concert with regional PSVI champions to propose an annual dialogue on women, peace and security, and to inject these topics into existing human rights and security dialogues with states and organizations in the region, particularly China and ASEAN. These high-level efforts could be augmented by ‘bottom up’ strategies, such as targeting Australian regional aid to increasing women’s participation in peace processes and security institutions, and to fund local women’s forums and peace networks, with a particular focus on women human rights defenders. Dialogue is also needed about the role of the media in the prevention of sexual violence, through community level radio and social media campaigns.

Through these efforts, Australia could make a unique and lasting contribution toward making the commitment to end sexual violence in conflict a lived reality for the women and girls of the Asia Pacific.

Sarah Teitt, Asia Pacific Centre for Responsibility to Protect, UQ