By M.B. Jalloh, Press Attaché, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Central Asia
Madam Zainab Hawa Bangura is a very busy woman. As the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in conflict, the erstwhile Foreign Affairs and Health Minister in President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma’s Administration is constantly on the road from one conflict spot to another. She is always busy attending to women activities, conferences, strategizing with government officials, among many other official functions. The Sierra Leonean –born UN diplomat was recently in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a brief private visit. I met her at the Conference Palace in Jeddah and had an exclusive interview with her. Below are excerpts:
M.B. Jalloh: It’s almost three years since the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon appointed you as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict – a position I understand is equivalent to an Under-Secretary–General. What is/are the main challenge(s) of your office?
Zainab Bangura (ZB): Firstly, I am extremely thankful to the Secretary General for giving me and my country an opportunity to serve in the UN in this capacity. I see this as an opportunity not only for me but also for my country. The main challenges relating to my mandates mostly have to do with addressing the problems of sexual violence in conflict around the world.
The first is that the history of war time rape has been a history of denial. The first step we try to do is to encourage political leaders to speak about it openly at the highest levels and build national ownership, leadership and responsibility, as sustainable solutions can never be imposed from outside. Where there is a political will at the national level, there is a way. It is also important this crime is reflected on the official historical record for future generations; before we can turn the page of history, we need to read the page.
The second is there needs to be official recognition of the gravity and urgency of the issue in order to shatter the silence, amplify the voice of survivors and redirect the shame and stigma of rape from the victim to the perpetrators.
The third challenge is translating ambitious legal and policy frameworks into practice. International law is adequate, but it is not adequately respected, implemented and enforced. It is generally easier to pass a law prohibiting sexual violence than disseminate and socialize it at the community level so that it translate into deterrence and behavioral-change. Officials across the entire justice chain need to be trained in the safe and ethical handling of sexual violence cases and infrastructure, such as professional corrections facilities, needs to be in place. Ultimately, the goal is to deliver justice, not just law, so reparations must also be delivered to survivors.
Fourthly, today, the new challenge right now in Africa and the Middle East is trying to identify points of leverage with extremist groups that have little concern for international law or international legitimacy – these are ISIL, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda. Efforts to divest and degrade the capacity of these groups are urgently needed. We also need to integrate women’s protection and sexual violence prevention into all counter –terrorism efforts.
Fifthly, Children born of rape are often undocumented, unregistered and at high risk of statelessness. This is a challenge we are facing right now in relation to the Syrian crises to ensure there is no “lost generation”.
Sixthly, crimes of sexual violence cannot be amnestied or pardoned as the “price of peace’. We are advocating for sexual violence to be explicitly included in all ceasefire and peace agreements, and monitored accordingly.
MBJ: Mrs. Bangura, talking about some of these terrorists groups operating in some parts of the Middle –East and Africa reminds me about what you recently told the UN News Centre in an interview that Sexual violence is being used as a “tactic of terror” to target religious and ethnic minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and you also mentioned the upsurge of non-State actors involved in sexual violence like the Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab in Africa and ISIL in the Middle East. Does the United Nations have the tools to deal with these non-State actors and what is the UN doing to help victims of sexual violence?
ZB : Since the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, the Security Council has adopted ground breaking resolutions to develop the conceptual framework, create the infrastructure, establish the elements of compliance as well as develop an operational framework to fight and address these crimes; as, where and when it happens. Sexual violence has also been used as a designation criterion for country specific sanction committees. In this regard I can safely say, we have the tools required to fight this scourge. Within the last year or so, we have started witnessing tangible results and progress in some countries. Unfortunately, with the growth of non-state actors like extremist groups, a whole new dimension has emerged very unexpectedly. The UN and the tools developed are basically to engage, respond and support crimes being committed by state actions. The growth and emergence of strong and transnational non-state groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al shabaab and Al Qaeda who are extremely sophisticated and using sexual violence to advance some of their key strategic priorities such as recruitment, intelligence gathering, fundraising and to advance their ideology now requires us to not only strengthen old tools, but create new and smarter tools to go after them. This is already in the process.
MBJ: How do you deal with issues relating to sexual violence in conflict countries that are usually hot spots?
ZB: I have a 6 points agenda to address this problem in each country. These are ending impunity, empowering affected civilians, strengthening political will, coordinating UN responses, raising awareness of rape as a weapon of war and strengthening national ownership, leadership and responsibility to address the problem.
MBJ: What are some of the experiences you would like to share with the public as regards to the sexual violence issues you have handled in the last three years?
ZB: The experiences are many, but it will be difficult and impossible to bring to light all of them. I will however try to mention a few.
Firstly, this is a global problem. Therefore my mandate is global, from Colombia, to Bosnia Herzegovina, Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, to DRC, Somalia, and Libya to name but a few countries. The problems are as diverse as the countries. Each conflict is different and has to be treated that way.
Secondly, spikes in sexual violence are concomitant with spikes in armed conflict. It is linked with the collapse of security, massive displacement, and the proximity of arms bearers to civilian population centers, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and the overall militarization of society.
Thirdly, even though conflict related sexual violence is mostly committed against women and girls, increasingly, we are seeing men and boys becoming victims. These crimes have no gender, age, religious or nationality difference. However, even though it cuts across age, we have found out that in the majority of cases, over 60% of victims are below the age of 18.
Fourthly, the lower the perceived status of a person is in society the greater the chances of vulnerability. This is why women and children, minorities in terms of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientations are increasingly being targeted.
Fifthly, it is now not only being used as a weapon of war, but increasingly it is also being used as a tactic of terror especially by extremist groups to achieve their key strategic objectives, from Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Sixthly, since the rise of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, we have seen a rise in conflict and attendant human rights violations, including rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage. The rights of women and girls have deteriorated dramatically in the region.
Finally, sexual violence is not just incidental but integral to the ideology and operations of ISIL and other extremist groups like Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. They are using it as both a tactic of war and a tactic of terror. Therefore, the problem has increased with the rise of violent extremism in many parts of the world.
MBJ: How does it feel representing the UN Secretary – General on an assignment that seems extremely difficult to handle?
ZB: I feel very honored and humbled. I also see it as a great opportunity and blessing for me. It is an exciting period in my life. I feel extremely lucky to be in the heart of the citadel of global diplomacy at a time of great global challenges and changes in the world. I count my blessings every day to have been given the opportunity to work with the SG. I have great admiration for him and see my experience working with him as a fantastic learning experience for me. He has a strong commitment on issues relating to the protection and empowerment of women. My life has been enriched in many ways. He is extremely humble, compassionate, very focused and a great teacher.
MBJ: In all the conflict countries you have travelled to which one has the highest rate of sexual violence. Do you know?
This is not possible to make blanket statements about whether sexual violence is higher in one country or not. The numbers are important, but the crime, the trend and the patterns are also important. It spikes when there is armed violence, a breakdown in law and order, impunity and armed groups with an ideology opposed to women’s rights like ISIL or BOKO Haram.
Data collation and information gathering is limited and sometimes impossible. So having an accurate estimation is difficult. More important than global estimates therefore is meaningful, contextualized, qualitative information on early warning, patterns, trends and the profile of victims and perpetrators that can inform interventions.
It is only in recent years that this age old atrocity has pierced the public conscience, rather than being perceived as simply an inevitable byproduct of war or a lesser evil relative to the lethal violence of the battlefield. As a result, we have more reporting in some countries than others.
Finally, it is also important to note that in many settings, an increase in reports of sexual violence signals an improvement in overall security and service- delivery environment rather than a deterioration, as survivors tend to come forward when they feel ready and sense that it is safe to report.
MBJ: Do you work with the judiciary and the security systems when dealing with sexual violence in conflict?
ZB: Yes I do in most but not all the countries. They are extremely key in terms of ensuring accountability for these crimes and ending impunity. Part of my office’s mandate under Security Council Resolution 1888 of 2009 is an entity called the Team of Expert on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Team of Experts work directly with member states to improve the rule of Law on this issue. This ranges from criminal accountability, but it also covers other areas of law that bear on sexual violence in the civil system.
MBJ: From your experience, do communities stigmatize or discriminate against the victims of sexual violence?
ZB: Yes they do in all cases around the world. I have never seen a situation where this is not happening. Victims irrespective of age, gender, religion or sex are always stigmatized. As mentioned earlier, it is one of our biggest challenges and we need to turn the tide of stigmatization against the perpetrators. For centuries, it has been cost free to rape a woman. The only way we can turn the tide is to make sure whoever commits this crime, wherever they are, we must hunt them down, get them and punish them. That way, people will think twice before committing the offence. Rape has everlasting consequences to the individuals affected, their families and society in general. Therefore the crimes committed are not only against individual victims, but against their families and their communities and the society at large. The pain of sexual violence in conflict never heals. It stays with the victim or survivor for life, making reconciliation difficult. One victim in Bosnia summarized it in a quote to me “They took my life away without killing me”.
MBJ: A very touching quote indeed, but is it within your mandate to take action against perpetrators of sexual violence when caught?
ZB: The first important action is to prosecute anybody who commits sexual violence in conflict irrespective of who they are and where they come from. All crimes must be thoroughly investigated, and proven beyond reasonable doubt. I am happy that even at the international level now, the International Criminal Court has been able to develop a gender based violence policy paper that outlines key priorities in the pursuit of justice for these crimes at the international level. This has made it possible for the ICC to succeed in having several indictments on this issue, but no convictions as yet. I just came back from a visit to the ICC in The Hague at the invitation of the President of the court. I had very good and intense discussions with all the judges of the Court on strengthening of evidence collection regarding these crimes, protection of victims and witnesses in conflict affected countries, and the provision of reparations for victims.
MBJ: Sexual violence is compromised in some countries because of tradition and alleged corruption by law enforcers. Don’t you think this is one of the major problems in tackling sexual violence?
ZB: I think it will be unfair to just generalize or agree. Yes corruption can be a problem but it is more than that. The reality is that even with international jurisprudence, it takes a lot to have proper investigation and successful prosecution. There are still countries where sexual violence is not a crime. I think a lot of work still needs to be done to strengthen the rule of law in many countries.
MBJ: Beyond getting into office, how can women better engage with broader gender issues affecting them, including sexual violence?
ZB: I think the first important issue is to ensure that women are well educated up to University level. Education for women has to go beyond basic education. The more educated a woman is the easier it is for her to make independent political, social and economic decisions. For a woman to understand and engage on issues of human rights or broader gender issues in a very meaningful and productive way, she must be well educated. Also, education not only gives confidence to a woman, but unleashes her best potentials that will help her aspire to a better life for her, and her family. I strongly believe that education is the best tool and gift you can give to anyone. It is a golden key, once given to somebody it unlocks the world to that person. The rest they can handle. There is no way somebody like me, from a poor and rural background and uneducated parent could have been able to achieve what I have without a solid educational background. Basic education alone cannot do that. We must give women all the tools they need to be able to compete and hold their own.
MBJ: Has there been real progress in narrowing the crime of sexual violence?
ZB: I think we have come a long way in dealing with this problem. With the various Security Council resolutions and other tools, we have a better understanding of these crimes. We have the ability to respond to it. We have seen a tremendous increase in political commitment at the national and global level. Sitting at the G8 ministerial summit in London two years ago and seeing 8 men from some of the most powerful countries in the world adopting a declaration on this issue was a turning point for me. This was followed by the signing of a declaration of commitment by over 150 countries to fight these crimes, then the first ever global summit held in London in June last year. All of these tell me that this problem is now out of the closet. Individual countries like DRC and organizations like the AU and NATO have all appointed very competent and capable women to lead and address this problem in their countries, institutions and organizations. This is a clear indication that the world has finally recognized that this problem must and can be solved. We still have a lot to do, but I am happy on what we have been able to achieve for the last few years.
MBJ: Okay, Mrs. Bangura, let’s talk about your country and its immediate neighbours. You served as Foreign Minister and Health Minister in President Koroma’s Government before you got this appointment in September 2012, what was your response when you learned that there was an Ebola outbreak in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone?
ZB: I was very devastated as I followed the rapid spread, the large number of deaths especially in the medical profession, and the global panic the epidemic created. Most important however, I was disheartened by the stigmatization of my country. It was an extremely difficult and challenging period for me, as I and thousands of Sierra Leoneans travelled across the world. I am happy that we have turned the corner and pray that very soon we can be Ebola free.
MBJ: Do you have any idea about how the epidemic devastated lives and the economies of the three most affected countries, especially in Sierra Leone, your home country?
ZB: I do. As a senior adviser to the Secretary General, I was in almost all of the global meetings as well as the internal UN meetings when Ebola was discussed. I had access to detailed professional medical knowledge, which frightened me tremendously. It was a top priority for the SG and he was on a daily and regular communication with global leaders around the world pushing to not only increase but strengthen global response. It was an extremely difficult period for everybody around the table but more so for somebody like me, sitting at the table every day, every week when information of the disease and various options were discussed. I had family, friends and colleagues at home and there was nothing I could do. People I know and had worked with were dying on a daily basis and all I could do watch hopelessly. I have never felt so traumatized in my life.
MBJ: What is your assessment of the international response to the fight against Ebola in these three Mano River Union countries?
ZB: This is a difficult question for me to answer. I think this situation is new even for the international community just as it was new for the three countries affected. Everybody, from the countries themselves, WHO, international NGOs and the entire world was completely unprepared. Knowledge about the disease was limited and so was the ability to respond. As a senior UN staff, I can categorically say, it was a difficult time for the SG, putting together the response, engaging member states, creating the infrastructure to mobilize and coordinate international response. The UN has never in its history been able to respond in setting up a mission so quickly. The SG was deeply committed and involved and worked round the clock talking to many Heads of States. We did not only discuss it at every management meeting but had special meetings as well. His biggest challenge was ensuring that the countries affected were not stigmatized and access in and out of the Ebola affected countries was not blocked. My prayer as both a Sierra Leonean and a UN staff is that we never go through this experience again, not only in Sierra Leone but in any country in the world. No country deserves what happened to these three small, poor West African countries.
MBJ: What challenges do you envisage for the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea during the post-Ebola recovery period?
ZB: I think the first challenge is to be able to mobilize the resources that will be needed for the post Ebola recovery. The global financial situation is not very good. The world is facing too many crises at the same time. As such, the global aid community is overstretched and facing constraints to meet expectations. There is no humanitarian situation around the world that has been able right now to get 60% of the required assistance. The second challenge is rebuilding of the Healthcare systems. This is an enormous challenge. It goes beyond providing drugs, but includes, infrastructure, human resource development, equipment provision etc. It is a lot of work that needs a short, medium and long-term strategy. Finally, is how to manage the expectation of the people. Most people do not understand or appreciate that some of these things take time and money to be properly addressed. Most people would expect things to happen immediately. I pray every day that after we reach the 42 days and beyond, we never have another Ebola crisis again, because I do not believe that psychologically our country can withstand the trauma of another crisis.
MBJ: The heads of state of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were recently in the United States as guests to President Barrack Obama and the World Bank. Their invitation could be a very big boost to the post-Ebola recovery period, don’t you think so?
ZB: I am both proud and happy for the leadership role President Obama was able to play by not only raising the awareness of how important it is for the world to respond and support the Ebola affected countries, but also the fact that he actually made sure the United States committed not only substantial resources but manpower to help in addressing this problem. In addition, he contributed to minimizing the problems of stigmatizing the countries and citizens affected. I can still recall the fight he had to put up against isolating and cutting off air traffic and access to our countries. I am therefore not surprised that he took time out of his busy schedule to meet and talk to the three leaders. This is an indication of his commitment and support to our countries. This of course sends a challenge to other world leaders to follow suit.
MBJ: How are you enjoying your travels and meeting with different high-profile personalities?
ZB: I have to confess that I have a hectic schedule and a challenging job. I am sure the high profile personalities would love to see me under different circumstances than confronting them with these crimes. Unfortunately, this is extremely important for me, if I have to achieve the political commitment that is necessary to address this problem. I see my job as an opportunity to help and support some of the most vulnerable people in conflict countries. The majority of victims of sexual violence are women and children as well as the lower strata of society; people with lower status in society, with less economic opportunities and educational background. I think it is a God sent opportunity to pay back for what was given to us. Remember, at some point in Sierra Leone, we were categorized as a failed state that had been given up. We have been able to bounce back, because people from other parts of the world took sympathy at us and helped us. I am happy I can do the same for some other people.
MBJ: How many countries have you travelled to since your appointment in 2012?
ZB: My God, this is an interesting question. I have not counted and so I do not know for sure. I just jump on a flight when I need to go and do my work. I think at some point in my life I will try to count, starting from my civil society days, to my days as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as a top-level UN staff.
MBJ: Finally, Madam Zainab Hawa Bangura, do you have any message for Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad?
ZB: Sierra Leone is a country that belongs to nearly or more than 6 million people from 15 or so different ethnic groups. When problems come they do not know the difference between religion, ethnicity, age, gender or party affiliation etc., and for now, our needs are still basic – quality education, basic health care, ability to feed our people, good roads etc. We are still donor dependent, making it difficult to design plans according to our desires. In the background of all of these, God did not put us all in Sierra Leone by accident. We each have strengths and weaknesses, but must work together to put the country in the center, by bringing our comparative advantages together and putting aside our weaknesses and difference and working towards achieving a greater Sierra Leone. I have been disheartened by the level of animosity between us, and the extent we sometimes go to, to destroy one another. We have not taken advantage of our diversity to bring and accept different points of views to the table. We have resorted to insulting each other and using unprintable language on social media. We are very reluctant to accept difference of opinion and have no respect for one another. There is still a lot of work to be done to move our country forward and we must all put our differences aside, and work together, putting Sierra Leone first in everything we do. Travelling around the world, engaging world leaders, trying to understand the problems of other countries and sitting at that table led by the SG on a weekly basis trying to deal with global problems has given me an indication of how much work we still have to do if we have to catch up, and the energy and allocated time we need to put into making our country the best in the world. My mother taught me how to tie my “lappa” tightly to fight the fight. We have no option but to tighten our “lappas” and belts to physically move Sierra Leone forward. If Rwanda can do it so can we. We have only one country and that is Sierra Leone.
MBJ: It has been an interesting interview – full of education and information. I am sure; the readers will gain a lot from it. Thank you very much indeed, Mrs. Bangura for taking time, out of your very busy schedule talking to me on national and international issues. Enjoy your stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and safe return to the United States.
ZB: You are most welcome, Mr. Jalloh and thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.