High-Profile Conference to Draw Attention to Sexual Violence in War


LONDON — The Hollywood star Angelina Jolie and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, opened a high-profile gathering here on Tuesday intended to combat the increasing prevalence of sexual violence in war zones, with Ms. Jolie calling for an end to a “culture of impunity” among perpetrators.

“We must send a message around the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence, that the shame is on the aggressor,” she said in a speech at the start of the four-day event designed to harness the power of celebrity to international diplomacy.

“We need to shatter that culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes,” Ms. Jolie said. “We need political will, replicated across the world, and we need to treat this subject as a priority. We need to see real commitment and go after the worst perpetrators, to fund proper protection for vulnerable people, and to step in to help the worst-affected countries. We need all armies, peacekeeping troops and police forces to have prevention of sexual violence in conflict as part of their training.”


Angelina Jolie and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, at a gathering in London on Tuesday intended to combat the increasing prevalence of sexual violence in war zones. CreditPool photo by Carl Court

The conference will culminate in formal sessions on Thursday and Friday grouping 100 international delegates, including Secretary of State John Kerry and, by video link, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

The intention, Mr. Hague said, is to draw up a “new international protocol” for the prosecution of rape and sexual abuse in times of conflict. The conference is known formally as the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The extent of the problem was highlighted Monday by news reports from Nigeria of militants, believed to be members of Boko Haram, having kidnapped 20 women near Chibok, the same town where the group abducted hundreds of schoolgirls in mid-April. Talk of a rescue effort has come to nothing, underscoring both the vulnerability of the abducted girls and the apparent impunity enjoyed by predators in far-flung theaters of conflict. Even as the delegates gathered, the BBC reported widespread accounts of gang rape on a horrific scale in South Sudan.

Mr. Hague plans to a hold a ministerial meeting on Thursday to discuss ways of improving security.

Sexual violence in war has been spread across many regions, including the Balkans and parts of Africa.

As the gathering opened in London on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, issued a new report quoting a senior researcher, Ida Sawyer, as saying that “tens of thousands of women, girls, men, and boys in eastern Congo have been victims of sexual violence over the past two decades.”

“This widespread sexual violence will not end until those responsible are prosecuted, and the government makes clear to soldiers, officers, combatants, and warlords that rape carries a high price,” the report quotes her as saying.

“Armed groups have abducted and held women and girls as sex slaves, attacked the victims with machetes and other weapons, and targeted girls as young as 2 and women older than 80,” the report adds. “Armed groups and members of the army have also used rape to ‘punish’ civilians belonging to a particular ethnic group, or those they accused of supporting the ‘enemy.’ ”

“Stigma and fear of rejection have prevented many women and girls from reporting rape. Others live in remote areas with no psychosocial or medical services. Many have been threatened by the attackers or members of their armed group or army unit, deterring victims from seeking justice,” the report said.

In London, the conference will include a showing of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a movie written and directed by Ms. Jolie that Mr. Hague has said inspired the initiative to combat rape and sexual abuse in war zones. The movie, released in 2011, is set against the backdrop of the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Ms. Jolie is a longtime envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Emime Ndihokubwayo, a prominent rights campaigner from Burundi, was quoted in British news reports as saying that the gathering would be an emotional occasion, and that “being emotional in fact is not a bad thing.”

In an article on Monday in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, Mr. Kerry wrote: “Too many of the places I have visited as Secretary of State bear the scars of a time when rape was used as a tactic of oppression and intimidation. Indeed, sexual violence in conflict is one of the most persistent and most neglected injustices today.”

“As my country’s top diplomat, ending this cycle of violence is a critical mission,” he wrote. “The first step is to begin treating sexual violence in armed conflict as a major international crime. It is not and cannot be seen as an inevitable consequence of conflict. Nor is it a simple infraction of a country’s penal code.”

“The next step in this overdue process will be persuading every government to deny safe haven to those who commit these vile acts. That should be a key legacy of the London conference,” Mr. Kerry added. “We must communicate a unified stance with a single, loud voice: There is no place in the civilized world for those who commit acts of sexual violence. We must declare in unison: ‘They can’t run and they won’t hide here.’”


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