“Sexual Violence in Conflict can be Prevented,” says ICRC conference

“Sexual Violence in Conflict can be Prevented,” says ICRC conference©Wojtek Lembryk/ ICRC
A victim of sexual violence in Shabunda hospital in South-Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo
3 minApproximate reading time

“Sexual violence against civilians is not an inevitable consequence of armed conflict”. This was the message of a recent conference organized in Geneva by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH).

The conference looked at causes and prevention strategies with regard to all forms of sexual violence during war. Whilst research has thrown up some concurring patterns, there is still no consensus on the best prevention strategies, says the ICRC, hence this conference to exchange ideas and experiences on the ground. Panellists included a leading researcher, a member of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, an international human rights lawyer and a representative of Geneva Call, a Swiss-based NGO that works with non-state armed actors to promote respect of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

According to research, the conference was told, state armed actors commit more sexual violence in conflicts than non-state armed actors. But rebel groups and militia such as Islamic State, Boko Haram and militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have also hit the headlines for their use of rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual abuse against civilians. And they may be harder to engage.

Marie Coutin-Lequin of Geneva Call believes it is nevertheless possible, and that sexual violence in conflict can be prevented. She spoke to JusticeInfo.Net.

Marie Coutin-Lequin: I think we can prevent sexual violence in conflict if we act on time, and I think we shouldn’t wait for the onset of violence. I think that much earlier on we can predict whether sexual violence will be perpetrated or not. We should listen to propaganda, what each warring party is saying and I think we can detect hate speech and dehumanization. These can be signals of sexual violence. And I think we can also observe military tactics. So I think the earlier we start on observation, and therefore reaction, I think yes, we can prevent.

JusticeInfo.Net: When you say hate speech and dehumanization, do you mean specifically against women?

MCL: No, when you look at genocide and mass violence, sexual violence was used to dehumanize the entire group, and raping women was part of the strategy to destroy it. So dehumanization was for the entire group. 

JusticeInfo.Net: Your organization is working with non-state armed groups and you propose to them a Deed of Commitment. Can you tell us how that works?

MCL: States can sign international treaties but armed groups cannot. So it’s a way for them, by signing the Deed of Commitment, to commit to similar or even higher levels of international norms. It is a document by which they commit to abide by a list of rules. So we have a Deed of Commitment on the banning of anti-personnel mines, we have one on the ban on recruitment of children, the protection of children in armed conflict, and the third one is on the prohibition of sexual violence and the elimination of gender discrimination. So it’s a way for them to abide by international law and publicly declare that they abide by this law. And we monitor them once they have signed.

JusticeInfo.Net: Can you tell us some of the countries and some of the groups that you have worked with?

MCL: Right now we are working in Syria, for example, with the Syrian opposition groups -- not Islamic State, but Syrian opposition groups which are fighting the government and now also fighting IS. We work with the PKK, with SPLM-North in Sudan, and also in South Sudan. In the Kurdistan region most of the groups have signed the Deed of Commitment. In Asia we have many groups who have signed. In Africa not yet, so far, although they have signed other Deeds of Commitment, on the protection of children in armed conflict and the ban on anti-personnel mines.

JusticeInfo.Net:  Do you work, or do you think you can work with groups like IS or Boko Haram?

MCL: We are looking at it. In all armed conflicts, no matter how violent the groups can be, there are always some people who have good practices and some willingness not to harm, so let’s identify those people. Let’s also work with the scholars who understand Islamic laws and interpret Islam in a more positive way. Let’s work with them, let’s see how they can convince IS to act differently. I am not saying right now from Geneva it’s do-able, but we need to look at it, we need to better understand the group. And I think the more organizations discuss, the less isolated IS will feel. So I think it should be a joint effort. Let’s think about it and prepare for it.