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Strengthening the work of the Security Council on sexual and gender-based violence in conflict: the strategic use of evidence from UN investigations

Side-event on
“Strengthening the work of the Security Council on sexual and gender-based violence in conflict: the strategic use of evidence from UN investigations”

Organized by OHCHR, UN Women & Justice Rapid Response
New York, 24 April 2019
Welcoming remarks by Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

[Introductory remarks and thanks to the co-sponsors.]
This event is organized by UN Human Rights Office, UN Women and Justice Rapid Response (JRR). It comes at a very appropriate time given yesterday’s event at the Security Council, and we chose the time for this reason. We are of course happy that the resolution on sexual violence was adopted, but I can’t help feeling that yesterday will not be remembered as one of the UN’s finest days. The behavior of some of its key members, the willingness to play domestic politics at the expense of brutally raped women around the world shows, I think, just how far we are confronted these days by a roll-back of women’s human rights, universal principles and compassion for victims.

Sexual violence causes deep wounds and scars that persist for life. Survivors’ bodies are stripped away twice: once with the actual violence and second through the stigma that follows. More than any other human rights violation, this is the one for which victims are often most blamed. Improving investigations and reporting so as to fully capture the experiences of survivors is critical to address and prevent these horrific violations: It is a first step to accountability, to recognize the harm inflicted on them and to effectively support them in the restoration of their rights and dignity. But such is the nature of sexual violence and the totally undeserved shame that is so often attached to it, and we recognize that there is almost always significant under-reporting of it. While the majority of rape victims and survivors are of course women and girls, a sizeable number are also men and boys. And since that shame can be even greater (which is precisely why male rape is often committed in the first place), this may be even more under-reported than female rape.

OHCHR works closely with the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, to improve the impact of the UN’s collective efforts to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. Talking about this meeting, she underlined to me the need for accurate and more reliable information gathering and how this is a vital component to move towards greater accountability and effective responses tailored to the specific needs of survivors.

The challenges are monumental: Whether it is statements from the highest level of government in the Philippines virtually encouraging troops to commit sexual violence against village women, or the thousands of victims of sexual violence by Daesh / ISIL awaiting justice in Iraq, where not a single case of sexual violence has been tried yet in courts.

In most conflict zones I have visited recently, sexual violence – of the most gruesome kind – seems to be one of the most widespread of all human rights violations.

Earlier this year, in Niger, I went to a UNHCR transit center for migrants recently freed from detention in Libya. Every one of the ex-detainees – men, women, girls, boys – had been raped, many repeatedly. In a speech to the Human Rights Council last month, I said that in 30 years in this line of work, I’m not sure I have ever heard more harrowing testimony than from those who had been tortured and raped in Libya.

Last year, in Cox’s Bazar, I interviewed some of the survivors – Rohingya women and girls – of what I believe was, 20 months ago, probably the largest incident of mass rape in recent history, anywhere in the world.

Integrating a gender analysis into investigations allows us to uncover how power dynamics and patriarchal norms trigger sexual violence and make it such a brutally effective weapon of war: Women are targeted to punish men for their political affiliation, as we saw in Burundi, or, on a huge scale, in Syrian government detention centers.

Since 2010, OHCHR has worked hand in hand with JRR and UN Women to deploy gender advisors and expert investigators on SGBV in the teams supporting UN Commissions of Inquiry and Fact-Finding missions. Today, our Office is supporting six investigative bodies on Burundi, Mali, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. All have a gender adviser for this purpose.

Through this support, as well as through the work of human rights components of peace operations, OHCHR has developed significant expertise on gender-sensitive and victim-centred approaches in human rights investigations. In South Sudan in November 2018, after receiving a dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of conflict related sexual violence around Bentiu, UNMISS Human rights Division immediately dispatched a team of investigators composed of staff with gender expertise. This investigation helped to shed light on the suffering of survivors, to identify the perpetrators and it prompted the Government of South Sudan to open investigations.

This wealth of experience is now available in our new publication Integrating a gender perspective into Human Rights Investigations, which my colleague will shortly present.

Ensuring that the experience of survivors of sexual violence is fully captured is the first step towards gender-sensitive accountability and protection responses. This is also critical to address the physical, psychological, socio-economic and legal assistance needs of survivors, and to minimize risks of reprisals and stigmatization when they seek justice.

I truly think that we owe this to the survivors of sexual violence: To help them rebuild their shattered lives and their dignity, and to grant them at least a modicum of consolation by restoring some belief in justice.

Thank you so much.