Time to act: can the world prevent sexual violence in armed conflict?

The plight of women and girls facing sexual violence in Syria, for example, does not elicit global diplomatic outrage – yet. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

The Global Summit To End Sexual Violence in Conflict is underway in London. It is an extraordinary manifestation of UK soft power, the influence of global social movements, celebrity diplomacy and digital activism.

British foreign secretary William Hague is co-chairing the summit with actress Angelina Jolie, in her capacity as special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The summit’s aims are high: to end impunity, prevent the use of mass rape as a weapon of war and transfer the stigma of crimes of sexual violence from the survivors to the perpetrators.

What’s it all about?

The 122 governments that have endorsed the non-binding Declaration of Commitment To End Sexual Violence in Conflict were invited to attend. There will be 70 ministers present, including US Secretary of State John Kerry. Some 630 officials, including Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott-Despoja, about 1000 experts and more than 100 NGOs will participate, complete with a fringe festival, film screenings and a hackathon.

This is the modern way to exert normative power. It is the sort of conference the United Nations used to be expected to put together to create a new treaty. Soft power coalitions are beginning to fill the void left by “messy multilateralism”.

The summit also represents a new phase of gender-aware foreign policy, where the kidnapping of Nigerian girls is a terrorist act or the shooting of a Pakistani schoolgirl elicits a global diplomatic response.

And yet the plight of women and girls facing similar issues in Syria or the Central African Republic or Sudan does not elicit this same response. Principled and consistent political leadership on issues of gender justice is what I hope comes from the summit.

Whose job is it to prevent sexual violence?

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security.

After a long campaign, the Security Council acknowledged in Resolution 1325 that women experience peace and security in different ways to men, are important actors to negotiate and build peace, and have a differentiated experience of violence in conflict, including sexual violence.

The Women Peace and Security agenda has progressed and gained momentum ever since. Countries are urged to make national action plans and include more women in their own contingents of peacekeepers and mediators with sufficient training.

Since 2002, the International Criminal Court has been able to impose individual criminal responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other offences under the Rome Statute. But it is a court of last resort, and only for countries who accept its jurisdiction.

While international institutions can play a significant role in elaborating legal standards, they are inaccessible for most victims of sexual violence. That means the main job of preventing sexual violence is a state responsibility. In practice, this often falls to military and humanitarian actors.

Australia’s role

It is important that Australia has its own unlikely YouTube sensation attending the summit in the form of the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) will face more international scrutiny from attending this event than ever before because of the continuing impunity for sexual abuse within the ADF. While the summit needs political masters, it also needs those deployed to conflict zones to fully understand the context from the perspective of all those involved, not just armed male elites.

Angelina Jolie is co-hosting the summit in London.

As the UN special representative of the Secretary-General, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said:

… there can be no credible security approach that does not take into account the security of women as part of its central calculus.

Today it is still largely ‘cost-free’ to rape a woman, child or man in conflict. Sexual violence has been used through the ages precisely because it is such a cheap and devastating weapon.

Justice for victims of sexual abuse in the ADF is important for Australia’s credibility, and for our ability to respond appropriately when deployed. Leadership during our time on the Security Council is fundamental. Funding and implementing our National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security is crucial. Helping our neighbours ratify the Rome Statute and build regional mechanisms like the new ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is an investment.

Under the Women, Peace and Security agenda, the area states have most neglected – but which has most transformative potential to improve the lives of women – is the focus on engaging and funding local women’s organisations. They are the real first responders and conflict monitors. They often try to prevent conflict, and they try to negotiate peace when they are allowed at the table. And such women rarely benefit from the peace.

While joining the global campaign, Australia should also invest in women’s leadership right here and in the region. It’s time to act.