‘We do not need any more proof’: Leaders tell UN it’s time to act on rape in war

By — September 25, 2012

In a fluorescent-lit United Nations room full of suited bureaucrats, Nobel Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee raised a startling point. It had been a morning of declarations condemning sexualized violence in conflict and considerations of how we can better proceed to stop it when Gbowee said: “If I asked everyone in this room to explain to us about their last sexual encounter, they would be turning pink.”

Making the point that gathering evidence of sexual crimes in conflict zones is not exactly straightforward, Gbowee hit on something that became clear at the UN today: There is a chasm between international governing bodies and what is happening on the ground in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has seen hundreds of thousands of women raped in its ongoing war.

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Zainab Hawa Bangura, the secretary-general's new special representative on sexual violence and conflict, take questions from the press after a morning meeting with Nobel laureates and UN member states. (Lauren Wolfe)

Gbowee captured one of the stronger sentiments at today’s meeting, which brought top UN officials and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague together with civil society leaders and Nobel peace laureates—Gbowee, Jody Williams, and Shirin Ebadi. While there was genuine goodwill in the room today, including after Hague announced that his government has pledged 1 million pounds to support the UN Office on Sexual Violence in Conflict, several NGO staffers told us they thought the government attendees and the UN were disconnected from on-the-ground needs. Too little, they said, is being done to help survivors and prevent further violence.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon who has treated 40,000 rape survivors and performed 15,000 surgeries at his hospital in DRC, elaborated: “What civilization has achieved is moving backwards, as we see new barbaric acts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, and a deafening silence of the international community.”  

“We do not need any more proof,” Mukwege told officials. “We need urgent action.”  

Mukwege and Gbowee both spoke as advisory board members of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, an initiative created by Nobel laureates and advised by an international board of experts, including WMC’s Women Under Siege. Also speaking were a handful of UN member states (mainly from Europe, Australia, and the U.S.), UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, the new special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Bangura, and Major General Patrick Cammaert, who is the former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo.

A powerful moment came when Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s minister of foreign affairs, spoke from his personal experience in a country that was ripped apart by sexualized violence in the 1990s.  

“We are still living with the outcomes of those crimes that were committed almost 20 years ago,” Lagumdzija said. And as the new foreign minster of Norway added, what happened during the Bosnian War is “repeating itself right now in Syria.”  

We asked Hague after the meeting whether his government—which is putting together an emergency task force to intervene in cases of rape in conflict—will use its political leverage in the Security Council when it comes to Syria. The council has the ability to impose sanctions for member states' human rights violations. Hague said, “We’re working hard on the Security Council.” But, he conceded, “We’re at an impasse.”