Saturday , May 25 2024

Holding to account those who use rape as a weapon on war

The below speech was made by the author in the House of Lords on 1 April 2019 in the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lady, Baroness Hodgson, has consistently and tenaciously championed the cause of those who have been subjected to unspeakable violence. In her moving and powerful speech this evening, she rightly demanded more effective ways of holding perpetrators to account and ensuring justice. I think we should all express our gratitude to her for that.

I should declare that I am joint chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on North Korea and Pakistani Minorities, vice-chair of the APPGs on Burma and the DRC and an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan. All of these are countries I have visited and are all disfigured by the use of rape as a weapon of war. I am also a trustee of Arise, a charity that works with women who have been trafficked or enslaved.

Last year, Denis Mukwege—who was referred to by the noble Baroness—with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman I have had the privilege to meet, jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize, given, as it says in the citation:

“for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”,

In the DRC, where more than 5 million people are estimated to have died in the long-running conflicts—a greater number than in any other conflict since World War II—Dr Mukwege has treated thousands of women who were raped, performing up to 10 operations every day.

Since Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu, was founded by Dr Mukwege in 1999, it has treated more than 82,000 patients with complex gynaecological damage and trauma. An estimated 60% of these injuries were caused by sexual violence. Dr Mukwege describes how his patients arrive at the hospital sometimes naked, usually in horrific conditions, victims of different armed groups.

Throughout this discussion of international mechanisms to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account, we should keep Dr Mukwege and Nadia Murad—tortured and raped by Islamic State militants during their genocide—at the heart of our deliberations.

It is crucial to begin with one important fact: that there are not many adequate mechanisms in place to end the current culture of impunity.

Indeed, the only permanent international criminal tribunal, the International Criminal Court, despite being able to deal with cases of sexual violence, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or crimes of aggression, often lacks the jurisdiction to be able to investigate the crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators.

The ICC is a treaty-bound court and its competence is limited by ​that fact alone. This is graphically illustrated by the genocidal campaign unleashed by ISIS against religious and other minorities in Syria and Iraq—people like Nadia Murad.

As the House knows, in 2014, ISIS, driven by its hatred of difference, instigated mass murder, torture, abuse, rape, sexual violence, and forced displacement.

To this day, more than 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still missing after they were abducted from Sinjar in September 2014 and are suspected to be in Syria.

For more than four years, these women and girls have been subjected to most atrocious abuse imaginable. In her testimony, Nadia says:

“One moment I was a farm girl, going to school in my village in northern Iraq and the next I was an ISIS sex slave, ‘owned’ by militants. My peaceful existence was shattered simply because my religious beliefs were deemed sub-human by a group of men who believed they were superior. ISIS murdered my family and took me captive, exposing me to horrors which would be impossible to imagine had I not endured every moment and felt each brutal blow”.

She says she chose to speak because:

“I believed the world needed to know the truth and I wanted justice. I wanted ISIS held accountable. If we cannot achieve this, with all the evidence and our justice systems, then we are giving a green light to these groups”.

Yet, despite the level and nature of these atrocities, the ICC cannot get involved.

The ICC does not have territorial jurisdiction in Syria or Iraq, and, currently, there is no other international or regional criminal court that could deal with prosecutions.

Another option would be for the Security Council to establish an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute the ISIS fighters, modelled on the precedent set by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. The Minister knows that I have been in touch with him and the Foreign Office on a number of occasions to put forward that proposal.

Under Security Council Resolution 2379, an investigative team is already mandated to collect, preserve and prepare for future prosecutions the evidence of the crimes perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq. As the next step, the Security Council could establish the international criminal tribunal for ISIS, modelled on the ICTY or the ICTR, with a tailored mandate.

In June 2018, work in this direction was initiated by Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch MP, who convened a meeting between the Iraqi Government’s representatives and experts to explore the need to assist Iraq in prosecuting ISIS fighters and looking into the available options.

The Iraqi representatives agreed that as the issue of ISIS is not only a problem of Iraq but of international concern and an international responsibility, Iraq would need assistance with the prosecutions.

More than 850 people from the UK travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and were directly involved there in every aspect of the genocide, including systematic rape and enslavement. The UK clearly needs to be involved in prosecuting the fighters.

Stripping them of citizenship is not the way to bring about justice, a point I raised during Question Time recently. It merely makes it harder.

For months, I have I have been urging the Government to explore the initiation of international or regional prosecutions, especially as the investigative team has just begun the excavations of the first mass grave in ​Sinjar.

The international option is crucial if there is to be justice.

Survivors of rape and sexual violence are not involved in the proceedings of Iraqi domestic courts, giving little hope that justice will be served.

How can we ensure justice if the very people affected by the atrocities are not even asked to testify, to tell the stories of what happened to them, and do not have the opportunity to see justice being done or to hear an apology?

Considering the territorial limitations of the ICC, it may be crucial to reconsider whether we need a new mechanism that would be better suited to address the growing impunity. If the Minister would be willing, I would be most grateful for a meeting to discuss this troubling situation and possible ways forward.

Let me also briefly mention Pakistan, which I visited in November, and where the Minister also was recently.

At least 1,000 women belonging to religious minorities, some of them minors, have been abducted, forcibly converted and often married to those very abductors.

They come from the very poorest sectors of society and are easy targets for the perpetrators of sexual violence.

The law-enforcement agencies often show little or no interest in helping aggrieved parents to register a police case against the kidnappers.

Even if the parents persist and somehow reach the courts and the abductors are forced to bring victims to the court, the abducted are threatened and told that if they tell the court about their kidnappings, their parents and siblings will be killed. Thus they have no option but to admit in the court that their conversion was voluntary.

In the past few weeks, there have been at least six such cases, which I have drawn to the Minister’s attention. These include a 13 year-old Christian girl, Sadaf Masih, who was kidnapped, forcibly converted and married on 6 February, in Punjab.

On 20 March, two teenaged Hindu girls, Reena, aged 15, and Raveena, aged 13, were similarly kidnapped, forcibly converted and married within a matter of hours, in Sindh.

The kidnappers were married already, with children, but that that did not prevent them from forcibly marrying those girls. In the worst-case scenarios, the kidnappers after sexual and physical abuse, sell them into slavery and they are sent to brothels.

We give Pakistan £383,000 in aid each and every day—£2.8 billion over 20 years.

Surely we can use our aid programmes with leverage to ensure justice for the victims and to save many broken lives and families?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, is to be thanked for encouraging us to address this important issue this evening, and I reiterate my gratitude to her.

About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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