In my former capacity as Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, I worked hard on advancing implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda at the national level. And I was closely involved in developing Germany’s second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. I am therefore delighted to be able to continue working on this topic at the global level here at the United Nations.
Germany is committed to putting women’s empowerment and the protection of women at the heart of the Security Council’s agenda. We are delighted to co-chair the Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security with Peru, and cooperate closely with the United Kingdom. And we want to take specific steps to support the UN’s work in eliminating conflict-related sexual violence. The open debate on this topic during our first presidency of the Council in April will be an opportunity to strengthen the Security Council’s normative work on conflict-related sexual violence.
The despicable use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and terrorism has been a defining element of conflicts from Syria to Myanmar. Our collective response – both in assisting survivors and ensuring accountability – has been woefully inadequate.
Germany applauds the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s recognition of the extraordinary, survivor-centered work done by Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege. We will continue to work closely with the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict in assisting survivors of sexual violence from Syria and Iraq and in ensuring accountability as a tool for prevention, reconciliation and deterrence.
Today, we have gathered to discuss an important question: how can we ensure accountability for conflict-related sexual violence, not just as an end in itself, but as a tool for prevention?
In nearly every armed conflict, criminal offenses against sexual self-determination are perpetrated.
Let me share some thoughts based on Germany’s experience, which might be helpful in illustrating how member states themselves can contribute more actively to ensuring accountability.
The German legislature has committed itself to investigating and sanctioning these grave criminal offenses against civilian populations who are assured protection under international humanitarian law. To this end, the principle of universal jurisdiction was introduced in our Code of Crimes against International Law. Universal jurisdiction means that crimes against international law can be prosecuted in Germany even if neither the perpetrator nor the victim is a German citizen.
Germany wants to send a clear warning to potential perpetrators anywhere in the world: They can expect punishment for such crimes, even years after the offense. They should not consider Germany a safe haven.
Allow me to share with you our experiences with investigating and prosecuting the first cases of conflict-related sexual violence:
In a first example, the former President of the Rwandan militia “Forces Democratiques de Libération du Rwanda” (FDLR) and his deputy were sentenced to prison in Germany in 2015 for crimes committed in the Congo between 2008 and 2009. Following appeals, a small number of the findings against one of the defendants will be re-examined in a new trial . For the second defendant, the original sentence was upheld.
The investigations in this case focused on acts of sexual violence.
Questioning victims who had been raped by FDLR militiamen was difficult because the victims live in rural areas of the Congo where the FDLR was still active. Every effort was made to avoid exposing victims to risks stemming from their testimony. The records of the hearings were anonymized, and the victims were heard via video conferencing from a location unknown to any of the parties.
Second, the Federal Public Prosecutor General of Germany has initiated proceedings to sanction sexual violence committed in the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In these conflicts, the use of sexual violence is widespread. Both the Syrian regime and the “Islamic State” deliberately use sexual violence as a weapon of war.
One ongoing investigation concerns an Iraqi national suspected of serving as a militia leader of the “Islamic State” from 2014 to 2015 in Nineveh Governorate in Iraq (Mosul, Tal Afar, Kaser El Maharab and surrounding areas). There, “Islamic State” abducted Yazidis and illegally imprisoned them under atrocious conditions. The suspect has presumably beaten women and girls, supported and organized the sale of women and girls as slaves, buying two Yazidi women and raping a 17-year-old woman.
A similar investigation has been initiated against another alleged militia leader of the “Islamic State” from 2014 to 2015 in Nineveh Governorate. He is suspected of taking men, women and children as prisoners, supporting and organizing the sale of women and girls as slaves, buying at least four Yazidi women and raping at least three women and girls, one of whom was only eleven years old.
In both these cases, the investigating judge at the Federal Court of Justice has issued arrest warrants based on the accusations. The accused are currently wanted under international search warrants.
Prosecuting crimes against international law at the national level encounters particular challenges:
- Victims’ reluctance to testify: In many social contexts, victims are scorned and held partially responsible for the offense. Out of fear of “secondary victimization” and stigmatization, they forego the chance of bringing the perpetrator to justice.
- Identifying the perpetrator is often difficult since victims may suppress their memory of a deeply traumatizing event and perpetrator. Frequently, there is no objective evidence such as DNA traces.
- Investigating and sanctioning conflict-related sexual violence can expose and endanger the victims (or their relatives) in their home country.
- Retraumatization during the criminal proceedings
What can member states, the UN Security Council and the UN do to address these challenges? Let me outline a few ideas:
- Member States could examine how to better assist survivors by providing both legal support and medical and psychosocial care in an integrated way, also by intensifying cooperation with relevant civil society organizations active in this field.
- The Security Council should give due consideration to strengthening the UN infrastructure put in place by Security Council resolution 1888 to fight conflict-related sexual violence. This includes supporting the role and work of the SRSG for sexual violence in conflict, the Team of Experts on Rule of Law and Sexual Violence as well as Women Protection Advisers.
- In this context, the Security Council’s Informal Expert Group on Women Peace and Security should also be used more extensively as a channel to provide more detailed information to Security Council delegations on compliance of parties to conflict with explicit requirements of resolutions on sexual violence in conflict.
- Furthermore, we support the Secretary-General’s recommendation that the Security Council should employ all means at its disposal to influence parties to a conflict to comply with international law, including international criminal law. Referring cases to the International Criminal Court can present a crucial measure in preventing atrocity crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence.
- An integrated gender perspective should be included across pre-deployment training in peacekeeping and political missions and complemented with an obligatory and substantial component focusing on gender and WPS, including protection from sexual and gender based violence.
Today’s discussion is an opportunity to share examples and best practices of how the international community can overcome these challenges and ensure accountability for conflict-related sexual violence.
Women, girls, but also men and boys become victims of these atrocious crimes even as we speak. We need to redouble our efforts to prevent them from happening. I call on all states and colleagues to join in the fight against impunity.