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Imagine your hometown in a war zone

A moatful of defence ministers gathered in Vancouver November 14 and 15 “to measure the progress made” on UN peacekeeping since their meeting a year ago and to encourage participants to pledge further assistance. It was a grand affair with five international organizations, 79 countries, and some 550 delegates attending.

As these things go, the conference appears to have been a success. According to the UN, “48 delegations made new peacekeeping pledges”. It is not clear, at present, how much these will help to meet the UN’s principal requirements for rapidly deployable forces, helicopters and francophone units, longstanding capability gaps which have inhibited UN peace support missions from delivering military effects as and when needed to protect deployed forces, civilian aid workers, and refugees including in the camps. Canada has offered some help on these fronts. They are natural strengths of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The appearance at the conference of actress, humanitarian activist, and UNHCR special ambassador Angelina Jolie was designed to draw attention to the event and did. Regrettably though predictably, the media coverage was heavy on the optics and light on the substance she contributed to the proceedings. Jolie’s keynote speech deserved a great deal more coverage. The lady knows whereof she speaks, having devoted serious time over the last several years to visiting some of the very worst refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Chad, Darfur, Iraq, Syria, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ecuador, Haiti, and Bosnia. Herewith three extracts:

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The protection of civilians has been at the heart of the laws of warfare since the Geneva conventions, which state that in any conflict, “the civilian population … shall not be the object of attack.” Yet women and children make up the vast majority of all casualties in armed conflict today.

Laws prohibiting attacks on schools and hospitals are routinely breached, for instance, in Syria. Laws prohibiting the denial of aid to civilians are repeatedly ignored, whether in Rakhine State in Myanmar today, or in Yemen, where millions of people are facing death from starvation. And despite being prohibited by law, sexual violence continues to be employed as a tactic of war in 19 countries. It includes mass rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, and rape of as a form of torture, ethnic cleansing and terrorism.

It has been 68 years since the Geneva Convention Fourth Protocol, which said that “women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault”.

It has been 21 years since the UN first promised to address sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, and to increase the numbers of women deployed on operations – yet the exploitation of defenseless civilians still takes place, and still less than four per cent of all peacekeepers are female.

It has been 19 years since the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, stating that mass atrocities including rape and sexual slavery would not go unpunished, yet justice for survivors of rape is still the exception.

And it has been 17 years since UN Security Council Resolution 1325 called for an end to the exclusion of women from peace negotiations, for special protection for women and girls against sexual violence, and for an end to impunity.

We have to ask, how is it, after all these years, all these laws and resolutions and all the horrors endured, women still have to ask for this most basic of all entitlements: the right to a life free from violence?

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I want to address three myths that I believe go to the heart of why these crimes still occur, that we have to overcome together.

The first myth is that this behavior is sexual. All too often these kinds of crimes against women are laughed off, depicted as a minor offense by someone who cannot control themselves, as an illness, or as some kind of exaggerated sexual need. But a man who mistreats women is not oversexed. He is abusive.

Only last week a trial opened in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 46 alleged cases of the rape of children by militia fighters, who had been told that the blood of virgins would grant them supernatural protection. Some of the victims were 18 months old.

According to the UN, almost every female Rohingya refugee in the camps in Bangladesh is either a survivor of sexual violence or a witness to multiple incidences of sexual assault, rape or gang‑rape. MSF has said that half of the patients it has treated for rape are under the age of 18, and one was just years old.

This is rape and assault designed to torture, to terrorise, and to force people to flee. It has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with the abuse of power. It is criminal behavior.

The second myth is that even when conflict-related sexual violence is clearly understood as a crime, it is treated as a lesser crime: an inevitable aspect of the breakdown of the social order. Not a central issue for peace negotiations or agreements. And not grave enough to mount prosecutions and imprison those responsible.

But sexual violence is a weapon, used to deliberate effect, to achieve military or political objectives. It is cheaper than a bullet, and it has lasting consequences, that unfold with sickening predictability.

I’d like to ask everyone here to take a moment to consider the following scenario:

Imagine your hometown. The street where you live. A conflict has broken out in your country. One night, the trucks roll in and your street is surrounded and blocked off. Men with guns pour off those trucks and start breaking down doors. They go from house to house in your street, and in the course of that one night they rape every woman or girl they find, in front of their families. And possibly some of the men.

Now think how you and your family would be affected. That night. The next day. For the months and years to come. The impact upon you all. The emotional pain and trauma. The stigma, the shame, the physical and mental illness.

How broken you would feel that you were unable to stop this from happening to your family members. How bitter you would feel at being told, months or years later, that you have to move on and forget, because there is now a peace agreement and justice for your families is less important.

This is the reality for millions of families today. It is happening day in and day out, and more often than not, we know about it. It is on our television screens and in our newspapers. Why then, does nothing really change?

This brings me to the third myth, which is that even if we accept that sexual violence has nothing to do with sex, that it is a crime, and that it is used as a weapon, many people still believe that it is simply not possible to do anything about it. Look at how hard it is in our own societies, the argument goes. How could we possibly prevent sexual violence in the extreme conditions of war?

It is hard, but it is not impossible. We have the laws, the institutions, and the expertise in gathering evidence. We are able to identify perpetrators and those responsible. What is missing is the political will.

This brings me to the role of the military. There is nothing worse than someone in uniform harming the very civilians they are sent to protect. I’d like to believe that no one is angrier than you are when one of your own betrays their uniform and your values in this way.

In the last few years I have seen a dramatic change in the willingness of military leaders to address the taboos around these issues, and to take action. In Kenya earlier this year I met peacekeepers from across the world receiving training, many for the first time, in how to identify and respond to sexual violence and to interact appropriately with survivors on UN peacekeeping missions.

Canada, the UK and Bangladesh have announced today the Senior Military Chiefs Network, promising to personally work with other senior military officers to increase the numbers of women in their militaries, to change training to include gender and Women, Peace and Security, to deploy more women in operational roles, and to appoint full time gender advisors. And many of the countries represented at this conference have made important new pledges.

I thank you for these commitments and hope that they will be just a beginning. In doing this work, you will not only help to strengthen your societies and improve peacekeeping, but you will play your part in showing that no perpetrator is above the law and no survivor is beneath it.

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Feature image: Angelina Jolie at the Jabar border crossing from Syria to Jordan, June 2017 (static.un.org/News/dh/photos)

The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

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