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Set aside the weapon of rape, say faiths

13 February 2015


Standing in solidarity: faith leaders and politicians, led by William Hague and the activist Angelina Jolie-Pitt, at Lancaster House, London, this week

Standing in solidarity: faith leaders and politicians, led by William Hague and the activist Angelina Jolie-Pitt, at Lancaster House, London, this w...

THE actor and director Angelina Jolie-Pitt was a surprise visitor when international faith leaders met in London on Monday to debate their contribution to ending sexual violence in conflict.

The consultation, in Lancaster House, under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, followed the summit last summer (News, 13 June 2014), and brought together its two prime movers, Ms Jolie-Pitt and the former Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is now the Prime Minister's special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

They were joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay, and the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, Baroness Northover.

The summit last year had made great strides in producing a declaration that had since been endorsed by 155 states. Now, Mr Hague said, "it is time to turn declarations and political commitments into practical action that changes people's lives."

Mr Hague listed political and diplomatic initiatives that had taken place since the June summit, and spoke of the deployment of teams of experts to the Syrian borders, Bosnia, Mali, the DRC, and Kosovo, to help local people investigate crimes, mount prosecutions, and rehabilitate victims.

"These signs of unprecedented political will made me more convinced than ever that it is possible for the world to act to shatter impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war, and to change global attitudes to these crimes. And our ambition should not be less than that: to change the entire global attitude to such crimes."

Of the task ahead, he said: "One of the biggest obstacles we face is the widespread view that we simply can't do anything about sexual violence in conflict - that it is an inevitable consequence of war and insecurity, a problem that is simply too complex to address. But this is orchestrated, man-made injustice. It is a problem that is created by men, and that can be solved by men and women acting together. . . I've always deeply admired the unquenchable determination to succeed in a moral and humanitarian cause that religion has often inspired."

Ms Jolie-Pitt spoke of visiting northern Iraq, "where women and girls are systematically targeted by armed groups, including ISIL.

"The intensity, the brutality of sexual violence is terrifying. It is premeditated, organised, and brazen. It often involves surrounding villages, separating out and killing men, busing out the girls to be sold into slavery and torture. . . For all our advances, the mass rape of women and children and men is still seldom punished, and still carries little or no risk to the perpetrators."

She continued: "The tragedy is that this issue hardly features in discussions about our strategy towards defeating ISIL, ending conflict in Syria, and stabilising Iraq. Yet it is vital to our success; and so I asking your help in highlighting around the world the injustice and the urgency, the urgency of the situation."

Archbishop Welby said: "Sexual violence has always been a feature of conflict. But it is becoming more and more systematic, more and more deliberate, and the level of impunity has increased."

Faith groups had to acknowledge their culpability.

"In the faith communities, we need to be very honest. Our record has much to question it. And therefore the Churches and other faith communities must also give evidence that they recognised their poor history, and that, in recognising it, they come with repentance and humility, about often not only what we've done, but our recent silence on the issue, about gender discrimination, and on the stigmatisation of survivors."

He, too, was conscious of the scale of the task. "To challenge sexual violence in conflict we also have to challenge conflict itself. The chaos of conflict makes impunity seem easy and acceptable. The sheer chaos of the battlefield, the sense that nobody knows what you're doing, and the fact that in conflict men in particular do terrible things to each other, makes it easier to do terrible things to civilians."

There was a need for moral and theological leadership. Many governments made declarations and agreed policies. "As with all policies, the question is: will there be effective implementation?"

The task of the delegates at the consultation was to come up with structures that would make non-implementation of such policies more costly and more painful than implementation.

At the end of the two-day meeting, delegates agreed a new declaration, which pledged: "As faith leaders, we commit ourselves to take these actions:

• We will speak out against sexual and gender-based violence in conflict at every opportunity

• We will take action together to promote human rights, and see girls, women, boys, and men freed from the threat and impact of sexual violence in conflict across the world.

• We will stand together in solidarity with all those affected by sexual violence.

• We will promote the development and implementation of laws that protect and promote justice to bring an end to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence during and after conflict, holding governments to account.

• We will strive to build peace and promote reconciliation, challenging the internal and external causes of conflict.

• We will dedicate ourselves to finding lasting solutions; mobilising leadership at all levels; and implementing these values within our own faith community."


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