By Authors: Milica Dimitrijevic and Mona Zaher
Editor: Mimi Chakrabarty

November 24, 2014, VIC

As a commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a symposium “Targeting Women in War” was held at the Vienna International Center, as a follow-up to the Global Summit “End Sexual Violence in Conflict” that took place in London 2014. The event was organized by ACUNS Vienna Liaison Office, in collaboration with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

The symposium focused on raising awareness, as well as discussing the complexities, of the following points of inquiry:

(i) the gravity of sexual violence in conflict;
(ii) the ongoing problem of impunity; and
(iii) the measures to be taken in order to bring the perpetrators to justice, and ultimately
to put an end to gender-motivated killings and related acts of torture.

Aldo Lale-Demoz, Deputy Executive Director of UNODC, and Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict gave the opening remarks. On behalf of UNODC’s Executive Director, Yury Fedotov, Lale-Demoz welcomed the initiative of ACUNS Vienna, and stressed that ending sexual violence in conflict is a key component of many of the United Nations operations. He asserted that all Member States should be involved in ensuring that this issue receives international attention. Ms. Bangura pointed out that women are most vulnerable to violence in times of war, and remarked on how she remained “horrified by the evil that women are subjected to during the war”. Based on her recent findings, rape has become something “normal” in South Sudan, and similar stories have been pouring in from violent conflict zones from around world. Ms. Bangura stressed that the objectives of barbaric acts such as gang rapes or rapes with sharp objects are to destroy the dignity of the victim and to cause unimaginable suffering. She concluded by inviting everyone to continue in their efforts to stop sexual violence in conflict: “The time is now to end this human rights violation!”

The first panel discussion, i.e. the General Discussion on Targeting Women in War, was chaired by the Ambassador of Guatemala and Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna, H.E. Antonio Roberto Castellanos Lopez, whose opening speech focused on the continuing efforts to end sexual violence. Lopez highlighted the need to eradicate impunity for those whose crimes affecting women. He mentioned that officers in his country were on trial for the targeted violence against women, which took place during the insurrection against the military junta.

H.E. Luis Alfonso De Alba, Ambassador of Mexico and Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna, stressed how important it is for Mexico as well as for the international community to create mechanisms to protect women targeted in international conflicts. After he discussed the London Summit and the diverse regional meetings, he highlighted three main conclusions: (i) participants have to recognize importance of cultural values in dealing with this topic; (ii) proper training needs to be administered to the authorities responsible for first contact with the victims; and (iii) effective access to justice as well as reparations for the victims and witnesses need to be ensured.

H.E. Bente Angell-Hansen, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Norway and Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna, spoke of an integral approach and pointed out to the essential role of women in societies at large. She asserted that in order to succeed in our efforts to end violence against women, the value of women and their image in society need to be augmented. She added that “women have never been more vulnerable than today,” and that “what is happening to women in war is real crime and there should be no impunity.” She noted that not only women and girls, but also men and boys, are victims of sexual violence in war; and that the process of mental healing among male victims often takes much longer (compared to female victims). She concluded by stressing that it is very important that we are now increasingly including human-rights personnel in ongoing peacekeeping operations: “[O]ne thing is physical repair of those who have been harmed, but that mental healing is something else”. Moreover, nice words are not enough, actions on the ground and practical assistance for the victims are necessary.

Ann Garvie, President of Soroptimist International, emphasized that we should seek to ensure that violence against not only women and girls, but men and boys as well, is brought to an end. She stressed that positive action has to be taken by every community globally, to sign a declaration of commitment, as proposed during the Global Summit in London, to end sexual violence in conflict. Ms. Garvie concluded with the statement that sexual violence in conflict is one of the most serious forms of violation and abuse of an individual’s human rights. In this context, she urged all of the participants in attendance to actively seek gender equity and battle the surge of vulnerability affecting various female demographics across the world. She ended her speech by inviting governments to actually implement commitment declarations, instead of (merely) talking about doing so. 

Michael Platzer, representing the Academic Council on the United Nations System, highlighted the need for eradication of impunity by saying that “it can’t go on” and that “we have to try the military; those who are given commands, the soldiers who are actually committing these massive rapes — they cannot get away with it”. He stressed that there should be no amnesties and that all perpetrators must be prosecuted. He brought attention to the tragedies happening currently— the massive killings in Syria, Congo, and South Sudan, as well as in parts of Latin America and Asia — and that accountability and justice have to be given priority. It is not enough for UNODC to focus on the individual cases of Femicide, but also to look at the mass killing of women and girls.

The afternoon panel session focused on different country-specific situations and was chaired by Dubravka Simonovic, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Croatia.

She expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to reflect on current situations around the world and to see what actions were still needed in order to achieve the goal of eliminating violence against women.

Carmen Gallardo Hernandez, the Ambassador of El Salvador, began her discussion on the unfortunate situation of sexual violence from the perspective of her country, El Salvador. She said that sexual violence during conflict is a fundamental threat to international peace and security, and requires operational and strategic security as well as justice-oriented responses from a national perspective. She stated that, in El Salvador, the gender perspective has been introduced in all activities of the national civil police and those of the armed forces. She added that El Salvador passed a new legislation in 2010 called “Life Without Violence,” which is an integral law for all women living in El Salvador — one that has become a legal instrument supporting women’s rights (and human rights in general), destined to regulate all patterns of violence, whether they be physical, patrimonial, economical or professional.

Mohammed Hussein Zaroug, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sudan, assessed current developments of the situation in Sudan, stating that violence against women is a serious crime to be condemned by all nations. The international community, he asserted, needs to be encouraged to take effective measures to protect against the relevant and recurring sociocultural behaviors, which lead to violence against women. He underlined that Darfur has deployed a special police force and established a special prosecutor to combat violence against women, as well as a subsidiary unit to investigate allegations of sexual violence. He stressed three other measures to be considered to get one step closer to the improvement of the victimized women’s situation: (i) education, especially on individual rights and choices; (ii) public awareness, to remove traditional barriers; and (iii) funding to help the government to build legally strong organs, as well as shelters for female victims. He ended his speech by saying, “Wars are everywhere, and all wars are bad, and all rebels are bad.”

Michelle Jarvis, Senior Legal Adviser to the Prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, spoke on the ICTY’s 21 years of experience, and what they have learned on the topic of “sexual violence in conflict.” She stated that the key conceptual change for the ICTY was moving away from the idea that rape and similar crimes are crimes of honor and dignity: it is imperative to view them more clearly as violent crimes, and to assess them in the same way other violent crimes. Another ‘viewpoint’ she suggested involved a shift, from seeing sexual violence as a strategy of war, toward to a more ‘basic’ proposition of viewing sexual violence in context of conflicts in order to better understand the connection between sexual violence and the broader war. She added that there was a need to conceptualize the violent act into a broad range of legal categories; which was important for, among other things, holding senior officials appropriately accountable. She ended her speech by talking about a new legacy project, in which all experiences in prosecuting sexual violence crimes and all insights from within the office were collected and set to be published as a book in the second half of 2015. In addition, it is planned so that there will be a series of events around this book’s publication, making it possible for this dialogue to continue.

Anneliese Rohrer, an editor from Die Presse, discussed the precarious situation in Austria, and the existing deficiencies in the general public’s awareness of and attitude toward human trafficking. She stated that Austria in particular was one of the main destinations of human trafficking, and underlined that the main problem is the role of the justice system. She opined it is not only about the prosecution of traffickers; the main aim should be to send victims back to their own countries without consideration of the consequences. Quoting from a book called “While You’re Sleeping,” she pointed out that “violence against women, even in areas outside of conflicts, don’t have any consequences; [perpetrators] do it because they can, and that is the main problem.” She also stated that we have to get away from the gender issue and deal with the question of ‘women violence against women,’ after the publication of the UNODC on Human Trafficking, which showed that 30% of traffickers of females are now women.

Viola Raheb, a Palestinian peace activist, remarked how sexual violence does not always start with rape, but rather with all the other undiscussed or otherwise neglected forms thereof, such as verbal, physiological and psychological violence. In regard to violence against women in Palestine, she highlighted the need to be clear on the context in question, and the different situations relevant to the issue(s) at hand. In Gaza, for example, 51% of Palestinian women are victims of domestic violence which arises from the violence men experience in public; these men appear to have no other way to deal with it than to take it out on their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. She described another worrisome issue: there is the increasing number of so called “honor killings”. In the first 9 months of the year, in 2013 alone, 25 women have fallen victim to the tradition of “honor killing,” and the men responsible were not only seen as the heroes of the matter, but also to go unpunished by the Palestinian penal system. Furthermore, Raheb refers to the 5000 Yazidi women being enslaved in war, in order to break down the will of an ethnic group, while the world still remains silent. She concludes her speech by asserting the “need to realize what sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war makes with women; [it] doesn’t leave them with anything else, [except] sometimes death as [an] option [for the] survivor.”

Marie Therese Kiriaky, the Founder and Chairwoman of the Association of Arab Women in Vienna, focused her very emotional speech on the dramatic situation in Syria. Looking at the current situation in Syria, six million refugees are outside Syria, whereas nine million people are displaced within Syria. She underlined that 4 out of 5 are women and girls, and that all of them were subject to the systematic raping and sexual harassment. Moreover, she explained that girls outside of the refugee camps are forced to be married and are subject to prostitution under the name of marriage. She also stated that 5000 women are helpless in jails without the right to talk to anyone or inform anyone about their circumstances. No human-rights organization is allowed to access the jails and help. Ms Kriaky lamented how “the whole world is looking but not doing anything,” and that people tend to deem the ‘distance’ factor as justification, even though Syria is a mere 3.5-hour flight from Vienna.