Question for Short Debate
My Lords, when Robert Runcie, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave the Falklands service—which rather surprisingly became controversial—he quoted Pope John Paul II. He noted the Pope’s speech in Coventry in his 1982 visit to this country, in which he said:
“War should belong to the tragic past, to history. It should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future”.
The Archbishop himself noted:
“War is a sign of human failure, and everything we say and do in this service must be in that context”.
That last comment came, of course, from someone who had not only driven his tank up the Normandy beaches and rescued another person from a burning tank, but who had also entered the newly liberated death camp at Belsen as an Allied military observer.
Sadly and wretchedly, war remains a part of the tragic present, and today’s debate takes us to the very heart of contemporary conflict. Sexual violence in conflict stretches back into history, well before the 20th century. That conflict-strewn century saw such abuses of our common humanity multiply terrifyingly. In the Bosnian conflict, in our own continent of Europe, somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped. In a continent that traces the history of its civilisation back to antiquity, and indeed in a continent ravaged by two world wars in that century, these figures can scarcely be taken in.
More terrifyingly still, in the Rwandan genocide between 300,000 and 400,000 women were raped in a period of only 100 days. These figures alone give us cause enthusiastically and energetically to support and develop the Government’s initiative, led personally by the Foreign Secretary: the preventing sexual violence initiative. I am sure that the Minister will elaborate further on that initiative, and on the prospects for achieving a resolute consensus on this matter at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting next month, so I shall focus in the minutes available to me on further background.
The 2012 Human Security Report Project challenged this dominant narrative on a number of fronts. It pressed home some important points and argued that such violence is exceptional and confined to certain conflicts. Sometimes the claims are not based on evidence. The omission of male victims from the mainstream narrative is also crucial. Indeed, some of the data were missing. These exaggerations and weaknesses can too easily play down the significance of sexual violence in wider society. However, the figures quoted earlier from specific conflicts are sufficient to indicate the alarming abuse of humanity implied.
Sadly, we are seeing such terrifying abuse committed in Syria today. I would welcome some comment from the Minister on how we might properly document such abuse, so that future legal redress and prosecution will be possible. In Syria, for reasons we all know, the western nations appear powerless to halt the appalling atrocities being committed by both sides in the conflict. What, then, are the crucial questions? First, this is obviously more than a moral issue. However morality is defined—by human rights, by a categorical imperative, by natural law, by respect for persons—sexual violence is an extreme denial of moral purpose and integrity, even in the extraordinary and tragic conditions of war and armed conflict.
Secondly, there is the issue of impunity. The facts of war do not somehow remove culpability and the normal patterns of human responsibility. Rape and sexual violence are inhumane and immoral in every circumstance, but fear has too often driven out a proper challenge and response to these tragic and inhumane abuses. In places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I know well, this is the precise situation. In the case of that republic, Her Majesty’s Government should be encouraged to push the donor community to enforce all aid-funded reforms: in the army and justice sectors, in infrastructure, in basic services provision and elsewhere. By pressing this home, there is that much more chance of putting an end to the conflict in general, and also to respond to the lack of protection and the fragile situation of women. In the DRC, many agencies, including the churches, have been muzzled by fear and terror of retribution, not only individually but within entire communities. This is true, and it is one of the reasons why it has been difficult even for churches to act together without somehow endangering some members of their sister churches.
Universally, genocide is certain to collapse courage and invade human integrity. This breeding ground of fear has led to a coalition among the Christian churches under the title We Will Speak Out. The catalyst for this, the Tearfund report, Silent No More, particularly documented the churches’ responses in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The churches are determined to set their faces against the muzzling of those caught up in such conflict. It would be good to hear from the Minister how the bottom-up, community-based efforts of churches and other faith-based organisations might best feed into the Government’s own initiative.
As was hinted at by the Human Security Report Project, there is a correlation between the incidence of sexual violence in armed conflict and its incidence in wider society. The frightening fact is that the collapsed barriers in conflict spin out into a wider world. To remove proper ethical norms in these extreme conditions cuts at the very roots of a common morality. It is often seen as unfashionable to link the study of history with moral purpose. Disconnect the two, however, and we shall repeat, or even deepen, moral dis-ease. Her Majesty’s Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative is rooted in a belief in moral purpose. It is one crucial step among others towards restoring the integrity of the human community.
I am coming close to my conclusion and I hope that the usual channels will be impressed that I may not even take up the whole of the time that I was offered. However, I beg noble Lords to accept that we dare not ignore this initiative, which has the active support of this Bench. Out of the tragedy of war and armed conflict, we have an imperative to encourage our humanity to flourish and be fulfilled.
My Lords, I give my thanks to the right reverend Prelate for bringing this debate to your Lordships’ Chamber this evening and for presenting to us the sobering issues of war in so many parts of the world. It is heartening to recognise, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, the seriousness with which Her Majesty’s Government have approached the problem of sexual violence in conflict areas and to note the attention being paid to it through the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on preventing sexual violence. The initiative aims to address the culture of impunity, to replace it with one of deterrence and to change the balance of shame away from the survivors to the perpetrators of these crimes.
Two minutes is a very short time, so I shall concentrate on an area of concern in post-conflict areas. Rape as a weapon of war is unacceptable. Equally abhorrent is the practice that has become almost the norm in some post-conflict countries, where young men seek to rape women as a form of male sexual initiation.
The root causes of sexual and gender-based violence lie in society’s attitudes towards and practices of gender discrimination, which place women in a subordinate position in relation to men. The lack of social and economic value attached to women and women’s work, along with accepted gender roles, perpetuate and reinforce the assumption that men have decision-making power and control over women. Through acts of sexual and gender violence, the perpetrators seek to maintain power and control over others. In post-conflict areas, there is an urgent need for campaigns that rethink gender awareness, that inform everyone that rape is a crime and an unacceptable practice, and that focus on respect for women.
I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this debate and for his excellent, comprehensive introduction. I am certain that, even in the two minutes that each of us has been allocated, we could collectively ensure that our voice is heard on this vital topic ahead of International Women’s Day.
In Rwanda in 1994, as has already been mentioned with a different statistic, at least one woman was raped every two minutes while the genocide was taking place. As was said, potentially as many as half a million women were raped in that small country that year. From the Balkans to the Congo, from Haiti to Syria, rape is used all too often as a weapon of war. Extreme sexual violence, committed regularly in many countries against children not just under the age of 16 but under the age of 10, is designed to terrorise and subjugate women, their families and their communities. Mass rape has been used in far too many situations as a strategy for ethnic cleansing of the population.
I have seen too often the tortured memories and the present-day fear in the eyes of women and children from the Congolese jungle to wonderful city of Sarajevo. That is, frankly, a vision of hell and we must be clear in our resolve never to tolerate or accept it. I have also seen visions of hope. I have seen women in Nepal organise for their legal rights in a way that is starting to put the horrors of the past behind them. I have seen young girls in Liberia—young mums, the victims of rape—with the support of Save the Children rebuild their lives and give their children the potential of a better future.
We need not only to prosecute the guilty; we need to support the victims. We need also to ensure that we do something to bring about lasting change. In the 2015 review of the millennium development goals we must ensure we deliver the capacity-building that will ensure safety and security for citizens in individual fragile states, and also ensure that women have the legal, political and economic empowerment that can deliver that lasting change. If we do that we will make a real difference.
My Lords, if I were raped I believe I could count on the support of my family, my friends and my community, including the men—provided that I could bring myself to talk of something that to some is literally unspeakable. I would not become an outlaw from my own society. However, in many cultures the victims of sexual violence are outlaws. It is a terrible, vicious spiral when violence is a systematic response to opposition to a regime. The victims and the children born of rape are stigmatised. The health, social and economic impacts are obvious.
I say with huge humility from the comfort of my own background that a major part of the work facing a world seeking to help is to change attitudes to sexual violence—where it is regarded as normal and not to be questioned—and the response to it. Those affected need support and treatment, not ostracism. I know that training and facilitating work by local people is a focus of the PSVI. It must be because it is best led by members of the communities involved, particularly men and boys and especially religious leaders.
There are immediate and long-term needs. The immediate need is the provision of safe, protected areas for women and children who are refugees to protect them from continued violence when they have fled their own country. In the long term victims need help to give evidence of what has happened. Prosecutions need evidence; evidence needs witnesses; witnesses who are traumatised victims need treatment, both to rebuild their own lives and to be able to give evidence to prosecutors and the courts. The burden of acting as a witness must not be overlooked.
The issue has moral, political and practical dimensions so, as others are saying, let us work with everyone who can contribute and especially those who from their own lives have a deep understanding of the cultural dimensions.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing this debate today. I have worked with women in conflict in many countries and I want to share some of the things that they say donor countries could do to help.
The UK Government in their engagement with the UN could contribute by seeking to place the issue of sexual-based violence on the agenda at peace negotiations. There can be no amnesty in law for rape and violent crimes in times of war. However, very little has been done not just to bring offenders to book but even to articulate that rape is a crime and action will be taken against those responsible. These issues rarely form part of peace negotiations and that is because the offenders are the people at the table and they have no interest in bringing the issue to the table. If supporting Governments, such as the UK, could make it clear that aid and assistance will only follow if women have a place at the negotiating table and if the peace agreement contains a clear statement about sexual violence and its consequences, this would provide a context for beginning to address the problem. The UK could also use its influence to promote compliance with the requirement that peacekeepers deal with their own perpetrators of sexual violence and most particularly that they deal with, and provide for, the UN babies—those born out of the conflict.
Another contribution that the UK is very well placed to make would be in the context of criminal investigation. Any complaint that a rape victim makes has to be in the context of local and national law. Women often have to accept that they have no access through criminal law courts and their only redress is through local laws. The Government could, in their aid packages, prioritise a functioning police and judiciary. Women in these countries express the fact that they need to be able to work closely with the social guardians to disseminate messages about GBV. They say that when church and state and any UN and EU peacekeeping units work together with the women to say these things, it works.
Women want recognition of the level and extent of that violence. They want databases established to demonstrate that. That will make self-evident the need to address the issue. They need to be able to report. They need a functioning police service. They need aid which will support the development of policing, with an emphasis on the need to provide for women. They need, above all, more than a desk and a computer in a sexual violence unit. They need cameras to photograph injuries. They need properly equipped medical services. They need medication. They need the capacity to carry out investigations. Most of all, they need a methodology through which forensic science facilities can be made available to produce, for example, DNA testing of semen left in women after rape. Properly retrieved and handled, that evidence can be conclusive. It may negate the need for investigation.
We have highly developed forensic science facilities. I am not suggesting the creation of labs across the world, but it should be possible to develop a system by which evidence could be sent to a forensic science lab for analysis and reporting. That might provide a breakthrough. Women would see that there might be some point in reporting; it would encourage and affirm them. Of all the issues that I have discussed with women in the third world, this is the one that they most want.
My Lords, I know that we are very tight on time, but perhaps people will remember that when the clock shows two minutes, you have had your two minutes. Most people are taking a good two and a half minutes or more. Please can noble Lords keep their remarks brief.
My Lords, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as weapons against women in conflicts all over the world. The militias in eastern Congo are violating women as a means of exerting control, humiliation and submission. The abuses in the region are said to account for the majority of the work carried out by international aid organisations. The level of brutality is alarming and leaves victims with physical and psychological wounds. There is a stigma attached to rape which results in many victims being ostracised from mainstream society. The majority of victims are therefore reluctant to report their abuse for fear of rejection by their communities.
Some of the most brutal sexual violence occurred in Srebrenica, which was the worst atrocity on European soil since the end of the Second World War. It is a sorry state of affairs that so far only 30 people have been convicted for the 50,000 rapes committed during the Bosnian war.
There are also reports of rape being used as a weapon in Syria. In this regard, I would like to say that the Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—instructed his followers not to lay hands on women, children and elderly people in any form of warfare.
Ending sexual violence is central to conflict prevention and peace-building worldwide. It is important that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes are brought to justice. I am pleased that the Government have formed a UK team of 73 experts devoted to combating and preventing sexual violence in armed conflict. The experts will be able to be deployed overseas to gather evidence and testimony that can be used to support investigations and prosecutions.
I wholeheartedly support the plans to deploy UK experts to Libya, Bosnia, South Sudan and eastern Congo. I also support the Government’s decision to provide £1 million in funding to the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Government deserve praise for ensuring that victims of these abhorrent crimes will be given access to the support and justice that they deserve.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing and introducing the debate.
Sexual violence tends to occur in conflict situations far more than in others. That is so for three reasons. First, the perpetrators of sexual violence think that they have a right to the bodies of their victims, either because they have subdued them in war or because they have spared their lives. Secondly, there is a culture of immunity. They believe that they will be able to get away with this. Thirdly, there is a collective ethos that supports and encourages such behaviour, because of either a breakdown in law and order or a climate of hatred.
If these three are the conditions that facilitate sexual violence, the answer has to lie in addressing them. In the one and a half minutes left to me, I suggest that there are half a dozen things that we might think about, and I am simply going to list them.
First, it is very important that we must change the intellectual climate of the armed forces. They should not think that subduing somebody gives you a right to that person’s body.
Secondly, there should be successful prosecution. In order for that to happen, there must be a team of experts who will gather evidence and make sure that the prosecution succeeds.
Thirdly, as a result of conflict there are peace agreements in which perpetrators of this sort of violence are generally exempted from punishment or given amnesty. That should not happen.
Fourthly, the West must set an example. In all the cases we have talked about it is always the other part of the world that engages in sexual violence. We forget the fact that the American forces in Iraq behaved no better and that, sadly, some of our own have not proved exactly worthy of the highest standards that this country sets them. It is important that the West should set a good example.
Fifthly, the churches should play a very important role. It is not entirely a matter for the state. The churches have either been silent, as in Rwanda, or partisan.
Finally, there must be a way of introducing some kind of early-warning system. Sexual violence does not break through the surface just like that; there is a build-up to it, and if it can be caught early enough it can be stopped.
My Lords, I suppose it is a tragic inevitability that shooting, bombing, injuring and killing people violently is part of war, and there is often debate about which incidents of bombing, shooting or violence are within the moral or legal framework. However, there is no dispute that sexual violence in the context of war is outside all moral and legal limits. I believe that those who in engage in this kind of behaviour know perfectly well that they are outside what is morally acceptable—unless they have so dehumanised those whom they are abusing that they have largely lost their own humanity. We should be clear about this: there are no contexts in which this is acceptable, either to the overwhelming majority of victims who are women, or as we are increasingly seeing in Syria, the minority who are men, often young men.
That is why I am proud that our own Government have seized on this issue as one of the most important for the G8 and for our foreign policy. Can my noble friend assure me that, as the Foreign Secretary and colleagues move to try to engage in negotiations about a new international protocol on this issue, these crimes will be taken to the International Criminal Court if such a protocol is accepted? Can my noble friend also assure me that we shall see not just a legal change but, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee has said, a cultural change, which will ensure that those who engage in sexual violence can never be regarded as national heroes, but always as cowardly and brutal people who damage their own humanity as they damage that of their victims?
My Lords, I want to draw attention to sexual violence in Colombia and to ask the Government if they will reconsider their decision not to include Colombia as a designated priority country under their excellent PSVI programme.
The Colombian Constitutional Court itself has said that sexual violence is,
“a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the context of the Colombian armed conflict”.
The UN special representative noted only last May that all armed groups there—the guerrillas, the security forces and the paramilitaries—use sexual violence as a strategy of war and terror, with near total impunity.
I believe there is a great deal that the UK could do to help the situation in Colombia, and that the excellent work being carried out by our embassy in Bogota would be all the more effective if backed up by further dedicated resources and the authority of priority country designation.
First, there is the issue of impunity and effective amnesty for crimes of sexual violence. Colombia has recently begun peace dialogues with the FARC guerrilla group, but if these talks are to conform with UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820, this amnesty must be reversed, Colombian women themselves must be represented, and the issue of sexual violence must be on the negotiating table from day one. Colombia has not even drawn up an action plan on implementing Resolution 1325.
Secondly, there is the issue of the attacks on, threats to and killing of women human rights defenders and even their children. This has increased markedly in the past few years. Finally, there is a lack of effective security and psychosocial support for survivors, who are often the ones feeling shame and guilt. This is exacerbated by cultural issues in indigenous communities. We know that Afro-Colombian women are particularly exposed to constant physical assaults and violence. Will the Minister therefore undertake to review the status of Colombia within the PSVI, in particular the resources available to support women’s organisations, which are documenting and prosecuting cases of conflict-related sexual violence while supporting survivors?
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate. I wish to raise three practical points. First, the Foreign Secretary has stated that rape and sexual violence are used as a deliberate weapon of war. That said, will he take the lead at the G8 in calling for rape and sexual violence in conflict to be classified as a war crime?
Secondly, we had reassurances during the debate tabled by the Lord, Lord Lester, two weeks ago that after rape during conflict, women are entitled to have a safe abortion, if they want it, under international humanitarian law. Can we therefore have this specifically included in DfID’s paper on safe and unsafe abortion, so that it is quite clear? It is unthinkable that women who have been raped should be forced to continue their pregnancy, should they not want to.
Finally, NGOs often pool funds for specific projects and I have been totally unable to establish whether the USA’s ban on funds for abortion is affecting our projects in this field. NGOs that I have approached—and there are many—are unable to give me any figures at all so how can we be sure that our money, channelled through DfID, is being used for safe abortion? Please can the Minister give us some more information?
My Lords, I offer my thanks, briefly but sincerely, to the right reverend Prelate for having given us the chance to debate this important matter. I need to draw the House’s attention to my involvement with the charity Freedom from Torture, which offers solace, comfort and rehabilitation to refugees in the UK who have been tortured overseas. All too often, I am afraid, that torture involves rape.
In the rest of my remarks, I want to focus on an aspect of this terrible topic that has not been raised before: that is to say the rape of men, young boys and adults. It is an equally ugly but less reported crime and one where perpetrators are rarely, if ever, brought to justice. Male rape does not fit easily into the narrative. As my noble friend Lady Eaton said, men are supposed to be strong and dominant, not vulnerable and weak. Further, male rape, which will inevitably involve anal penetration, gives rise to particularly horrific injuries. In countries where homosexuality is culturally frowned upon or remains a criminal activity, such injuries are even more likely to remain unreported and untreated.
The right reverend Prelate referred to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The American Medical Association, which surveyed that country, said that 30% of the women had been raped but that 22% of the men had been raped as well. It is not just in Africa that these stories remain unheard. One of the few academics to have looked into the issue in any detail is Lara Stemple of the University of California’s Health and Human Rights Law Project. Her study, Male Rape and Human Rights, notes incidents of male sexual violence as a weapon of war or political aggression in countries as diverse as Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
Finally, as we inch towards the exit door in Afghanistan we are in danger of leaving behind an endemic male-rape culture. As the BBC reported recently, every police base has at least one “chai boy”, who usually looks between 13 and 15 years old. Police commanders often see it as their right to abduct a local boy from his family and keep him as a servant and sex slave. Is this what we went to Afghanistan to preserve?
My Lords, I express my appreciation for this debate and for the right reverend Prelate for having introduced it. It goes way beyond this House. I am a trustee of Saferworld, I also work very closely with bodies such as Amnesty International and UNA and many others of course who have accumulated vast amounts of evidence about the sickening brutality of the way rape is now used, as has been argued in this debate, as a weapon of war. All the people working day after day on these issues are really grateful for the right reverend Prelate’s pressure on this matter.
Impunity has been mentioned and the United Nations Development Programme for Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office gives one example. It is just one of a great number. In the years between 2005 and 2007, 14,200 rape cases occurred in South Kivu in the Congo. What is really disturbing is that only 2% of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice. The Foreign Secretary has put on record his conviction that effective response to sexual violence needs to be built into every aspect of conflict prevention and peaceuilding. Could we perhaps be told what progress is being made on that?
Access to justice in tackling sexual and gender-based violence in conflict necessitates improving security and justice systems. What progress is being made on that? Physical protection, medical protection, including emergency reproductive health services, particularly taking HIV and AIDS into account, psychosexual support and legal assistance are all essential. Are we making progress on these? Also essential is building sustained capacity of women’s organisations coupled with support and protection for the women involved because the risk to them and the threats to them can be acute. What are we doing in a co-ordinated way to meet all these points? Are we really using our knowledge and concern to influence effectively the remaining stages of our engagement in Afghanistan?
My Lords, I too thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this debate. I would like to draw your Lordships’ attention to the sexual violence used by occupying Indian forces in Kashmir. Out of many cases, I would like to mention one incident of the night of 23-24 February 1991 when the Fourth Rajputana Rifles troopers entered the village of Kunan Poshpora in north Kashmir. This incident was reported widely by Indian media, by the UK newspaper the Independent on 19 March and the New York Times on 7 April 1991. Amnesty International has also quoted this incident. In its judgment, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission concluded:
“Analyzing the statements of all the witnesses/victims it transpires that at about 10 to 11 pm in the night, security personnel cordoned the village. The men folk of the village were ordered to come out and were confined in a Kothar”—
store houses. It continued:
“Then small groups of security forces made their forced entry into the houses. They had consumed liquor and then gagged the mouths of the victims and committed forced gang rape against their will and consent. The personnel from the security forces had actually turned into beasts and had lost their sense of reasoning as even minor girls of 8 years were also raped. The indecent incident continued approximately till 3/4 AM. Almost all the women folk of the village suffered some atrocities during the whole night”.
It is sad to see that no prosecution has taken place so far—not one. I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary will raise this issue with his counterpart in his next meeting to bring those responsible to justice.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate. I, too, welcome the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative and the Foreign Secretary’s plans to use the UK’s leadership of the G8 to raise awareness and seek concrete commitments to help combat the widespread prevalence of sexual violence in conflict.
However, not only must we be tough on the crime we have to be tough on its causes. We must tackle the underlying problems of lack of empowerment, education and inclusion. I heard Justine Greening on “Woman’s Hour” this morning and could not have agreed more with her sentiments. Challenging attitudes and beliefs around gender-based violence is critical alongside the implementation of effective legislation. But I would have liked to have heard more about how we translate those positive sentiments into action. I therefore ask the Minister how much funding the UK Government are willing to commit to PSVI. How much are we asking the other G8 countries to commit? How can we ensure that this issue is prioritised among the G8 Foreign Ministers at the G8 meeting, and that the momentum continues after April to translate the commitments into co-ordinated and effective action?
Finally, I ask the Minister whether the PSVI and G8 messaging and funding include increasing support to survivors and broader protection systems, as well as efforts to tackle the root causes of sexual violence in conflict, including addressing gender and age discrimination and creating livelihood opportunities.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this extremely important and timely debate. In this week of International Women’s Day, I am glad that we have this focus tonight and that so many noble Lords chose to contribute, albeit briefly.
The statistics on violence against women and girls are shocking. Globally, one in three women is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. In conflict and post-conflict situations, sexual violence can be even more widespread, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, pointed out. As the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others have said, women and girls are the poorest and most marginal in society, with the least power. In conflicts, they are the most vulnerable. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and others have pointed out, we also see rape being used as a weapon against the woman, her family, her community and her society. However, as the right reverend Prelate says, and my noble friend Lord Hodgson emphasised, we also see sexual violence against men and boys used to degrade and destroy. We see that now in Syria. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, rightly emphasised the stigma of rape.
How do we break the silence on this and change behaviours? Unless we do, we undermine the likelihood of peaceful resolutions. We know that sexual violence causes huge physical and psychological trauma. My noble friend Lady Hamwee referred to that. But it also exacerbates ethnic, sectarian and other divisions, further entrenches conflict and undermines efforts to restore peace and stability. It reduces progress towards the millennium development goals and represents one of the most serious forms of human rights violation or abuse. For all these reasons, tackling violence against women and girls is central to the Government’s work overseas. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that women and girls must continue to be at the heart of whatever replaces the MDGs.
This year, 2013, is a hugely important year for this agenda. We are working hard with other Governments to ensure that this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose focus is on violence against women and girls, is a success and agrees a set of robust global standards to protect women and girls from discrimination and violence. My honourable friend Lynne Featherstone is leading the UK delegation. We also want to see women and girls at the heart of the new millennium development goal framework to be published later this year. Their inclusion is critical to achieving our goal of ending extreme poverty.
This year will also see greater government action to address the use of sexual violence in conflict as we further develop and implement the Foreign Secretary’s preventing sexual violence initiative, to which noble Lords have referred. In our own lifetimes, millions of women, men, and children have endured this horror, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to which noble Lords have referred, in South Sudan, in Colombia, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, in Bosnia and in Syria. The truth today, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, is that the perpetrators of these appalling, life-shattering crimes more often than not go unpunished.
We believe that more must be done to combat the use of sexual violence in conflict. We want the international community to address the culture of impunity that has been allowed to develop for these crimes and to increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice, both internationally and nationally. As other noble Lords have mentioned, the Foreign Secretary has placed this issue at the top of the G8 agenda for 2013. We want G8 Foreign Ministers at their April meeting to speak out against those who use sexual violence in conflict and to declare that rape and serious sexual violence amount to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. This is a very significant step in the development of international humanitarian law. Declaring that serious sexual violence and rape amount to grave breaches sends the message that these crimes are to be treated in the same way as the most serious category of war crimes. I can therefore reassure my noble friends Lady Tonge and Lord Alderdice that these crimes will become the most serious category of war crime in international law. I can also assure my noble friend Lord Alderdice that they can be taken to the International Criminal Court. Consultation with prosecutors at the ICC has clearly identified that a lack of clarity over investigations and collection of evidence led to the low number of prosecutions in the ICC and other international tribunals. The protocol will directly address this.
We are also proposing a set of practical G8 commitments that, taken together, will promote justice and accountability and provide greater support to victims. I hope that my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble Lords, Lord Parekh and Lord Judd, and others will welcome them. These commitments are, first, to improve investigations and the documentation of sexual violence in conflict, including through endorsing a new international protocol; secondly, to provide greater support and assistance to survivors, including child survivors, of sexual violence, so that they can rebuild their lives and attain justice for what they have endured; thirdly, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, emphasised, to ensure that the response to sexual and gender-based violence is fully integrated into wider peace and security efforts; and fourthly, to improve international co-ordination, including through the UN, because a co-operative approach to addressing sexual violence will have a much greater long-term impact.
To underpin these international efforts, the Government have established a new specialist UK team of experts, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, referred, who can be deployed to conflict areas to help local authorities and organisations address sexual violence. This team has already been deployed to the Syrian border to help train local health professionals. In answer to the right reverend Prelate, we aim to work with, and support, those who can document these abuses in that area. We also plan to deploy the team to at least five other countries this year. It will go to Libya, to support survivors of sexual violence committed during the revolution; to South Sudan, to work alongside the UN and the Government to strengthen local justice; to eastern DRC, to help doctors and lawyers to investigate crimes against the hundreds of women and girls who are raped each month; to Bosnia-Herzegovina, to help courts and prosecutors address the backlog of war crimes cases; and to Mali, to provide human rights training to the Malian armed forces on preventing and responding to sexual violence. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, emphasised, in order to address these issues, we need first the law to protect and then we need to work with those who can help to ensure the implementation of those laws: the police, the judges, civil society and the media.
Our plans for the initiative have been developed in consultation with UN agencies, other international bodies, NGOs, and—I can also reassure the right reverend Prelate—representatives from faith groups. These groups have a particular role, not least because of their ability to reach out across communities. We want to continue to work closely with them as we challenge the myths and stigma associated with victims of sexual violence.
There were a number of questions. My noble friend Lady Tonge asked about the proposals we brought forward earlier this year in terms of international humanitarian law. In conflict situations, even if it is contrary to national law, abortion care can be offered where its denial would amount to torture or cruel treatment. We need now to focus very much on bringing our international partners with us on this. We are very forward-looking on this, as we have been in the area of safe abortion as well, and it is extremely important that we take others with us. However, if the noble Baroness has any evidence that UK aid is not being used appropriately and is not reaching women, will she please let us have those details?
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about Columbia. PSVI is working in partnership with the UN special representative’s office and its team is leading on these issues in Columbia. We support that. I will be very happy to provide further details for the noble Baroness.
My noble friend Lord Hussain spoke about the abuse of human rights in Kashmir. I hear what he has to say in this regard, and we welcome the invitation by the Indian Government to the UN special rapporteur, who is to look in detail at those allegations. We are not willing to put up with abuse of human rights, wherever it happens in the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about funding. I will be very happy to spell this out further in writing. The G8 commitments are essentially very practical, but groundbreaking. By working with our international partners we have moved this forward in a very significant way, and we now need to take our international partners with us so that we can ensure that this is as effective as it needs to be. It needs to be done right across the international spectrum.
Tackling the impunity of those responsible for sexual violence is essential for any conflict or post-conflict society seeking to come to terms with past abuses. It is also essential to prevent their recurrence. This is an absolutely key year as we seek to take this forward. This is the year to ensure that we make the difference for those who are at risk of this horrific form of abuse.
My Lords, as several of the final speeches were shorter than time allowed for, and as one speaker withdrew at the last minute, we have now come rather short of our time limit. I thank everyone for their indulgence at the unpleasant roles that Whips have to play, and I suggest that the House should now adjourn until 9.36 pm.