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Syria: Sexual Violence

Volume 754: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the alleged sexual violence crimes committed against Syrian civilians in Syria.

My Lords, as reported by the UN commission of inquiry and others, rape, sexual violence and sexual torture have been carried out by regime forces against men, women and children as part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population. We are deeply and increasingly concerned about sexual exploitation of displaced people. The UK is committed to supporting victims of these crimes, as well as supporting efforts to document sexual violence and other atrocities.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the Answer. Would she join me in congratulating the Foreign Office and particularly the Foreign Secretary—so ably assisted by Angelina Jolie—on the success of the recent global summit on sexual violence in conflict, which has done so much to raise the profile of these dreadful crimes? Would she also confirm that the Foreign Office, DfID and the international community will do what they can to collect evidence and testimony from the surviving victims of sexual violence in the conflict so that, when this terrible war finally ends, the perpetrators can be prosecuted and brought to justice?

I will join her—and I am sure the whole House will join me—in congratulating the Foreign Secretary on an incredibly successful summit on ending sexual violence in conflict. Those taking part came from 155 countries and included 1,700 delegates, 79 Ministers, victims’ groups, NGOs and international organisations. On the documentation and collection of evidence of sexual violence, my noble friend will be pleased to note that some of the projects we are funding in Syria are around the documentation and collection of evidence, so that those who commit these crimes will one day be brought to justice.

My Lords, all crimes of sexual violence in conflict need to be within reach of international law, but the recent global summit that has just been referred to notes that the exercise of universal jurisdiction for crimes currently applies only to international conflicts. What steps can the Government take to extend this universal jurisdiction to the type of conflict we now see in Syria, Iraq and far too many other places?

My noble friend makes an important point and I will certainly take it back. He will accept that this is a journey; these challenges have been with us for many decades, if not longer. One of the main purposes of the summit was to agree an international protocol on the documentation of sexual violence in conflict, to build political momentum, to fund more groups dealing with survivors and to encourage individual countries to develop country plans so they can take responsibility for these crimes within their own states. However, I will certainly take back the further idea given by my noble friend.

My Lords, what specific support is being provided by registered NGOs currently working in Syria? The Minister mentioned some general points about the recent summit. Would she agree that it was regrettable to just highlight the problem of sexual violence in conflict and not also put forward ideas about how to address and support the women who have been raped before, including the 300,000 women—I spoke about them on a previous occasion—who were raped in Bangladesh? When will they get justice?

I can give the noble Baroness details of the specific projects she asks about. Two projects are being funded to improve the capacity to document crimes of sexual violence. We are also giving cash assistance to help female refugees in Jordan and providing livelihood support to women so they can earn for themselves and not be placed in vulnerable situations. We are providing reproductive health services and financial support to vulnerable Syrian women who are thought to be at risk of being coerced into marriage, to help reduce their risk of exploitation. We are taking a whole series of measures, but I go back to the point that the summit was also about giving survivors an opportunity to be heard and to deal with the culture of silence that has existed around the issue. That in itself was incredibly important. A range of work has been developed from the summit around making sure we have the action in place to stop this heinous crime.

My Lords, given that discussion of sexual violence is always a very sensitive subject in any culture, will the Minister give assurance that the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative team that is working in Syria will draw in responsible, enlightened religious leaders to combat the stigma that is so often associated with these awful crimes? This can prevent the kind of recriminations and rejection by communities and families that can result from them.

The right reverend Prelate makes an incredibly important point. Faith as part of the solution to dealing with sexual violence was an important element of the summit, and we hosted two very successful fringe events. One involved a coalition mainly of church leaders, called We Will Speak Out. The other was at ministerial level where we hosted Sheikh Bin Bayyah, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and discussed the way in which we can get faith communities to be the first point of support in both providing protection and changing the culture that perpetuates the culture of impunity.

My Lords, what was the Government’s response to the call from the United Nations for a further 100,000 resettlement places for the victims of the terrible turmoil she described in Syria? When the UK has promised to prioritise help for survivors of torture and victims of violence, is the Minister satisfied with the fact that as of 24 June only 50 refugees have arrived in the UK?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an incredibly important point. The instinct of any of us when we hear these individuals’ stories is to provide a place of shelter, but I think the noble Baroness will acknowledge that since 6.4 million people have been internally displaced and 2.8 million are now refugees in neighbouring countries, there is no way that we could resettle all of them. We must make sure that we work with the most vulnerable and provide a settlement opportunity for them. First and foremost, politicians must continue to work for a political solution, because it cannot be that these people remain displaced and it must be that one day they are allowed to return to their own homes.