Skip to main content

Sexual Violence

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 2 April 2019

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the adequacy of international mechanisms to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account; and what steps they are taking to ensure justice for survivors.

My Lords, I am pleased to have secured this important debate and I thank your Lordships in advance for taking the time to join the discussion on this pressing issue. Before I start I wish to declare my interests. I have been a member of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative from the outset and I served as a member of the Sexual Violence in Conflict Select Committee. I also co-chair the APPG on Women, Peace and Security.

As the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative sets out, sexual violence is frequently used for political ends both as a means of ethnic cleansing and to terrorise local populations. Horrifically, rape and sexual violence have been used throughout history as weapons of war in conflicts across the world. However, this has reached epidemic proportions today, and we hear horrendous stories coming out of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, DRC and among the Rohingya people to name but a few contemporary conflicts. Sexual violence destroys lives, tears families and communities apart, fuels conflict, creates refugees and will haunt those who suffer it for the rest of their days. As Margot Wallström, who was the special representative of the UN Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, said,

“it is unfortunately a very effective, cheap and silent weapon with a long-lasting effect on every society”.

Sexual violence is indiscriminate, affecting men and boys as well as women and girls, children and babies. Victims may contract HIV, women—although horribly damaged—may have to deliver babies born of rape, and one should never forget that gang rape can kill. All too often the perpetrators go free while the victims face a lifetime of shame and stigma.

The first time I came across this personally was when I visited Rwanda and went to talk to a church full of widows. The young woman who greeted me had lost her husband and one of her three children in the genocide, and she had contracted HIV as a result of being raped. She was gaunt and worried that she would leave her remaining children orphans. On another day in Rwanda I was taken to see a young man. He had been raped and had contracted HIV. He lived on the edge of a village, shunned by everyone because they knew about his condition.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Hague, who in 2012 during his time as Foreign Secretary, launched the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, or PSVI, alongside the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. Although Security Council Resolution 1820, which was passed in 2008, recognises sexual violence as a tool of war, this initiative shone a spotlight on the issue, bringing it to global attention. It helped to promote international co-operation and increased the political will and capacity of states to do more. Some 155 countries endorsed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, launched during the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2013. These countries agreed that no peace agreements should give amnesty to people who have ordered or carried out rape, and an international protocol was established to set standards for the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict.

In addition, the creation of the role of the Prime Minister’s representative for sexual violence in conflict was key, highlighting the importance of this work and driving it forward. I recognise the dedication of those who have held the office: my noble friend Lady Anelay and now my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who will be responding to the debate. It is important that we have both female and male champions because it is not just a woman’s issue and we need male champions to support and help us. I also pay tribute to the work of my noble friend Lady Helic and others at the FCO, DfID and the MoD who have worked so hard on this initiative.

One of the major thrusts of the PSVI is to end the culture of impunity, shifting the shame from the victims to the perpetrators by bringing them to justice. Member states in the UN make increasingly strong statements calling for an end to impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. In April 2018, in the Security Council open debate on conflict-related sexual violence, SRSG Pramilla Patten flagged the impunity of perpetrators as a key issue, yet in spite of all the declarations and good intent, disappointingly few people have so far been brought to trial and prosecuted. The work of the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation argues that:

“Despite an expanding legal framework against sexual violence in conflict, there have been relatively few cases at the international courts and tribunals”.

For example, the ICC’s first conviction for sexual violence crimes against former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was made in March 2016, but it was overturned last June, so no reparations were awarded to victims and no justice was done. There are numerous other perpetrators in the DRC, which is often referred to as the rape capital of the world, but have any of them been held to account?

Today were are told that the Caliphate of Daesh in Iraq and Syria has been defeated. We have all heard about the fate of the Yazidis: so many women dragged away, sold to become sex slaves and multiply raped. I ask the Minister how many of these perpetrators have been charged with sexual violence. I understand that many ISIL fighters are being held in Iraqi prisons charged with terrorism but not sexual violence. If this horrendous weapon is not acknowledged in terms of the law, how will that deter others from committing sexual violence in the future and how will Yazidi women ever feel that the terrible crimes against them have been properly recognised and the perpetrators punished?

When Raqqa fell, fighters, many whom had committed war crimes, including sexual violence, were allowed to walk away. Was that agreed by the 79 partners of the global coalition against Daesh? We know that many of the Rohingya women escaping from the northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh have been raped. What is happening to hold people to account there? How can the UN and the UK put pressure on the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to enable justice to prevail?

It is a sad situation that today it still appears that those who order or carry out rape and sexual violence in war can expect to get away with it. It would appear that the current global political and legal climates are not conducive to the goal of ensuring that survivors and the families of victims can seek justice and access to legal systems is shrinking. States in many conflict-affected areas have shown themselves to be either unwilling or unable to receive complaints, investigate or prosecute cases. Too often regional tribunals are slow to respond and few survivors have access to them. There is often little political will to establish international or hybrid courts for a variety of reasons, including cost and the time to deliver judgments. Access to international legal mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court is shrinking as member states do not ratify the ICC treaty—countries including China and the US—justified in a speech by Secretary of State Pompeo last month because he does not want American military or civil personnel to be prosecuted. Many countries affected by conflict, including Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, have not ratified the treaty. Referrals from the Security Council to the ICC are diminishing due to the veto. Meanwhile, member states are often restricting the national legislation which could allow investigations and prosecutions of grave and serious international crimes outside the jurisdiction in which they occurred.

Sadly, sexual violence is not only committed by non-state actors. During our Select Committee inquiry we received a considerable volume of evidence on the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by peacekeepers. The crimes were often exploitative and transactional in their nature, making them somewhat different from what I have been describing so far, but they are an abuse of trust and position. While I naturally commend the steps the UN have taken to date, the current system for holding peacekeepers accountable is still not working and lacks transparency. Can the Minister update us on what more can be done?

The PSVI initiative was always going to be a marathon rather than a sprint and it needs sustained effort. Will the Minister update us on the decisions and outcomes of the Wilton Park conference at the end of February on PSVI? Last year’s PSVI film festival was uplifting, poignant and challenging. I look forward to the PSVI international conference which the UK will host later this year, five years on from the 2014 global summit. This will be an opportunity to bring global attention to this important issue again.

I am grateful for being able to raise this issue today and to other noble Lords who will speak. With all the progress being made and attention on this issue, will the Minister say why justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict-affected areas is so elusive? How can we best use the UK’s soft power and influence to ensure that adequate national and international mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice and that the shame and stigma is shifted once and for all from the victims to the perpetrators? I end with the words of Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi:

“We have to be a loud and clear voice for those whose voices cannot be heard. Under international law, rape is a crime against humanity—and it is our duty to work to bring impunity for such crimes to an end”.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, on bringing this important debate to the Committee. As she will know, I was the Government’s ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas for all five years of the coalition Government, and violence against women was also in my portfolio for the two years I was a DfID Minister, as was responsibility for Africa, a continent riven by sexual violence against women and girls in war—and out of war, frankly. This was an era of real progress, of moving forward on this agenda, particularly the PSVI. The then Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, and the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, did a massive amount of amazing work on sexual violence in conflict, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson. It was as if the world’s attention was on us, and the global summit to which the noble Baroness referred was a turning point. The world was looking at us. That was obviously helped by Angelina Jolie and various rumours that were circulating at the time.

DfID was focused on women’s lives. The experiences I had and the lives I witnessed taught me that right across the world women are oppressed and suppressed and are the victims of sexual violence regardless. Justine Greening, then my Secretary of State, together with Nike, coined the expression, vis-à-vis DfID’s work with women, “Giving women choice, voice and control” because across the world we have virtually none, and I include this country in that to a degree, but not to the degree that I saw in Africa or Asia.

I remember the desperation of girl students at a university in Ethiopia who were often the victims of sexual violence on campus, but if they reported it to the police they were as likely to be raped by the police as they were to be listened to. I remember visiting a Marie Stopes outreach clinic for victims of sexual and domestic violence in Uganda and sitting in a circle with women who had all escaped from sexual violence to the refuge and hearing their tales. A woman holding a baby had only stumps for arms. One arm ended above the elbow and the other ended below it. Her husband had cut her arms off because she was not available when he needed her. That was literally no voice, no choice and no control, and she had no one to go to. There was no justice, no one to run to and no one to help. I met girls—children, really—who had been raped, often by family members. In a refuge in DRC, I met girls who had been thrown out of their homes and villages as witches and who were living on the streets, being raped nightly until they finally got to the refuge, which I think was run by War Child. Most of them were pregnant.

The main subject of this debate is rape as a weapon of war. Despite all the fantastic work that charities do, the money and the effort that donor countries have put in, and the bravery of the fighters for human rights, equality, justice and change, it is a long, challenging and seemingly impossible task, but we must make it possible. How we bring perpetrators to justice is key, for, without consequences—and, sadly, with the complicity of authorities, organisations, communities and Governments —change will not come.

It is hard enough in this country to get convictions and justice for the two women per week who are killed by their partners or ex-partners. In countries where rule of law is at best tentative, in war, it is virtually impossible. But progress has been made. The first challenge is always persuading countries and the international community to have laws. The bigger challenge is getting them to enforce them, to ensure that international law is instituted and is working.

As has been said, in South Sudan, DRC, Myanmar, CAR, Northern Rakhine, Yemen and the list goes on and on, violation of human rights is common and its defence ever more dangerous for those activists who try to bring perpetrators to justice. Women get raped if they report violations; witnesses are intimidated if they testify. We are dealing with so many reasons for this: clans, religion, politics, poverty, ethnicity. Sometimes, as was said, it is an expression of ethnic cleansing, as in cases of the Rohingya and the Yazidis. Sometimes it is a weapon of war employed by the armed forces themselves. The consequent displacement and dispossession of land exacerbates the danger, leaving women even more exposed to sexual violence than before.

During my time at DfID, I tried to get the big charities—Oxfam, Save the Children and others—to take positive action in refugee camps, which are dangerous places for women and girls. Of course, the first order is shelter, water, food and sanitation, but we have a duty of care for those raped in refugee camps—something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Women and girls fleeing violence and conflict are so vulnerable to traffickers and border forces and, once in camps, to other refugees or, indeed—sadly—occasionally to humanitarian workers. In wretched circumstances, rape and sexual violence are commonplace.

We need to ensure that the resolutions, promises and declarations about tackling these issues are acted upon and perpetrators brought to justice. Since the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Hague, there have been a great many more initiatives, committees, papers, resolutions and actions, including the setting up in 2015 of the House of Lords Sexual Violence in Conflict Committee. It is timely that this debate should look at the international mechanisms to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account and see whether all these summits and good intentions have led to anything that actually works. I was not completely up to speed on that but, listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, it is clear that they have not worked, or are not working to anything like the degree needed to change the future.

I will be very interested to hear an up-to-date response from the Minister on the efficacy of the measures in place. Is the information that has been documented adequate, usable and being used successfully? If not, what change is needed? Are those receiving the information acting on it? If not, what are the deficiencies and excuses—the “why”s? What is the record of cases brought? What is the level of success or failure? Why are more cases not brought? What is the political, legal and security context in which the documentation is taking place? What restrictions does context put on the mechanism? Is the information gathered for litigating individual cases for individual redress, or is it being used to advocate for and illustrate the volume and type of sexual violence being perpetrated in specific areas or countries? What support is there for victims or witnesses during or after a legal process? Are measures to protect victim identity, confidentiality and anonymity in place and working? I fear not.

How is the international protocol functioning? Is it overcoming the challenges faced by those trying to document sexual violence as a violation under international law? Are countries supporting the documentation of sexual violence crimes? Are conflict-affected states developing national action plans using that protocol? If so, are they working? Have the recommendations from the Lords committee been implemented? On this debate, importantly, what are the British Government doing to monitor effectiveness on a regular basis? Are the Government asking the questions?

This is a massive challenge, and we must be constantly alert as to whether the mechanisms resulting from all the focus, and all the organisations, are actually delivering. Lastly, what priority do the Minister, the Government and the current Foreign Secretary give to sexual violence in conflict? It was undoubtedly the importance and effort invested by the noble Lord, Lord Hague, in this issue—and Angelina Jolie—that catapulted it into the spotlight. Despite much good work, not least by the noble Baroness, that spotlight appears to be fading—is it delivering?

My Lords, the noble Lady, Baroness Hodgson, has consistently and tenaciously championed the cause of those who have been subjected to unspeakable violence. In her moving and powerful speech this evening, she rightly demanded more effective ways of holding perpetrators to account and ensuring justice. I think we should all express our gratitude to her for that.

I should declare that I am joint chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on North Korea and Pakistani Minorities, vice-chair of the APPGs on Burma and the DRC and an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan. All of these are countries I have visited and all are disfigured by the use of rape as a weapon of war. I am also a trustee of Arise, a charity that works with women who have been trafficked or enslaved.

Last year, Denis Mukwege—who was referred to by the noble Baroness—with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman I have had the privilege to meet, jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize, given,

“for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”,

as it says in the citation. In the DRC, where more than 5 million people are estimated to have died in the long-running conflicts—a greater number than in any other conflict since World War II—Dr Mukwere has treated thousands of women who were raped, performing up to 10 operations every day. Since Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu, was founded by Dr Mukwege in 1999, it has treated more than 82,000 patients with complex gynaecological damage and trauma. An estimated 60% of these injuries were caused by sexual violence. Dr Mukwege describes how his patients arrive at the hospital sometimes naked, usually in horrific conditions, victims of different armed groups.

Throughout this discussion of international mechanisms to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account, we should keep Dr Mukwege and Nadia Murad—tortured and raped by Islamic State militants during their genocide—at the heart of our deliberations. It is crucial to begin with one important fact: that there are not many adequate mechanisms in place to end the current culture of impunity. Indeed, the only permanent international criminal tribunal, the International Criminal Court, despite being able to deal with cases of sexual violence, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or crimes of aggression, often lacks the jurisdiction to be able to investigate the crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators. The ICC is a treaty-bound court and its competence is limited by that fact alone. This is graphically illustrated by the genocidal campaign unleashed by ISIS against religious and other minorities in Syria and Iraq—people like Nadia Murad.

As the House knows, in 2014, ISIS, driven by its hatred of difference, instigated mass murder, torture, abuse, rape, sexual violence, and forced displacement. To this day, more than 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still missing after they were abducted from Sinjar in September 2014 and are suspected to be in Syria. For more than four years, these women and girls have been subjected to most atrocious abuse imaginable. In her testimony, Nadia says:

“One moment I was a farm girl, going to school in my village in northern Iraq and the next I was an ISIS sex slave, ‘owned’ by militants. My peaceful existence was shattered simply because my religious beliefs were deemed sub-human by a group of men who believed they were superior. ISIS murdered my family and took me captive, exposing me to horrors which would be impossible to imagine had I not endured every moment and felt each brutal blow”.

She says she chose to speak because:

“I believed the world needed to know the truth and I wanted justice. I wanted ISIS held accountable. If we cannot achieve this, with all the evidence and our justice systems, then we are giving a green light to these groups”.

Yet, despite the level and nature of these atrocities, the ICC cannot get involved. The ICC does not have territorial jurisdiction in Syria or Iraq, and, currently, there is no other international or regional criminal court that could deal with prosecutions. Another option would be for the Security Council to establish an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute the ISIS fighters, modelled on the precedent set by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. The Minister knows that I have been in touch with him and the Foreign Office on a number of occasions to put forward that proposal.

Under Security Council Resolution 2379, an investigative team is already mandated to collect, preserve and prepare for future prosecutions the evidence of the crimes perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq. As the next step, the Security Council could establish the international criminal tribunal for ISIS, modelled on the ICTY or the ICTR, with a tailored mandate.

In June 2018, work in this direction was initiated by Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch MP, who convened a meeting between the Iraqi Government’s representatives and experts to explore the need to assist Iraq in prosecuting ISIS fighters and looking into the available options. The Iraqi representatives agreed that as the issue of ISIS is not only a problem of Iraq but of international concern and an international responsibility, Iraq would need assistance with the prosecutions. More than 850 people from the UK travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and were directly involved there in every aspect of the genocide, including systematic rape and enslavement. The UK clearly needs to be involved in prosecuting the fighters. Stripping them of citizenship is not the way to bring about justice, a point I raised during Question Time recently. It merely makes it harder.

For months, I have I have been urging the Government to explore the initiation of international or regional prosecutions, especially as the investigative team has just begun the excavations of the first mass grave in Sinjar. The international option is crucial if there is to be justice. Survivors of rape and sexual violence are not involved in the proceedings of Iraqi domestic courts, giving little hope that justice will be served. How can we ensure justice if the very people affected by the atrocities are not even asked to testify, to tell the stories of what happened to them, and do not have the opportunity to see justice being done or to hear an apology?

Considering the territorial limitations of the ICC, it may be crucial to reconsider whether we need a new mechanism that would be better suited to address the growing impunity. If the Minister would be willing, I would be most grateful for a meeting to discuss this troubling situation and possible ways forward.

Let me also briefly mention Pakistan, which I visited in November, and where the Minister also was recently. At least 1,000 women belonging to religious minorities, some of them minors, have been abducted, forcibly converted and often married to those very abductors. They come from the very poorest sectors of society and are easy targets for the perpetrators of sexual violence. The law-enforcement agencies often show little or no interest in helping aggrieved parents to register a police case against the kidnappers. Even if the parents persist and somehow reach the courts and the abductors are forced to bring victims to the court, the abducted are threatened and told that if they tell the court about their kidnappings, their parents and siblings will be killed. Thus they have no option but to admit in the court that their conversion was voluntary.

In the past few weeks, there have been at least six such cases, which I have drawn to the Minister’s attention. These include a 13 year-old Christian girl, Sadaf Masih, who was kidnapped, forcibly converted and married on 6 February, in Punjab. On 20 March, two teenaged Hindu girls, Reena, aged 15, and Raveena, aged 13, were similarly kidnapped, forcibly converted and married within a matter of hours, in Sindh. The kidnappers were married already, with children, but that that did not prevent them from forcibly marrying those girls. In the worst-case scenarios, the kidnappers after sexual and physical abuse, sell them into slavery and they are sent to brothels.

We give Pakistan £383,000 in aid each and every day—£2.8 billion over 20 years. Surely we can use our aid programmes with leverage to ensure justice for the victims and to save many broken lives and families. The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, is to be thanked for encouraging us to address this important issue this evening, and I reiterate my gratitude to her.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for securing this debate on a very difficult area. I must say that I put my name down hoping that I would learn an awful lot more than I would contribute to the debate. From the speeches so far I have done so, particularly that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, which was excellent and instructive, and for which I thank her.

Rape in conflict, of women and men, is one of the most sickening crimes human beings can commit. I think we all agree with that. It is not just an act of sexual intercourse, as I have said many times. It is a series of disgusting, painful, humiliating, life-threatening actions, perpetrated on helpless victims by triumphant soldiers. It is a weapon of war and, in some cases, a weapon of genocide.

I know, however, that there is huge disagreement internationally and nationally on what to do about this. My first researcher, when I entered the House of Commons in 1997, had also acted as my organiser during the general election. She won the seat of Richmond Park for me. She is Dr Louise Arimatsu, now a distinguished policy fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. I must confess that she has tried to explain to me the complicated international law around this subject. Law is never simple, and I always say to her that I am very glad I did medicine, and not law.

As a doctor, however, I know how difficult it is to get women and men to testify on oath about what happened to them for fear of being disgraced in their communities. It is a terrible, terrible disgrace for them. Therefore, in these cases we need to completely change the accent on how these cases are dealt with. It is the commanding officers of the soldiers who perpetrate these crimes who should be held responsible for those crimes. It must be very difficult, I know, to control men fired up to kill or be killed—I have never had to do it—but a few more prosecutions of commanding officers, holding them responsible for the actions of their soldiers, might just concentrate minds. No ifs, no buts, no excuses—they are responsible.

We are trying to adopt a similar philosophy in cases of FGM, in which it is often impossible to get a child to give evidence against a parent or anyone who has done this terrible thing to them, so parents are held entirely responsible for the safety of that child. It is they who should be prosecuted. Dr Arimatsu, interestingly, mentioned the military trial 70 years ago of General Yamashita, who was responsible for tens of thousands of people being tortured and killed in the Second World War. In the Yamashita case, it was stated—and this is very good to listen to:

“Where murder and rape and vicious revengeful actions are widespread offences, and there is no effective attempt by a commander to discover and control the criminal acts, such a commander may be held responsible, even criminally liable, for the lawless acts of his troops”.

That was said in court 70 years ago. We have not come very far since then.

As already mentioned, it was encouraging when, in 2016, Jean-Pierre Bemba was convicted at the ICC of being responsible for the acts of sexual violence committed by his soldiers in the Central African Republic in 2003-04. This has, however, as has been mentioned, been overturned by a majority in the ICC Appeals Chamber. The judges there disputed whether Bemba had taken sufficient measures to prevent these actions taking place. This judgment and the appeal are causing great concern amongst international lawyers. I wonder if the Minister can shed some light on what our Government are thinking.

Perhaps he could also comment on recent suggestions by a prosecutor that the victim may have consented to being raped. This must be clarified before a conviction can take place. “Consented”—I ask you. I ask, in all honesty, whether a woman—or a man, for that matter—would give consent for rape by a soldier at gunpoint, perhaps with a rifle butt or a broken bottle, both examples I heard about from victims in a hospital in Tirana, Albania, who had escaped from Kosovo during the Balkan wars. Consent? Where are these people coming from? Access to justice is a human right and an obligation for us under CEDAW. It is not just about prosecutions and the ICC. Individual states, not just the International Criminal Court, should be prosecuting violations, and we should be assisting those states to do this, perhaps through our DfID budget or one of those ghostly, curious, cross-departmental, peace-promoting budgets that we have heard about. Perhaps one could be used for the purpose of helping those Governments to prosecute soldiers.

Noble Lords would not expect me, as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, to finish without dealing with medical justice for the victims—women victims in particular—of rape. Our Government have taken a lead and implemented the delivery of sexual and reproductive health services to women who have been raped so that, above all, they can have an abortion if they become pregnant as a result of their ordeal. That is of course subject to the laws of the country, but it is their entitlement under international law. I honestly cannot think of a worse fate for a woman than to be badly injured and raped, recover a bit and then discover that she is pregnant as a consequence of that rape, but not have any access to abortion to deal with that. If we put ourselves in that position—I know the men cannot but the women certainly can—we know that it is just unthinkable. Our Government have been very strong on this issue and I congratulate them. As they know, I am not a great supporter of the Conservative Government, but they are very good on this issue.

At this point, I must refer to President Trump’s latest personal assault on women by expanding the global gag rule—the Mexico City policy—which will further jeopardise women’s and girls’ chances of dignified recovery and survival as sexual and reproductive health services are reduced all over the world as a result of the ramifications of the gag rule. I am having a lot of trouble getting the absolute detail from the NGOs about how the gag rule will affect them, because it has been expanded and extended, but I believe that there is some sort of exception for abortion after rape in conflict. I would be very pleased if the Minister could enlighten me today or perhaps write after the debate.

Once again I applaud the UK Government for their continuing support for sexual and reproductive health and abortion services globally; for defending the rights of women who have suffered violence in conflict; and, as we have heard, for the great conference that was held at the ExCel Centre—I never know what that place is called—with William Hague and Angelina Jolie. The conference was an inspiration to a lot of people, and we should carry on its impetus.

Our Government may not be doing too well on our relationship with Europe, but there are women all over the developing world who are grateful for this country’s advocacy of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, in particular the NGOs—the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International—that stand firm against President Trump’s attack on women’s reproductive rights.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for initiating this debate and for being very consistent on this issue; we had a debate in January on this subject as well. I am extremely grateful to her for continuing the battle.

The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, mentioned Angelina Jolie, the UNHCR special envoy, who, in searching for solutions to violence against women, has focused her work on three clear themes that I think have come out in this debate: justice, accountability and international leadership. We need to ensure that we have the tools, sufficient resources and political will. There is no doubt that since the PSVI launch in 2012, the UK has led the world in efforts to end the horror of sexual violence in conflict.

It is a long-haul campaign, and the further international conference to be hosted by the UK in November can be a catalyst for change and further progress. That is what we need to ensure in building up to the November conference. The noble Baroness referred to the Wilton Park event, which was hosted by the Minister—noble Lords have referred to the fact that he is the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. I hope what comes out of Wilton—I am sure the noble Lord will tell us—will be some concrete recommendations for Governments, international agencies and NGOs on how to strengthen justice at the national and international levels for survivors of conflict. How we build up ongoing support for that November event is the key to this debate, and I hope the noble Lord will be able to tell us what other events are being planned before November to ensure that we have full engagement, not just with NGOs. I would like to see events that broaden this out, so that we get other civil society groups, particularly—I do bang on about this—trade unions and international organisations that can ensure sustainability for the changes we want to see.

What are the remaining challenges we face? The Minister has done excellent work on this, and we heard about the film festival. We have to strongly address action on tackling survivor stigma, when the victims feel they are to blame, and children born of sexual violence. We must also ensure the provision of services for male victims, including LGBT and disabled survivors, and work with military and faith groups—they are the other voices we need to hear strongly at the November conference.

As we have heard in this debate, justice and accountability are vital parts of the strategy. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, has said today and on previous occasions, an important element of fighting sexual violence is holding people to account so that they cannot act with impunity. In the January debate, the Minister, whom I congratulate on his ongoing work, called on countries to sign up to the new Murad code on sexual violence, which sets out the expected standards of behaviour. What progress has been made to ensure an international consensus on implementation of that code? How many countries are involved, and what more can we do to ensure that we end up with a strong consensus in November?

Women endure discrimination, violence and the denial of their rights simply because they are women. We must tackle the underlying problem of a lack of empowerment, education and inclusion. We need explicitly feminist foreign and development policies, based on the principles of gender justice, rights, intersectionality and solidarity, so that we tackle the structural causes of gender inequality, transform gender norms and challenge patriarchy in everything that the FCO and DfID do. The way to do that is to expand the support which I know is being given to grass-roots women’s organisations, stepping up assistance to support partner Governments committed to reducing gender inequality: for example, through gender audits, gender impact assessments and gender budgeting. We can lead the way and support other Governments.

We need stronger political leadership globally, where women’s rights are under attack. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on the attack launched by President Trump. We need to champion women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and certainly mitigate the impact of those US-led funding cuts. We also need to more to protect women human rights defenders by promoting the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.

I have another point on which I would like to hear more from the Minister. Exactly how are the strategies we have been adopting in the FCO being dealt with on a cross-departmental basis? How do we build capacity to respond rapidly to sexual and gender-based violence in emergencies? Obviously the MoD, the FCO and DfID all have an important role to play in this and I would certainly like to hear how those cross-departmental strategies are working.

I apologise for not writing down the name of the noble Lord who spoke of this, but the plight of the Rohingya people must be in all our minds. Horrendous sexual crimes have been committed. It is apparent that thousands of women refugees in Bangladesh have still not received support or counselling following their experiences of sexual violence, and they have not been able to make witness statements. Can the Minister tell us how many of the UK’s 70 sexual violence experts have been deployed to those camps? Are we making progress?

This is one of those areas for which I think there is complete cross-party support and I hope that the noble Baroness will continue with her hard work to ensure that we build up to a successful conference in November. In that way we will ensure that there is a proper catalyst for change.

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Hodgson for securing this debate and I acknowledge her long-standing commitment to and unrelenting passion for ensuring that the victims and survivors of sexual violence in conflict are at the heart of our policy-making. I applaud her work in this respect, in particular as part of the PSVI external steering board on which she sits. She advises me directly as the Prime Minister’s special representative. I also thank her for her work on the APPG. Perhaps I may start with a personal reflection. My noble friend Lady Hodgson and I have worked together on this issue. Indeed, one of our first visits from this House was to Bosnia helping to build support mechanisms and a shelter for the victims and survivors of that conflict.

Let me assure all noble Lords, and in particular my noble friend, that the commitment of the UK Government to this issue is unrelenting. We continue to commit resources, time, effort and leadership to prioritising PSVI across the piece internationally. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about cross-government working. Our focus on PSVI reflects the agenda we have set out in our national action plan on women, peace and security, and I am pleased to report that its fourth iteration brings together the expertise of the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The international progress which has been made under our leadership over the past seven years has been sustained.

Given that, perhaps I should start by expressing a certain disagreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone—I greatly respect her and I acknowledge her contribution. I do not believe that the spotlight has diminished. On the contrary, not through our efforts alone but in recognising the work of Nadia Murad and Dr Mukwege, we can reflect the priority that the international community continues to give. I can assure the noble Baroness that we are working hand in glove with both those individuals and their organisations not just in the delivery of our event later this year but by directly supporting their initiatives as well. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to these Nobel prize winners—and rightly so—and we all acknowledge their work and put that formally on record.

Intensive work and sustained effort are required in ensuring that this agenda remains at the top of international priorities, not only in the UK but in other countries as well. Work began in November last year when, as several noble Lords have noted, we hosted the world’s first film festival focused on eliminating the stigma of sexual violence in conflict and, yes, we involved directly Angelina Jolie. We brought film-makers from those conflict regions to depict through film their experiences and to ensure that priority is given in their countries. We used the BFI as the backdrop for that event, which brought together increased focus and attention.

I am extremely grateful to Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex, who we have briefed over the past few months. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Hodgson was with me at our first meeting at Buckingham Palace. She recently declared at a reception specifically for women peacekeepers at Buckingham Palace her commitment to the agenda for women, peace and security and, importantly, her engagement directly with the PSVI agenda.

The UK has also participated directly in survivor-focused events in other countries. Recently, Luxembourg hosted a successful Stand Speak Rise Up! event; the UK brought together international legal experts at Wilton Park; and other events will take place during the course of this year, primarily through institutions of the UN. Germany will be focused on this agenda during its presidency of the Security Council. We will again work hand in glove with like-minded partners to ensure that the focus and international attention are not diverted but sustained and strengthened during 2019.

I said last year that 2019 should be the year of PSVI. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, or anyone who has worked in any form within government, will recognise that sometimes it is slightly easier to start an initiative—no doubt, getting it off the ground is difficult—but my experience over the past 12 months has been that to sustain and strengthen an initiative needs equal commitment.

I am therefore grateful to noble Lords who are here today and others who have worked together. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly pointed out, I have welcomed the direct input and will continue to do so. I invite all noble Lords here today to help us to plan effectively so that we put victims and survivors at the heart of our conference in November.

In line with the rest of our PSVI work, the outcomes of the international conference will be built on the three essential foundations to which the noble Lord alluded: addressing the root causes of conflict-related violence; tackling the stigma associated with it; and, most relevant for today’s debate, achieving justice and accountability for survivors.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned situations elsewhere in the world—in Pakistan and so on—and I am cognisant of the role of faith leaders, a voice which, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, needs to be heard more clearly and loudly. As part of tackling the issue of stigma against the victims, survivors and children born of rape, we are working closely with international faith leaders from all communities and leaders of belief organisations to ensure that there is a declaration of humanity tackling these specific issues at the November conference. Much work is being done directly with faith leaders in this respect.

A key element of our work is focused on enhancing international standards for the collection of evidence in support of prosecution and accountability. My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, touched on these important issues among others. One of the specific outcomes of the PSVI conference will be the strengthening of the Murad code, which is named after Nadia Murad, who I have had the great honour to work with directly. She won a Nobel prize—and rightly so—but dedicated her prize money to a hospital and support for victims and survivors in the country where she suffered.

I have been to Iraq and I have met with the victims of sexual violence from the Yazidi communities. When you look into their eyes, there is a poignancy and a reflection of the experience they have been through. There are no words but their bravery and courage inspires me. I am humbled by the fact that I am leading the Government’s charge on this issue and honoured that I carry the Prime Minister’s title in this respect. This shows that this is not only a commitment for me, the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary but one to which the Head of Government, the Prime Minister, is also committed. Alongside that work, as noble Lords have said, there are recommendations from Wilton Park. Together with our international partners, we are examining how to strengthen accountability through the criminal justice mechanism and other methods such as restorative justice to ensure a survivor-centred approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, talked about her experiences, as did my noble friend. I know that we have been looking at how we can impact some of those survivors in places such as the DRC. I confirm that we are supporting a pilot project with the Mukwege Foundation to assess the feasibility of a national assistance fund for the survivors of sexual violence.

Many noble Lords talked about international mechanisms. It was rightly acknowledged in the contributions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Featherstone and Lady Tonge, that first and foremost the primary responsibility for investigating crimes rests with states. We are building capacity in places such as Iraq in that respect. Tragically, though, in certain circumstances there are states that are genuinely unable or, unfortunately, unwilling to act. International mechanisms therefore have to be strengthened and we are working on that priority.

Jurisprudence on the issue has been advanced through the ad hoc international tribunals and hybrid courts of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, some of which were acknowledged and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I would be pleased to meet him as we build up towards the conference in November to see what more can be done in that respect. Several noble Lords talked about the International Criminal Court. Regrettably, as has been acknowledged, we have seen that decisions do not always go in favour of the survivors. We need not to abandon the ICC but to strengthen the institution, and I assure noble Lords of the UK’s commitment in that regard. That is why we are supporting reform.

I join in the tributes to my noble friend Lord Hague and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie for their continuing commitment, and indeed to my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Anelay. We have worked together on this issue over a period of years along with others in this Room and beyond—my noble friend Lady Helic is another notable contributor—on how to take the issue forward and strengthen accountability in that regard.

I am cognisant of the time. There may be specific questions on which I will need to write to noble Lords but I shall address some of the issues that have been raised. We have so far given £1 million to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria, and we are collecting evidence for possible future prosecutions in that regard.

Several noble Lords raised the issue of Burma, including my noble friend Lady Hodgson. We are working directly on the appalling human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence, perpetrated against the Rohingya community in Rakhine State. We also hope that the new investigative mechanism in Myanmar will ensure that justice is done.

We are at the forefront of ensuring accountability for the well-documented crimes by Daesh. Many noble Lords will know that it was the UK that championed the resolution at the UN Security Council, and I am pleased that a UK QC, Karim Khan, is leading the investigative team in Iraq. We are working with the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government on this issue to develop accountability and justice mechanisms that can be applied locally through strengthening justice mechanisms within Iraq. The team will support efforts by the Government of Iraq to hold Daesh accountable, and I think we need to learn from those experiences to see how the mechanisms can be strengthened elsewhere.

I am conscious of the great expertise that has been shown during the course of this debate, but I should stress that the UK approach to PSVI goes much further than just supporting justice mechanisms. We will work to foster inclusive and equal societies and help all survivors of sexual violence, girls and women but also the young men who are often affected, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

My noble friend asked about sexual exploitation and abuse carried out by UN peacekeepers. The Government agree, which is why we fully support the UN Secretary-General’s zero tolerance approach to this issue and have given a further $3 million directly to the UN over the past three years towards tackling this crime. As I have said, the UK took the lead on UN Security Council Resolution 2272 which mandates the full and transparent reporting of incidents and demands the repatriation of entire contingents guilty of persistent crimes in this respect. The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, asked about the US gag rule. If I may, I will write specifically in response.

In conclusion, I thank all noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lady Hodgson. She and I have worked on this issue over a number of years now. I say to all noble Lords that we will continue to work directly with them on this important issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, people might get a bit concerned because so often we use the phrase that we are “together on this and aligned in our commitment”, but irrespective of which party you represent or what perspective you may hold, I am confident that across this House, the other place and beyond, the United Kingdom is wholly committed. Yes, we will include civil society in our international conference later this year. Crucially, we are working with civil society in other states but, most importantly, with the survivors of sexual violence to put them at the heart of the conference and of our work.

I started with a personal reflection and now end with one. As I said earlier, I have been to Iraq, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Kosovo. I have had the honour of meeting survivors of sexual violence such as Nadia Murad but, more importantly, of listening to and working with them. Their fight for justice is our fight. I can assure noble Lords that the UK, and I as the PM’s special representative, will be relentless in our pursuit of justice to ensure that we end impunity and bring justice to the victims and courageous survivors.

Committee adjourned at 7.30 pm.