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Sexual Violence in Conflict

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022

2. What steps her Department is taking to protect women and girls from the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict. (906603)

10. What diplomatic steps her Department is taking to help ensure sexual violence is not used as a weapon of war. (906612)

The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict is a war crime. The UK is determined to tackle this scourge, which devastates lives. That is why we are campaigning for it to be a red line, on a par with the use of chemical weapons.

The reports of appalling, widespread sexual violence being used by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are deeply disturbing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Murad code is a vital step to ensuring justice for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, and that we must send a strong message to Russia and to Putin that rape as a weapon of war is evil and we must stamp it out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is evil, and we have seen horrific sights in towns such as Bucha, where rape and sexual violence were used to terrorise women and children. The UK is leading the charge on the need to collect evidence of those crimes, and under our presidency of the United Nations Security Council we have launched the Murad code, which sets global standards for effective evidence-gathering on sexual violence.

Today’s Daily Telegraph includes the testimony of Anna, a 41-year-old woman from Ukraine who says she was raped by a 19-year-old soldier. I note that the UN Secretary-General is meeting Mr Putin today to discuss humanitarian aid, and I hope he will bring up the use of rape as a weapon of war—a weapon that the Russians seem to be using. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the UN charter mandate is to maintain international peace and security, perhaps it is time the international community questioned whether Russia should remain a permanent member of the Security Council?

My hon. Friend is right about the appalling reports that we have seen in the Telegraph and other newspapers of the use of rape in Ukraine. The Security Council has a role to play. Under our presidency of the Security Council, we have used it to call out Russia’s lies. We have also hosted President Zelensky, who has spoken to the Security Council. My hon. Friend is also right that we have concerns about an international security architecture that has Russia as one of the permanent members of the Security Council, where it has used its veto as a green light for barbarism. Part of our response has been working more closely with allies such as the G7 and NATO, because we simply have not seen enough taking place at a UN level.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to the Murad code for survivors, but the Foreign Secretary knows that my commitment is to prevention. Women and girls in conflict zones are subjected to particular sexual violence. Rape continues, without apparent consequence, in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Myanmar—I could go on. What plans does the Foreign Secretary have to make tackling sexual violence a part of a broader cross-Government atrocity prevention programme?

The hon. Lady is right that we are seeing appalling cases not just in Ukraine but in countries such as Ethiopia. Later this year, in November, the UK will host an international conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We are working with counterparts such as the Canadians on the idea of a new convention that puts sexual violence on the same level in war as the use of chemical weapons. We are also working across Government with our domestic programme to prevent sexual violence. We are restoring our budget for women and girls, one of the key parts of which is for work on preventing sexual violence. We will shortly release our new international development budget for 2022-23.

We are hearing heartbreaking stories of children being forced to watch their mothers being raped and then murdered in Ukraine. We are hearing of rape being used as a weapon of war across conflicts, including in Tigray in Ethiopia. International Rescue Committee analysis reveals that women and girls across conflicts are experiencing widespread abuse and exploitation, including rape. What are the Government doing not only to stop this being used as a weapon of war but to challenge the way that women are used and exploited in conflicts across the world?

The hon. Lady is right: this abhorrent policy is being used to terrorise women and children. It is being used to destroy communities and destroy their spirit. It is a deliberate act. We know that; it is what the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report on what is happening in Ukraine shows. First, we are working to collect the evidence through a number of bodies, including the Metropolitan police. We are funding the International Criminal Court to collect evidence. We will make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. More than that, we need new international agreement on making the use of sexual violence in war a red line. It needs to be regarded on the same level as the use of chemical weapons. That has not yet happened. That is why the UK is hosting a conference on this later this year, and we are working with international partners on this. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is appalling and abhorrent.

I welcome enormously my right hon. Friend’s words on sexual violence in conflict. We have seen the rape of Bucha, sadly, and the rape of so many other towns and cities around the world, most notably in places such as Ethiopia and Mali. However, will my right hon. Friend also talk about sexual violence not in conflict? There is forced genital mutilation of young women and girls around the world, and an extraordinary level of violence in ordinary life outside conflict. The work that her Department can do in helping communities to defend themselves is not just transforming them, but transforming countries’ economies and futures.

That is why it is so important to restore the women and girls budget, as we will in our new announcement on international development. Key focuses will be girls’ education, ending the use of female genital mutilation, and preventing sexual violence in conflict but also more broadly. My hon. Friend is right. If women do not have this basic security, they will not be able to achieve their full potential, or have the opportunities they should. That is of course appalling for them, but also appalling for the societies they live in. That is why, in our international development policy, we absolutely must start with the most vulnerable, who are women and children.

Sexual violence and rape are abhorrent anyway, but their use in conflict is a crime against humanity. I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said about trying to get a convention in place that puts their use on the same level as the use of chemical weapons. On the women and children who are victims now, what work is she doing with our allies to ensure that the perpetrators of these vile crimes are brought to account, and that authorities go after the generals in charge of those soldiers, because these are war crimes?

They are war crimes. We are collecting the evidence, and we have British people currently working with the Ukrainian Government in Ukraine collecting that evidence. We are working with the International Criminal Court. If the ICC mechanisms are not enough, we will find other ways of getting to the people—not just those who perpetrated the crimes, but those who ordered them to be perpetrated. Also, through the aid budget that we have allocated to Ukraine, we are helping the victims. We are helping the survivors of sexual violence, and we are allocating money to local organisations to help those who have gone through the appalling trauma of being raped and sexually abused in conflict.