Skip to main content

Ukraine: Rape as a Weapon of War

Volume 820: debated on Friday 1 April 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 31 March.

“On 24 February, Russia launched a premeditated and wholly unprovoked invasion into Ukraine. Since then, we have been horrified by reports of rape and sexual violence committed by Russian armed forces in Ukraine. We have been clear that Russia’s barbaric acts must be investigated and those responsible held to account. Let us be clear: indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians amount to war crimes for which the Putin regime must be held accountable.

That is why the Government worked with partners to refer the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court, to establish a commission of inquiry through the UN Human Rights Council with the support of Ukraine and to establish an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission of experts. We brought allies together to expedite an ICC investigation into the situation in Ukraine through state party referral. With 37 countries joining the UK, it was the largest referral in the ICC’s history. The international community is isolating Putin on the world stage.

It is vital that the ICC is able to carry out that investigation, which is why the UK will provide military, policing and financial support to help to uncover evidence of such crimes and ultimately seek justice. On 24 March, we announced an additional £1 million of funding for the ICC to help to uncover evidence of war crimes and we are providing UK experts to support the investigation.

Sadly, rape in war is not new. Before the war started in Ukraine, the Foreign Secretary committed the UK to do more to tackle sexual violence in conflict, including, but not limited to, its use as a method of warfare. We are working with countries and international partners to strengthen the international response. All options are on the table, including a new international convention that would help to hold perpetrators to account.

The UK continues to act decisively with its allies to punish the Putin regime for its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and we will do all we can to bring the perpetrators of war crimes, including sexual violence, to justice.”

My Lords, it is nearly 22 years ago that the UN adopted Resolution 1325, the first legal document from the Security Council that required parties in a conflict to prevent violations of women’s rights, to support women’s participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction and to protect women and girls from wartime sexual violence. Despite this, we have continued to see sexual violence in Tigray, in Myanmar, in Iraq and now in Ukraine.

I have two questions for the Minister. Vicky Ford was specifically asked yesterday to confirm whether we had deployed our PSVI team to support survivors and victims of sexual violence into Ukraine or the surrounding areas. While detailing support for evidence-gathering efforts, she did not respond specifically on the deployment of the team to support survivors. I hope that the Minister will address that specific issue. Secondly, how are we pursuing more generally with our allies and the Security Council adherence to the principles of Resolution 1325 in Ukraine?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. I put on record my strong recognition of his support for this important government initiative. In answer to his first question, I have visited the region quite deliberately with a broader mandate to look at the humanitarian situation but also at the increasing number of reports that are coming out of conflict-related sexual violence. We have a specialist team. We have deployed humanitarian teams specifically in the first instance. We have also provided health teams who are making health assessments, including of those people leaving Ukraine who are sharing their insights, particularly those who may have fallen victim to sexual violence.

The other element is about gathering information. With regard to the situation in Ukraine, we have not entered Ukraine with those specific teams because of the situation on the ground. I know that the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, has visited and, as I have said previously, we are working closely with him. I am chairing a session in New York during our presidency in the second week of April on this specific issue and will meet key partners about the co-ordination of our efforts and ultimately ensuring, as I know all noble Lords want to ensure, that all perpetrators are held to account. We welcome the opening of this specific inquiry by the prosecutor and we are fully supporting, financially and technically, that investigation.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the UN Security Council, where we take the chair as president today. I understand that last night our ambassador there briefed the president of the General Assembly about the nature of the special events that we will hold during the month of April. My noble friend referred to the fact that he is attending a meeting there. Can he, as the Prime Minister’s well-respected special representative for the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, give the undertaking that one of the special events held during April will be specifically to draw attention to the sexual war crimes that are being committed daily by Russian troops in Ukraine and that we will do our utmost to ensure that Russia does not follow its normal role at the Security Council of trying to persuade others to abstain or vote against what are essential resolutions?

I assure my noble friend, who was a distinguished holder of this important role, that the session that I am chairing will look specifically at issues of conflict-related sexual violence in areas of conflict around the world, including Ukraine. I will also be meeting the Ukrainian ambassador and other senior figures within the UN framework to ensure that the prioritisation we give to this issue in the context of Ukraine is clearly understood. My noble friend will know all too well, as do I, about the frustrations with Russia on the Security Council, but nevertheless we are investing directly in bilateral engagement with our partners on the Security Council.

My Lords, everyone in your Lordships’ House will feel revulsion at the news coming out of Ukraine that sexual violence and rape are yet again being used as a weapon of war. This is not unusual; it has been happening for decades, if not centuries. However, from our recent experience in the Balkans, we in the United Kingdom have experience of assisting with making sure that evidence is properly documented and collated in order that, in this instance, the perpetrators in Putin’s army are held accountable and face justice. What is being done to make sure that evidence is properly gathered and collated so that it goes to an international court when the time is right? What support is being given to women? Are we in touch with human rights and other organisations on the ground to assist women to ensure that their stories are heard and they are getting the appropriate and necessary support?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second question, the answer is yes, but that is being stepped up. Anyone who has sat down with a survivor of sexual violence knows that in many instances it takes time for them even to share their horrific experiences. Our health teams are on the ground working with near neighbours—including Poland, where I visited—to ensure that there is a consistent and co-ordinated approach, particularly to those who have been the victims of such abhorrent actions. Equally, on the issue of collecting evidence, the noble Baroness may be aware that we are working directly with Nadia Murad on the intended Murad code, which has been launched and shared with partners. We are working with the ICC and other partners on the parameters of the code, which ensures a specific way of collecting evidence that is both sensitive and sustainable but, most importantly, allows for the legal thresholds to be met for successful prosecutions to take place.

My Lords, the concern about the widespread use of sexual violence in war has arisen specifically from a case raised by the Ukrainian MP, Maria Mezentseva, in which a woman was raped in front of her child by a Russian soldier. Are we in touch with the Ukrainian Member of Parliament in giving her all the support we can, even though our own teams are unable, as the Minister has said, to go into the country? Last week, I met Ukrainian refugees while I was in Lithuania, and I was struck that every single one of the thousands arriving every day is asked routinely in the questionnaires that they are given whether they have any evidence of crimes being committed that could be considered as humanitarian crimes or war crimes. Are we doing the same with all refugees who arrive in the United Kingdom so that we collate the evidence in the way that has been referred to? On Wednesday, I asked the Minister about inviting Karim Khan QC, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, to meet your Lordships so that we can discuss these issues further with him, if necessary in a closed session. Is the Minister able to take that forward?

On the noble Lord’s second point, and as I have indicated, we are liaising with Karim closely and will certainly take that up with him. On his earlier point about arrivals here, I shall share that with the Home Office. We offer a wide range of support, but I shall come back to the noble Lord on that particular issue. The case that the noble Lord mentioned is unfortunately, regrettably and tragically not the only one. We have been following the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, who has articulated clearly the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence. We are engaging directly with the leadership of Ukraine to ensure that it knows that it has our full support. We will extend our support in every respect on this important issue.

My Lords, it is a tragic reality that in conflicts and crises around the world sexual violence has become a weapon of war. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to do more to tackle sexual violence in conflict. Does my noble friend have any update on the idea of a new international convention that would help to hold perpetrators to account?

My Lords, my noble friend is of course right. We are working through a new initiative to strengthen our approach to sexual violence launched by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. We are increasing the number of countries that are now part of that. As I indicated, I shall also be at the UN in a couple of weeks’ time, where this will be primary among my engagements bilaterally. I can share with your Lordships’ House that we have already made a public commitment to holding a specific event on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We are finalising some of the dates, but it is likely to be in the last quarter of this year.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness has said, increasingly, rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war is becoming the rule and accountability is becoming the exception. One exception is that in Germany in January a Syrian former intelligence officer was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed in the Syrian civil war, including rape. This is an example of national courts prosecuting irrespective of nationality where an offence has been committed if they have in place universal jurisdiction laws, as in a limited way we do. Even Russia has universal jurisdiction laws. There is enormous potential in this area. Are our Government working with allies and others to explore that route and to extend it substantially?

I can assure the noble Lord that the answer to that is yes. Earlier this week, I attended a meeting chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary that covered among other issues the very issue that the noble Lord has raised.

To pick up a strand of what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, may have wanted to ask about, on Yazidis, as I indicated in response to my noble friend Lady Anelay, while the Security Council meeting that we will be hosting will home in on the situation in Ukraine, it will not in any shape or form diminish the continuing issues of sexual violence in other conflicts. I mentioned Nadia Murad. As a Yazidi, she is working centrally with the Government.

On accountability and justice, as was said earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, we know of the experience of the Balkans. It took more than 20 years for women—there have also been men who have tragically fallen victim to this crime—to get any sense of justice. It can take time, but the United Kingdom launched this initiative with the view that it would be very much on the front burner and it remains a key priority. I shall of course update noble Lords on my return from the United Nations about progress being made.