A Significant First Step in Tackling Sexual Violence in Conflict:
The 2013 London G8 Foreign Ministers' Meeting

Julia Kulik, G8 Research Group
June 6, 2013

Preventing sexual violence in conflict was a top priority at the G8 foreign ministers' meeting in London on April 10-11, 2013. Even with escalating threats from North Korea and the continued devastating civil war in Syria, the UK's Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), championed by British foreign secretary William Hague, was supported by all the foreign ministers of the G8. Together, they pledged $36 million to support the prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence, support human rights defenders in conflict and post-conflict states, and improve recovery programs for victims of sexual violence. With the recognition of rape and sexual violence as breaches of the Geneva Conventions, the G8 foreign ministers have made a significant first step in addressing this global problem. However, it remains to be seen whether the $36 million will be enough to support these programs in an ongoing way and whether the same kind of action and support will be taken at the leaders' level at the G8 Lough Erne Summit in June.

The UK Initiative to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict

On May 29, 2012, William Hague announced that the UK, as part of its presidency of the G8, would launch an initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict. The UK's PSVI contains three components. The first is a British commitment to assemble of a team of experts, including criminal lawyers, gender-based violence experts, investigators and social workers, that can be easily deployed to gather evidence and testimonies to support the prosecution process. The second is a push from the British government to have other G8 members come to a consensus on an international protocol for gathering such evidence. And the third is the recognition by members that rape and sexual violence be considered "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions.

As part of the hosting process, the G8 member holding the presidency typically chooses a small range of specific issues that it identifies as priorities to receive particular attention at the summit and its final outcome documents. It is also common practice for the host country to champion an initiative for an issue that it deems to be timely and important. The UK has acknowledged the devastating effects of sexual violence on the well-being of individuals, the social fabric of communities, and the peace and security of states. However, Prime Minister David Cameron has yet to mention the preventing sexual violence initiative when he talks about the UK's G8 hosting priorities. So it remains to be seen whether Hague's advocacy for the issue will translate to the leaders' level meeting.

The Global Issue

Sexual violence in conflict is by no means a new issue. It has been viewed as an inevitable consequence of war, particularly civil war, as long as these types of conflicts have existed. It is often times used as a strategy by armed groups to humiliate opponents, as an attack against ethnicity and biology, to instill fear and to convey dominance over women. It should be noted, however, that although the large majority of victims are women and girls, men and boys are also victims of sexual violence in conflict. The results of these attacks lead to the ostracization of victims and the breakdown of households and communities, which then perpetuate the cycle of insecurity and conflict. Even within the last ten years, the number of cases of sexual violence in conflict is staggering. It is estimated that upwards of 500,000 women and girls were raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and 60,000 in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, and there have been at least 200,000 cases documented in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. And while there are no exact figures on the increasing sexual violence that has been occurring in Syria, the International Rescue Committee has identified rape and sexual violence as among the primary reasons that people have fled the country since the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

G8 Foreign Ministers' Meeting

These disturbing facts were no doubt on the minds of the G8 foreign ministers when they met on April 10-11 to discuss global peace, security and prosperity and how the G8 can contribute during its 2013 summit year. In the final statement released at London on April 11, the foreign ministers endorsed the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. In the declaration, the ministers acknowledged the progress made by the relevant international organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups in responding to this violence. They publicly supported advancing the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security and on children in armed conflict, recognizing that rape and sexual violence are serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

The foreign ministers also recognized the importance of the International Criminal Court and ad hoc and mixed tribunals in maintaining that acts of sexual violence are a crime against humanity. They noted that the weakened national justice systems in conflict and post-conflict states contribute to the impunity for conflict-related sexual violence and the lack of punishment for the perpetrators of these crimes. The ministers, largely led by the British government, agreed to identify rape and other serious forms of sexual violence in armed conflict as war crimes that constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. This kind of identification can make it easier for individual G8 members to advocate for international humanitarian intervention under the existing international legal frameworks.

The G8 foreign ministers also acknowledged several issues that they were initially expected to ignore. When the UK's PSVI was announced last year, it looked as though it would heavily emphasize the prosecutorial aspect of sexual violence. And while this is an essential component to an effective response, it alone is not enough to prevent these crimes. At London, the ministers acknowledged the vital role that civil society organizations play in promoting women and children's rights and agreed to enhance the coordination of protection efforts for human rights defenders in conflict-affected states. Furthermore, they highlighted the need for peaceful and effective post-conflict transition and promoted the full participation of women in the peacebuilding process.

The statements made by G8 foreign ministers along with the $36 million in additional funding to prevent sexual violence in conflict have the potential to make significant strides in ending the stigmatization of sexual violence victims, promoting the rights of women and girls, persecuting the perpetrators of these crimes, and fostering peace and security in volatile states. However, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan's minister of information and broadcasting, has already publicly stated that the $36 million pledged for preventing sexual violence is not enough. The G8 ministers highlighted the many fundamental components of this issue in a much more substantial way than was initially expected. The stage is now set for more effective action to take place in the final months leading up to the leaders' level meeting in June and years to follow.

[back to top]