Address to Dialogue on Sexual Violence in Conflict

  • Speech, E&OE
02 June 2014

Thank you Harinder and good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

I acknowledge their Excellencies, distinguished guests and my co-host his Excellency the High Commissioner from the United Kingdom, Paul Madden. I welcome you to the national Parliament for this very important dialogue.

For thousands of years, women have been victims of sexual violence – both in times of peace and during times of war and other conflict. As a global community, we've come a long way in punishing and criminalising sexual violence. It is still being used however as a weapon of war – but too often, regular criminal jurisdictions don't function, or they fall apart, during conflicts and crimes go unpunished.

In war there is an absence of civil order. Legal frameworks and human rights break down in the chaos of war. But over the past century, one of the most deeply significant, and positive, elements of human progress has been our attempt, as an international community, to impose human rights, individual dignity and the most basic standards of human behaviour on what happens during periods of conflict.

The Second World War taught us more about the atrocities of which we are capable than any other conflict in our past. But sexual violence is not something most people normally associate with WWII – that's more generally the Holocaust. The truth is, however, that rape was a damning feature of Second World War, just as it has been of every conflict in human history.

In 1949, when the global community sat down to agree on the legal framework we would impose to prevent the wars of the future, genocide was clearly identified as an illegal, criminal act. So was rape. And yet – while we have, over subsequent decades, seen increasing numbers of prosecutions for genocide and other crimes against humanity, criminal punishment for acts of sexual violence committed during wars and conflicts have been few and far between.

The Fourth Geneva convention of 1949 prohibited wartime rape. Yet neither of the two courts set up by the victorious allied countries to prosecute suspected war crimes - in Tokyo and in Nuremberg - recognised the crime of sexual violence.

Only in 1992, in the face of the widespread reported rapes of women in the former Yugoslavia, did the issue come to the attention of the United Nations Security Council. On 18 December 1992, the Council declared the "massive, organised and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women in Bosnia and Herzegovina" an international crime that must be addressed.

Subsequently, in 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime against humanity.

The nature of war has changed. In the "old wars" of the last one hundred years, 85 per cent of the victims of war were men. It is estimated that one civilian died for every eight soldiers. Now those numbers are reversed. Now for every soldier who perishes, eight civilians are killed or wounded. And rape and sexual violence – including sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, and deliberate, involuntary sterilisation of women and girls – continue to be used to terrorise and destroy populations.

Thanks to the initiative established by my friend and UK counterpart Foreign Secretary William Hague - who has long had a strong interest in this issue - Australia is now taking part in the largest global event ever organised on the matter of sexual violence in conflict, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Last September I signed on as a Champion of this initiative, and our Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott-Despoja, who unfortunately cannot be here today, will be attending next week's Global Summit in London on my behalf.

Australia has already done much to address sexual violence in conflict. We introduced its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in 2012, which provides whole of government guidance on this agenda, including preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict. We are working across government, through the Security Council and in our aid program.

For example, through our aid program we are strengthening the role of women in building and restoring peace in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Timor Leste in partnership with UNDP through what's called Phase II of the N-Peace network. In the Philippines, Australia is supporting the role of women as peace-builders and peacemakers through the 'Another Mindanao is Possible' project.

Today, though, I want to accelerate our action to address sexual violence in conflict. To discuss practical ways that we can increase our efforts. Today's focus is on how we put in place and enforce mechanisms to prosecute these crimes and how we provide the services to survivors so they can rebuild their lives and the lives of their communities.

We know war zones are fragile and unstable and we know that law and order breaks down so we need structures in place to prevent and – if prevention fails – to respond to the effects of violence as it occurs.

Fundamental to prevention of violence is the capacity of states to investigate and prosecute sexual violence crimes. Sexual violence crimes need to be legislated into the domestic statute books.

And there is a huge educative task.

The recent kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram is a stark reminder of the threat faced by women and girls in conflict affected areas and undermines the importance of global commitment to this issue. The hard truth is that many of the places where this action is most pressing are places where legal frameworks are not sufficient or non-existent.

We have to build capacity in legal systems to recognise these crimes and to enable investigations and prosecutions to take place. Women must feel safe to report and to testify, and be protected to do it.

Crimes of sexual violence, like other serious international crimes, must be excluded from amnesty provisions, and where national jurisdictions are unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes of sexual violence, we need to explore other avenues.

The International Criminal Court has a crucial role to play in this space. We must also ensure that peacekeepers and military are trained in how to respond to rape in conflict situations.

Women Protection Advisers are one mechanism, deployed in UN peacekeeping missions to mainstream the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence into peacekeeping and special political missions. I would like to see training for all peacekeeping personnel, including military and police.

We also must give survivors access to services - sexual and reproductive health services, psychological, legal, and livelihood support. And support must be ongoing, not just for immediate recovery, but for the longer-term rebuilding of lives and communities.

I take this opportunity this morning to make a number of commitments on behalf of the Australian Government.

I announce today that $3.3 million, of Australia's $17.7 million program to help end violence against women in Afghanistan, will be directed to support the Afghan Women's Network and its member organisations.

Australia will also provide $1 million in partnership with UN Women in Timor Leste, Liberia, and Uganda to support women's engagement in decision-making on peace-building and gender-responsive security sector reform.

And an additional $1.65 million in assistance to humanitarian and emergency initiatives through ProCap and Gencap, the Women's Refugee Commission as well as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for the work of the Gender Based Violence Area of Responsibility.

I welcome the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict that will be launched at the Global Summit next week. And we will continue to strongly advocate in the Security Council for consideration of the Women, Peace and Security agenda across the breadth of its work. Our own National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security is one such measure.

UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura has said:

"Sexual violence in conflict needs to be treated as the war crime that it is; it can no longer be treated as an unfortunate collateral damage of war."

Let me repeat that.

"An unfortunate collateral damage of war".

We cannot accept a world where women are considered collateral damage of war. We have to work together - this is a matter for the good minds in all sectors - legal, military, government, policing, humanitarian, diplomatic, judicial and NGOs. We need practical, tangible actions. We need clear, tough laws, so perpetrators can be prosecuted and survivors can be heard and vindicated. We need frontline services so women can rebuild their lives and communities.

Rape and sexual violence must be crimes in any language, in any context, in any conflict, anywhere.

I thank the United Kingdom Government, represented by High Commissioner Paul Madden, and Foreign Secretary William Hague for placing this issue at the forefront of the global debate, the dialogue on ending sexual violence in conflict.

- Ends -

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