Atrocities by Russian forces in Ukraine show a new approach is needed to tackle sexual violence in conflict
Reports of Russian war crimes in Ukraine have become grimly familiar, revealing – if the invasion itself had not – the full barbarity of Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
The atrocities demand a bold, swift and, where necessary, innovative response so that crimes can be investigated, perpetrators punished, and impunity shattered.
Russian soldiers have been accused of committing rape and sexual assaults against Ukrainians – women, girls, men and boys, young and old. Killings in Bucha received media attention, but less prominent were reports from Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman, of sexual violence in the town.
Women and girls kept in a basement for 25 days and repeatedly raped – nine of them now pregnant. A 14-year-old girl raped by five men, and an 11-year-old boy raped in front of his mother.
As Russian forces refocus on eastern Ukraine, atrocities may become more likely, part of a push to shatter Ukrainian spirit and Russify conquered territory.
Justice for survivors, and accountability for perpetrators, are vanishingly rare
Ukrainian prosecutors and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have pledged to include conflict-related sexual violence in their war crimes investigations. But the experience of other conflicts – where sexual violence has been a feature in every continent bar Antarctica – does not offer much hope.
Justice for survivors, and accountability for perpetrators, are vanishingly rare. There has only been one successful ICC prosecution for sexual violence. One member of Isis has been prosecuted for keeping Yazidi women in sexual slavery. No senior figures have been held to account for sexual violence in Myanmar or Ethiopia.
Solving this injustice requires a new approach. We need not only the will to see perpetrators brought to justice, but a more effective and reliable way to collect evidence – evidence that will not fall at the first contact with courtrooms in Kyiv or The Hague.
To achieve this we need a new, permanent international body to investigate sexual violence in conflict and help end the impunity which perpetrators have so long enjoyed. Able to operate wherever and whenever allegations are reported, it would ensure that conflict-related sexual violence gets dedicated attention, rather than being treated as too difficult or shameful.
It would bring knowledge and focus to existing investigations – supporting local prosecutors and the ICC in Ukraine, for example – or conduct its own as circumstances demand, filling the accountability gap which so often hampers justice.
With the expertise to collect high-quality evidence, in accordance with best practice and “do no harm” principles, it could support prosecutions in local or international courts, and provide the evidence for other justice and accountability mechanisms, including sanctions.
The coalition of countries currently supporting Ukraine should be encouraged to support the new body – as members of Nato and the European Union, most are already committed to tackling sexual violence in conflict.
Work should begin on establishing the body immediately, so it can support efforts to collect evidence on the ground in Ukraine right now. A formal launch, and global expansion, could come at the summit the UK is hosting this November, to mark 10 years of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.
Increasing the number of prosecutions will not end conflict-related sexual violence tomorrow. But it will help deliver the justice survivors deserve and demand. By showing that perpetrators will be held accountable, it will help deter future crimes.
Taking sexual violence seriously, treating it as a crime, will show survivors their voices matter. It will help change cultures, so that it is perpetrators, not survivors, who face stigma.
A new investigatory body could drive that change. It would be a tangible contribution to preventing sexual violence in conflict, and a warning to the Russian state – and aggressors everywhere – not to assume their forces can act with impunity.
Baroness Helić is a Conservative peer.
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