Time to act against sexual violence in war, says Jolie

Gulf countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia back campaign to prevent and prosecute crimes of sexual violence in war

Hollywood star Angelina Jolie has called for international action to end sexual violence in war and boost support for survivors, as part of a campaign supported by a number of Gulf countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

A global summit, held in London, opened yesterday with calls by UK foreign secretary William Hague and Jolie – a special envoy to the UN refugee agency – to raise awareness of the scale of sexual crimes committed during conflict.

They hope to promote actions to prevent and prosecute the crimes, including better training of security forces and peacekeepers and the launch of an international protocol on standards for investigating sexual violence in conflict zones.

“I have met survivors from Afghanistan to Somalia… They live in refugee camps, or bombed-out streets in areas where there is no law, no protection and not even the hope of justice,” Jolie told delegates in her opening speech. “We need to shatter [the] culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes.”

Sexual and gender-based violence is one of the most serious threats to the safety of those forced to flee conflict, which can lead to lasting psychological and physical damage, according to UNHCR.

Jolie was appointed as one of UNHCR’s special envoys in 2012, after previously representing the UN agency as a goodwill ambassador since 2001. The four-day global summit is the result of a two-year tie-up between Jolie and Hague to tackle rape in conflict.

The initiative was prompted by the making of Jolie’s film on the Bosnian war, In the Land of Blood and Honey, where more than 20,000 women are thought to have been affected. Since launching their joint campaign, a UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has been endorsed by more than 140 countries, including the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

More than 100 international delegates – including US secretary of state John Kerry and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon – are expected to gather on the summit’s final day to hear the summit’s recommendations, which include calling for more funds to tackle sexual violence in conflicted-afflicted countries.

For its part, the UK announced a £6m ($10m) fund to support survivors of sexual violence in conflict. “We want to draw attention to the hidden survivors of sexual violence,” said Hague. “We want people around the world to understand the scale of the problem and the urgent need for action.”

Gender-based violence continues today in conflict zones such as Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, said Hague.

In Syria, an estimated 6,000 women have been raped since the start of the conflict, according to figures released at the end of 2013 by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network. The figure is likely to be an underestimate due to the stigma attached to reporting such incidents, said the study.

There is evidence the problem is mounting in Syria. The UN’s population fund has seen an increase in the numbers of Syrians seeking help for gender-based violence services; more than 2,000 women a month sought help in March this year, up from some 380 in January.

“This whole subject has been taboo for far too long,” said Jolie. “We need political will, replicated across the world, and we need to treat this subject as a priority.”