Being wary of milestones: thoughts on Uganda and Sexual Violence in Conflict
“This is a milestone towards shattering impunity for those who commit horrific sexual crimes during times of war.”
– UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague
A milestone it may be, but a ‘Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’, will feel like another hollow promise for Uganda’s victims of sexual violence. That is, if they even notice such remote efforts.
Led by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, this declaration has garnered widespread support from the World Health Organisation and some 122 States have agreed to its terms. The list of consenting States includes Uganda. The declaration, launched on the 14th September 2013, has strong terms on accountability, prevention, support, and ending impunity. Despite of this however, it does not constitute a legally binding document under international law.
As Uganda begins to emerge from its conflict-affected past there is much for human rights advocates to think about. We must listen hard to the voices of the 28.6% of women and 6.7% of men who reported having suffered sexual violence, and work with them to achieve genuine justice and to avoid repetition. In doing so, we should engage with the tenants of international human rights law that frame transitional justice that require that authorities to ‘investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including sexual violence’ (OHCHR pg5). The general, as well as the particular, nature of the violation should be acknowledged (Sivakumaran 2007 pg257). That is, the violence should be acknowledged as an abuse of power, as torture, and as a weapon of war; but also as an individual instance of sexual violence.
At the same time, we must also ensure that the effects of displacement that took place during the conflict are mitigated and compensated and that individuals’ ‘everyday’ rights are restored. There is a need to use truth commissions in a ‘holistic’ manner, to address civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and to uncover the causes of rights violations, as well as the circumstances of the violations themselves (OHCHR pg17).
In whatever advocacy we are engaged, however, we should avoid human rights ‘imperialism’. It is imperative that the voices which are heard loudest are those of victims, that there is a transparent motive for actions, that promises are not hollow or misleading, and that we apply an equal standard of human rights scrutiny to ourselves and our own countries.
A ‘Global Summit’ on Sexual Violence in Conflict took place in London on the 10th June 2014. It was of course welcome, but we should still be searching earnestly for those things that are most needed in Uganda and elsewhere. Are the victims of sexual violence being heard? Are they being promised justice, and will this promise be delivered upon? Will the other rights violations associated with that conflict be addressed and compensated? How is sexual violence being dealt with in the UK?
Simply, as advocates, we have a duty to do more than ‘swoon’ at the mention of ‘human rights’. When William Hague declares the next ‘milestone’ in the struggle against sexual violence in conflict, we should make sure it really is one.