Contrary to what cynics would have us believe on the recent London summit, the global campaign to combat sexual violence in conflict could count on every single effort to keep the spotlight on this burning issue. All the more so considering the impunities that the perpetrators continued to enjoy for crimes against women and children in war zones ranging from the Congo to Somalia and Syria to Sri Lanka, until some years back. The particular vulnerability of children to physical and sexual assaults and the attendant social stigma and long-term devastation become a perpetual cycle owing to the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. The 1925 Geneva Conventions and the special tribunals to try crimes of genocide and breach of humanitarian law established in the 1990s are still at best well-intentioned, rather than vibrant and effective, institutional mechanisms. Even the more recent International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague is beset with formidable obstacles when it comes to bringing criminals to justice. The refusal of the United States government to bring itself under the ICC’s jurisdiction means that The Hague court is deprived of the tremendous authority and clout the world’s foremost superpower could have brought to it. The initiative by Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, and the UN ambassador, Angelina Jolie, should be judged against this not-so-bright backdrop.
The London summit resulted in as many as 150 countries signing a protocol to end sexual violence in conflict situations, at the end of week-long deliberations. The guidelines contained therein on collection of evidence and investigation of atrocities remain critical to the protection of the integrity and dignity of individual victims. The provisions of the protocol are obviously far from being any binding legal commitments. Nevertheless, such promises provide a platform that civil society organisations may build upon to press governments to commit to concrete actions in the future. Reports have come to light during the summit that African victims of rape and violence seeking asylum in the U.K. have been subjected to harassment. Britain’s global leadership role on this issue would if anything pile positive pressure on authorities at home to put in place mechanisms that are more humane and sensitive while screening applicants. The “great moral issue of our time,” was how the plight of women victims of conflict, an issue that warrants urgent attention, was described in April in the UN Security Council by the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on the subject. Deliberating on such defining questions of our collective humanity cannot remain optional for democratic governments.