ICRC president calls for action on sexual violence in conflict

12 June 2014

Every day, ICRC staff see sexual violence in the places where we are striving to make a difference. We witness the effects of this silent crime on individuals, families and communities. Over the next four years, the ICRC is prioritizing an effective response to sexual violence. This is the speech that our president Peter Maurer made to the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict on 12 June 2014.

A little bit more than a year ago, when I was just a couple months in my tenure as president of the ICRC, I was largely unaware of the magnitude and complexity of the problem of sexual violence. To me, it was one of the many heart-wrenching issues that my organisation – the International Committee of the Red Cross – dealt with in situations of conflict. Over the last twelve months, my perspective has changed. Not least because of an important meeting I had with William Hague, during which he walked me through his concerns and spoke powerfully of the importance of bringing sexual violence centre stage.

Shortly after this meeting with William, I visited Kaga-Bandoro in the Central African Republic. The drama of sexual violence unfolded in front of me as I listened to our delegates tell me stories of taboo and stigmatization, lack of adequate space for treatment, warfare hampering progress, accelerating numbers of victims, treating the invisible… and above all, the tremendous mental strength needed when working at the abyss of the human nature.
My organisation is present in over 80 countries across the globe. We have over 12,000 colleagues, working in some of the most dangerous places in the world – we are present in many Kaga-Bandoros.

For 150 year we have endeavoured to limit the impact of armed conflict on civilians. Today, we continue to help victims of war and violence. We use the law and we address vulnerabilities and patterns of violence. In prisons and Ministries, with opposition fighters and community leaders, we talk to the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict in order to change their behaviour. Everyday we see sexual violence in the places where we are striving to make a difference. We witness the effects of this silent crime on individuals, families and communities.

Nobody is raped by accident. Sexual violence is not collateral damage. It never occurs in isolation. Sexual violence is deeply linked to other patterns of violence in conflict and absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law. It can amount to torture and it is always ill treatment. It turns specially protected persons into subjects of deliberate attacks.

Women and men, boys and girls are subject to rape, abuse, forced prostitution, survival sex and trafficking. Young girls are married before puberty to strangers, or even to the men who raped them. Fathers are forced to watch the rape of daughters, husbands the abuse of their wives, and children, violence committed against their mothers, their sisters. Male victims are accused of homosexuality, isolated, silent, wounded.

It is a testament to the survivors of sexual violence that we are all here today. The strength of their courage to speak out, or just carry with them the tragedy of what they have experienced.

Sexual violence is a crime where we stigmatize the victims, not the criminals. Where risk of rejection and fear of reprisal compounds extreme violence.

The ICRC is here because that needs to change.

Over the next four years, we will prioritise an effective response to sexual violence. For instance, in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan and Syria we are developing and reinforcing our programmes, working with others, changing behaviours and providing life-saving help to detainees, abused women, vulnerable girls and the male victims of this crime.

Together with our Red Cross and Red Crescent partners, we are committed to improving the quality and scope of our programmes. We must be proactive and not wait for the victims to come to us.
I believe the ICRC has an important role to play in the prevention and the global response to victims of sexual violence.

We talk to people, leaders and policy-makers, to communities, families and victims. We carve out safe spaces for confidential dialogue. But also, we act. We must talk and act to end sexual violence in conflict.