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(Washington, DC) - The United States Senate should move beyond collecting testimony in its commitment to help prevent and punish rape in conflict, Human Rights Watch said today in a written submission to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The US is in a strong position to provide active global leadership and to press for international action, Human Rights Watch said.   

Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin are co-sponsoring a hearing today on violence against women in conflict, featuring witnesses from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur. The Obama administration's new ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer, will also testify.

"It is heartening to see the Senate and the administration come together to exchange views on this critical issue," said Marianne Mollmann, women's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. "But sexual violence in conflict is nothing new. We know it happens. We know it goes unpunished. Now is the time for action, not words."

Sexual violence against women and girls has been a horrifying characteristic of all recent armed conflicts and many post-conflict situations. Human Rights Watch has documented this violence in countries ranging from Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the former Yugoslavia. The research also shows that the perpetrators of these crimes rarely are brought to justice. In many conflict areas, seeking justice for sexual violence is difficult, often dangerous, and frequently very costly.

"Victims of violence often confront a gutted, corrupt, or untrained police force and justice system," said Mollmann. "In some cases, the police are afraid of investigating crimes committed by soldiers or militia, and certainly can't provide protection for the victims of abuse."

The hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is meant to generate concrete action points for the United States and will consider detailed submissions from Human Rights Watch and other organizations. The United States is in a particularly strong position to engage other countries on this issue, both because of its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, and because of its substantial foreign aid to conflict-ridden countries. 

Last June, the Bush administration led the Security Council in a resolution that, for the first time, unequivocally mandated the United Nations to address sexual violence as a weapon of war and a threat to international peace and security. Advocates hope that the Senate hearing will consolidate US leadership on this issue, specifically by pushing the United Nations to establish a senior special representative on sexual violence.

"Stopping rape in war is as bipartisan as it gets," said Mollmann. "Here, the Senate really can come together and speak with one voice to benefit women worldwide by urging the United Nations to put its money where its mouth is and appoint a special representative to tackle this issue head on."

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