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(London) – The London Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict is a landmark opportunity to strengthen global efforts to end rape in war, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments should use the summit, from June 10 to June 13, 2014, to make strong public commitments to end impunity for sexual violence, assist survivors, and prevent further rapes.

The London Summit is the culmination of a two-year campaign by the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, William Hague, to draw attention to the widespread use of sexual violence in armed conflicts. It is expected to be the largest gathering of governments, United Nations agencies, activists, and donors to discuss how to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

“The terrible human cost for civilians caught in conflict is even greater for women and girls, who often face sexual violence from all sides and have nowhere to turn for protection,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The London summit will only be a success if the pledges countries make to end the scourge of rape in war are translated into concrete action.”

Human rights defenders from Somalia, Mali, Guinea, and Colombia will join Human Rights Watch representatives in meetings with governments to share their personal experiences. Human Rights Watch has recently documented sexual violence in armed conflicts by government forces and non-state armed groups in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, Libya, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Syria. Efforts to hold attackers to account and medical and rehabilitation services for victims have largely been inadequate.

Countries with armed conflicts should make clear they will arrest and prosecute those responsible for sexual violence, including officers in their own troops with command responsibility for the attackers, Human Rights Watch said. They should also provide medical, social, and psychological services to rape victims.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances of mass rape and other forms of sexual violence in Congo. The widespread sexual violence in eastern Congo will not end until the attackers, as well as leaders bearing command responsibility, are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

Government officials should send strong, clear warnings to soldiers, officers, combatants, and warlords that rape carries a high price. The government should create a new judicial mechanism to ensure that people accused of serious crimes under international law, including sexual violence, are arrested and prosecuted in fair, credible trials. A government proposal to establish specialized mixed chambers could make an important difference and deserves international support, Human Rights Watch said.

In Somalia, Human Rights Watch has since 2011 documented sexual violence against women and girls in camps in Mogadishu, the capital, for people displaced by the fighting. The Federal Government of Somalia should take effective measures to prevent security force personnel and others from committing sexual violence and to hold attackers and their commanders accountable. As a top priority, the government should ensure that government security forces and intelligence services don’t retaliate against victims who report sexual abuse, as occurred in three high-profile cases in 2013.

The international community has made progress in recognizing the prevalence of sexual violence and taken steps to address it. Rape in conflict is prosecuted as a war crime and a crime against humanity, and the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2008 expressing its willingness to “adopt appropriate steps” to address widespread or systematic sexual violence. Security Council Resolution 1820 urges all parties to provide sustainable assistance to victims of sexual violence in armed conflict and post-conflict situations.

“Progress has been made in addressing sexual violence in war, but as women in Congo, Somalia, and elsewhere know only too well, it’s not enough,” Gerntholtz said. “Governments need to promote full equality for women and girls, step up their efforts to prevent sexual abuse in conflict situations, and address the health, protection, and justice needs of survivors.” 

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