Lord Hague's Speech on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Read Lord Hague's speech on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Select Committee Report) at the House of Lords, (transcript from Hansard).

10 October 2016 Volume 774

That this House takes note of the Report from the Sexual Violence in Conflict Committee (Session 2015–16, HL Paper 123).

7.51 pm

Lord Hague of Richmond (Con)

"My Lords, I declare an interest as visiting professor in practice at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. I thank the committee and in particular its chairman, my noble friend Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, for their excellent work, their great commitment to this subject and the depth of knowledge they show in what I hope will be a widely read and thoroughly implemented report. I agree with all their recommendations and have a few thoughts to add of my own.

I echo the tribute to our noble friend Lady Anelay on the Front Bench, who took over from me as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. She has shown great enthusiasm and persistence in doing so. We all must help her in her work.
The reason I founded the preventing sexual violence initiative, with Angelina Jolie, to whom I also pay tribute, was the people I met around the world over the previous years. There were the women I met in refugee camps in Darfur who were at risk of violence and rape whenever they left the camp to look for firewood, even in camps organised by western aid agencies. They had no protection. The use of rape was clearly a means of instilling terror into the population. I met people in Bosnia who had suffered terribly from organised sexual violence in the conflict there in the 1990s. Tens of thousands of people did so and had never seen justice for these crimes. In fact, it is common in many societies for the victims to live a life of stigma and shame rather than the perpetrators of these crimes.

In Syria, in the conflict that began while I was Foreign Secretary, it soon became apparent that the Assad regime would use all means of violence, including sexual violence, against women and men. That has been followed, as my noble friend Lady Nicholson explained, by the rise of ISIL or Daesh, with the clear objective of enslaving women, actually promising to recruits the opportunity to carry out sexual violence. It is impossible to go around the world with your eyes open without being revolted by these events and sights, and without thinking that someone must do something to prevent such crimes occurring with such impunity. I found in my experience with this initiative that there are really three obstacles for us to overcome in making that effort successful.

The first obstacle is the belief in some quarters that this is not really part of foreign policy. It may be a worthwhile subject but it is in a different box somewhere, an add-on luxury to foreign policy. Certainly I found when I first raised this at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting in 2013 a certain amount of cynicism, at least from the Russian Foreign Minister, about the need to address this as part of foreign policy. But what is the point of foreign policy if it does not have among its objectives improving the condition of humanity? In any case, it is part of our constant objective in foreign policy to minimise the crises in the world, to maintain peace and security. If mass rape is brought about to make it harder to achieve peace in certain conflicts, which it is, to make it harder for communities to work together, to increase flows of refugees—it is deliberately designed to do that—and to perpetuate conflict, how can anyone say that dealing with it is not a crucial part of foreign policy? Of course it is part of addressing global peace and security. It is indivisible from that objective.

The second obstacle we must overcome is the thinking that it is again a separate issue—a women’s issue. It is something that women have campaigned on but male political leaders have not previously troubled themselves to do so. However, these are crimes committed exclusively by men and they must be challenged by men. That they happened while the whole world did nothing should shame all men. We men have an important role to play alongside women campaigners in dealing with such impunity.

The third obstacle to overcome is the idea that nothing can really be achieved. I have lost count of the number of people who said to me over the last four years, “These are worthy objectives, but it is very hard ​to do anything about it, is it not? This is as old the hills. It has always happened in warfare”. Is the world so hopeless that we can witness acts that destroy lives, families and communities on a vast scale and then shrug our shoulders and say “Nothing can be done”? In any case, it is not true that nothing can be done. On so many terrible, enormous issues in international affairs, international agreement has been established: on the treatment of prisoners of war, on not using chemical weapons—until the Syria conflict, of course—and on agreements about nuclear arsenals. The world is used to the idea of laws and agreements about what is acceptable in war, and of punishing as war crimes acts that go beyond those established limits. These crimes are war crimes and should be treated as such.

It also shows that we can make ground on this that we have made some small, limited progress. There are now prosecutions in Bosnia, and there have been at the International Criminal Court—although not enough. Military training has been changed in some countries. A large number of small actions can add up to major progress. At the summit that we held here in London in 2014, anyone who witnessed the outpouring of hope, passion, expertise and commitment on this issue from thousands of people, from NGOs and activists who have campaigned on this and worked with the survivors for so many years, knows that things can be done. We must make a success of this initiative and it is additionally related to part of a wider objective, which I always state as being the great strategic prize of the 21st century: the full political, social and economic empowerment of women to play an equal part in every society, Government, walk of life and peace process. It is impossible to achieve such an objective in a world where mass rape as a weapon of war goes unchallenged.

What is to be done next? The committee set out some important and clear recommendations. In the view of time and so many noble Lords wishing to speak, I will not go through all the recommendations I would like to draw attention to, but I will mention a couple. Particularly, there is recommendation 4, to recognise the value of this work to DfID, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and other departments. That requires support across government. I am very pleased that the Ministry of Defence—including the Defence Secretary, who recently led a major international conference at Lancaster House on the behaviour of peacekeepers—has become so committed to this. Recommendation 24 draws attention to the importance of,

“ending sexual violence against men and boys”,

which is an important point. Recommendation 61 draws attention to the situation in Syria and calls for,

“a plan to respond to those who have suffered sexual violence during the conflict”.

This should be part of our humanitarian response—it often is—and our political response to communicate to the world what ISIL really is and to show a clear alternative to it.

The report also calls for further summits on preventing sexual violence in conflict to be held at regular intervals. I would go a little further and say that if no other ​country is holding it, the United Kingdom should hold it again, so that people can come to that summit and ask what has been achieved and show what has been achieved, so that the momentum we built up in the 2014 summit is maintained. The tools are there, such as the protocol we devised, which is now being translated into many languages to make sure that it is possible to record and detect the evidence of crimes of sexual violence, and the commitments made by many Governments of the world. Now we have to make sure that they are used.

I will end with the main lesson that I learned from all this, which is that it is only when a major Government in the world put their full weight behind this subject that we make real progress in changing the attitudes of the rest of the world. It is only then that you get the resolutions at the Security Council and 155 nations signing up to a declaration. So I hope that the Foreign Secretary, as well as my noble friend, will make this one of his personal objectives for the future. I hope that the next President of the United States will do so, although that may require a particular outcome. I hope that we will all be able to maintain our emphatic support for this initiative and the splendid work the committee has done."

Read more on the debate here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-10-10/debates/362BC883-1F36-4083-81F7-682596548B28/SexualViolenceInConflict(SelectCommitteeReport)