Delivering justice and support for victims of wartime sexual violence

May 29, 2014

Photo: The ministry of Veteran's Affairs

The necessity of providing justice and support to wartime victims of sexual violence was underscored at a regional conference that brought together more than 120 government officials and civil society activists from countries throughout Southeast Europe. 

“It‘s high time to take moral and social responsibility for the protection of wartime victims of sexual violence,” declared President Ivo Josipović of Croatia. “Any society that stigmatizes and fails to deliver justice to victims of rape is a society that must be changed.” 

The conference, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Delivering Justice for the Past, Preventing Abuse in the Future,” was organized on 29 - 30 May in Zagreb by the Croatian Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs with support from UNDP. 

Sexual violence, typically against women and girls but also against men and boys, has been a feature of virtually every armed conflict on record. Yet even after its clear designation as a war crime in the 1990s, rapes and other violent forms of sexual abuse committed during conflicts remains a largely unpunished crime. 

In 2009, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in its Resolution 1670 on sexual violence against women in armed conflict, noted that almost no cases of rape from the Yugoslav conflicts had been prosecuted in domestic courts and that victims had been denied access to justice and reparations.

In Croatia, for example, while as many as 2,200 people are estimated to have suffered severe forms of conflict-related sexual violence during the armed conflict of 1991-1995, only 147 cases have been reported, according to research conducted by UNDP in 2013. Of these, only 36 have been processed in courts and only 15 verdicts have been reached to date.

This situation may at last be set to change, however, owing to the growing determination of governments, civil society organizations and the UN to correct this dismal record.

Addressing the Zagreb Conference over video, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the increasing efforts of all governments and organisations working to give justice to victims of wartime violence.

“Governments, communities, activists and survivors are standing up to say enough is enough,” he said. “I join them in declaring that the bodies of innocent women, men, girls and boys should never be used as battlegrounds. We have an international legal framework to hold accountable all those who commit, command or condone these crimes. We must use these tools and translate pledges into actions.” 

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, also speaking by video message, commended the Croatian Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs for sponsoring new legislation aimed at providing victims of sexual violence in wartime with compensation and support.

“I hope the law will encourage further efforts here in Croatia and elsewhere to support survivors to rebuild their lives and restore their faith that justice can and will prevail,” she said. She also recognized the many survivors of sexual violence, among them the courageous women of Vukovar, who have spoken out not only to secure their own rights, but to “help create a framework to secure truth and justice for all victims of sexual violence.”

UNDP Croatia Resident Representative Louisa Vinton stressed the importance of empowering victims. “What we believe and what we know now from two years of experience is that survivors of sexual violence are not helpless victims to be pitied and comforted and somehow hidden from public view, but resilient women and men who stand ready to reclaim their lives if offered the proper support, encouragement and recognition,” she said. UNDP Croatia, with financial support from Switzerland, has been supporting a pilot programme to provide psychosocial support for victims. Three participants in this programme shared their experiences and expectations in short videos recorded for the conference.

Croatian Minister of Veterans’ Affairs Predrag Matić reported that the public debate on Croatia’s draft legislation has now been completed and the new law is expected to be put on the parliamentary agenda soon. He said that “failing to address crimes of sexual violence committed in wartime means closing our eyes to a huge social problem and the suffering of victims.”

Croatian First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Vesna Pusić, reminded the participants that peacetime was the best time to develop effective measures to prevent sexual violence in times of armed conflict. She highlighted the importance of bringing perpetrators of such violence to justice and the need for society to concentrate on providing help and public support to victims so that such behaviour will be marginalized during any future armed conflicts.

Conference participants explored the global context that currently frames national efforts to address the consequences of sexual violence in conflict, including the evolution of international standards. They also reviewed experiences in extending legal recognition and status to civilian victims of sexual violence in armed conflict in Southeast Europe, including the right to financial compensation.

Participants also discussed experiences on the principles governing reparations for victims of sexual violence in conflict, including the requirements for restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. Different models of psycho-social assistance and legal support, as well as ongoing advocacy and awareness-raising programs, were also presented.

The conference ended with agreement upon key joint conclusions summarizing the shared experiences, best practices and lessons learnt of the region in addressing crimes of sexual violence in wartime, with a particular focus on victims’ rights and needs. These conclusions will be shared in London at the Global Summit of the UK Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative to be held on 10-13 June 2014.