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Ending wartime rape

Bernd Riegert / sadApril 11, 2013

Foreign ministers from G8 nations meet in London divided by their views on Syria and North Korea. But the leaders were able to agree on the necessity to combat rape and sexual violence in conflict areas.

The Lancaster House in London Photo: DW/B.Riegert
The Lancaster House in LondonImage: DW/B.Riegert

The bloody civil war in Syria and tensions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un topped the agenda of a two-day G8 foreign ministers' meeting ending on Thursday in London.

But the ministers aren't likely to decide on much, according to political scientist Hanns Maull of the University of Trier in Germany. Maull told DW that Russia will continue to oppose the Western position on the Syria issue, while a solution on North Korea would likely require involvement of Pyongyang's main ally, China.

Unity, however, is on the horizon for one issue related to conflict: for the first time, the G8 is conferring on the topic of sexual violence during war, including more efficient prosecution of perpetrators.

Combating sexual violence

Wartime rapes have played out innumerable times, be it in Rwanda, Congo or Bosnia-Herzegovina. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said resolving sexual violence in conflict is an inseparable part of resolving the conflict in general.

British Foreign Minister William Hague Photo: AP
Hague is hosting G8 foreign ministers in LondonImage: AP

"Because when rape is used as a weapon of war, it makes communities harder to bring together," Hague said this April during a visit to an aid agency in the Congo. "And much harder for people to get on with their lives afterwards."

The G8, made up of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia, intends to start a new political initiative to combat sexual violence in conflicts.

"This has to be built in to our humanitarian response," Hague said, especially for countries with large development program budgets. It also has to be built in to the UN Security Council, he said.

Prosecution of those responsible should be improved to create a deterrent effect, Hague said at the beginning of the London meeting. The first step for the initiative is to fund aid agencies in determining actual figures on the issue, which don't yet exist.

The G8 should also be supporting the UN in its efforts against mass rape during war, said Hague, whose country currently hold the G8's rotating presidency. Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, addressed the ministers in London. The former foreign minister of Sierra Leone will travel to former war zones in Somalia and the Congo as part of UN-sponsored work to advise aid organizations and governments on how to protect victims.

Rape as weapon

In the present conflict in Syria, sexual violence aimed at women, as well as men and children is being widely employed, according to a report based on interviews with victims in Syrian refugee camps by Lauren Wolfe, director of the NGO Women under Siege.

Syrian refugees on the Turkish border Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Rape - including against children - is being employed in the Syrian civil warImage: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The UN has also reported on sexual violence in the Syrian civil war, finding that both governmental troops as well as the rebels use the tactic. However, government troops commit more cases of sexual assault more, Wolfe wrote in her report, adding that obtaining exact figures in the ongoing conflict is difficult.

Observers are interested to see what position Japanese Exterior Minister Fumio Kishida takes. The issue is particularly topical for Japan, which took responsibility for the sexual enslavement of women in occupied territories of Korea and China during World War II. New, nationalistic-leaning Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could be eager to play down Japan's responsibility for the mistreatment of women.

The London foreign ministers' meeting serves to prepare for the summit of G8 heads of state and government in June. There, however, the topics will primarily be economic.