INTERNATIONAL: Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, Analyses the Campaign to Eradicate Rape in Conflict Worldwide

Sunday, June 8, 2014
The Australian
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

BILLIONS of dollars are spent every year developing new guns and missiles, but one of the most horrible weapons of war is also one of the oldest.

Rape and sexual violence are used frequently as instruments of war. But now there is a new global bid to end this horrific crime.

UN special envoy and Hollywood star Angelina Jolie and British foreign secretary William Hague host a global summit in London this week focusing on Ending Sexual Violence In Conflict, the highpoint of a campaign to eradicate rape in conflict worldwide.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is a champion of the cause, and I'll be representing her and the Australian Government in talks that will see countries from all over the world commit to action to end such violence and abuse.

Rape and sexual violence destroys whole communities and ruins the lives of women and men, boys and girls. Its effects last long beyond the original crimes and perpetuate the cycle of conflict.

I know how important these issues are. I saw first-hand the trauma of rape when I travelled to the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

In March, 1999, NATO Secretary General Solana and US General Wes Clark initiated air operations in Kosovo in an attempt to stop Slobodan Milosevic's cleansing of ethnic Albanians from ethnic Serbs.

World Vision asked me to visit Albanian refugee camps in Kosovo to help document cases of sexual violence.

The stories coming out of Kosovo were frightening and thousands of displaced Albanians were heading across the border to countries like Albania and Macedonia.

Milosevic's weapons of war included rape of civilian women and girls an issue about which humanitarian agencies were desperate to get wider attention.

My late night calls to our Foreign Minister involved checking if I could travel with my government's permission and if there were any updates on travel warnings. The usual applied: I was flying near a war zone, within NATO airspace, and there would be an element of risk.

Normal flights were unavailable due to NATO restrictions. On my antiquated plane, I sat with humanitarian workers and priests as Italian police marshalled prostitutes and criminals, behind a curtain in the back. The only safety feature I saw was an axe and the flight attendants smoked as we flew. On take-off, a priest took my hand and prayed.

Even though Albania was not at war, the airport was full of military vehicles, with planes and trucks on the airport fields, along with Red Crescent vehicles.

I met my companions: Brenda Fitzpatrick, author of a report on mass rape and abuse during the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s - which prompted a series of United Nations and European parliamentary inquiries - and Steve Levitt, our cameraman.

We headed into Tirana, which looked ravaged after years of fighting in the region, and went straight out to talk to people.

It was harrowing. I could barely speak listening to their stories.

Some Canadian humanitarian workers let us borrow a satellite phone so we could contact Australia to get the message out about what was happening.

I spoke to David Penberthy, then at this newspaper, who did a front page article drawing the attention of South Australians to the plight of these people.

I spent most of my time visiting refugee camps and make shift hospitals. The “swimming pool camp” was the largest. There were thousands of people in tents muddied and infected due to rain and a lack of sanitation. I visited blocks of previously deserted and run-down flats which housed generations of families in a single room.

Against this backdrop of suffering, the main purpose of my trip was to help catalogue instances of rape. I met with many women and their families haunted by sexual assault and attack.

I met Ethnic Albanian women who were systematically raped and abused by the Serbian armed forces as part of the attempts to “cleanse” Kosovo. At the time, I described these women as “aching for acknowledgment” for what was being done to them.

“I think they found the sense of betrayal quite appalling. Neighbours were informing on them and then they'd been rounded up”, I was reported as saying.

The women said they were divided into groups of men and women, and then the women were divided into the prettiest, the youngest. One woman described how a group of women came back the next day and had to be carried on to the trucks [out of Kosovo] because they couldn't walk. They'd been bashed and their faces were bruised.

This trip led to a report that was tabled in Australia's Federal Parliament, but the efforts of people like Ms Fitzpatrick, and others, went further. It led to the proper acknowledgment of sexual violence as a war crime. But it has yet to result in justice for many hundreds of thousands of victims around the world.

Since then, the international community has done much to progress the issue of preventing violence against women in war and in conflict zones. We also recognise that men and boys are also victims of these crimes.

Australia is playing a role: working to ensure that survivors of sexual violence in conflict have access to the services they need and supporting countries that are in - and emerging from - conflict so they have the legal framework and justice system that can hold perpetrators to account.

But there is a lot more we need to do.

The Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict aims to raise awareness of these crimes, challenge the impunity that exists, hold perpetrators to account, provide better support to victims, and support national and international efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict.

A highlight will be the dual effort of Secretary Hague and Ms Jolie to convince nations to endorse the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence and Conflict.

Angelina Jolie's interest in this subject developed as a result of the Bosnian conflict in the early 90s, hand inclusion on a goodwill mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Her cinematic response was “In the Land of Blood and Honey”, but her legacy is a long-lasting commitment to address sexual violence in conflict.

Her presence at next week's event will ensure the eyes of the world are on this important issue and, hopefully, will result in an “irreversible movement” towards preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict and other situations of armed violence.