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Sexual Violence in War Is Our Generation's Slave Trade

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When I host my fellow G8 Foreign Ministers this April we will have to grapple with urgent challenges in the Middle East and North Africa, including the growth of terrorism in the Sahel.

But as eight of the world's leading nations we have a responsibility to confront vast global issues as well as immediate crises. My personal priority during the UK's Presidency of the G8 this year is to secure new international action against the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Just as it fell to our forebears to eradicate the slave trade, tackling rape in warzones is a challenge for our generation. We have to deter perpetrators, bring people to justice for crimes, and provide long term support to survivors.

Sexual violence is abhorrent in any setting, and all countries have a responsibility to tackle it at home. But its prevalence in war makes it a foreign policy issue, not just a national concern.

From Bosnia to Somalia, Sierra Leone to the DRC, and Rwanda to Libya, sexual violence has been used to terrorise and destroy communities and coerce women and girls into sexual slavery and forced labour. Many men and boys are victims too. Tragically, this is happening in Syria today. International organisations cite rape as one of the primary reasons for the flood of refugees leaving the country.

This is violence used as a military tactic: to degrade and humiliate the victims themselves and undermine the ethnic, religious or political group to which they belong. It perpetuates divisions and fuels conflict. Survivors are left traumatised, often ill and unable to work, and shunned by society.

But if you orchestrate or commit mass rape today the chances are you will still get away with it. Only thirty convictions resulted from the tens of thousands of rapes perpetrated during the Bosnian War. Of the 14,200 cases reported in 1998 in the DRC's South Kivu province, ninety-eight percent were not pursued at all.

The international community must do better than this. We have to shatter the culture of impunity for those who commit rape and sexual violence in conflict and extend the hand of support to survivors.

The US has shown great leadership. In the crowded field of Secretary Clinton's achievements her work on women's rights is particularly inspirational. In this as in so many of the challenges of our time, Britain and the United States are natural allies.

Secretary Clinton will not be at our G8 meetings this year, and indeed I am in Washington this week to bid her farewell as Secretary of State. But her legacy will be part of the foundations we build on, and US support will be essential if we are to tackle this problem.

In May last year I announced the British government's Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.

First, I said that we would set up a team of experts including police, lawyers, doctors, psychologists and forensic scientists, to work on evidence-gathering, investigations, prosecutions and the proper care of victims and witnesses in conflict situations. Six months later we have recruited 70 people and deployed members of the team to the Syrian border, to train local medical professionals in treating victims and preserving evidence for prosecutions. And this year we expect to deploy members of the team to Bosnia, South Sudan, Libya and the DRC, supporting the work of the UN and local NGOs and authorities. On Secretary Clinton's initiative, the United States is also training local activists, government workers, troops and others to protect the vulnerable, treat victims and help them seek redress. So there is much we can do together.

Second, our Ministers and diplomats are fanning out across the world, lobbying our G8 partners and many other nations. I will be seeking from my G8 colleagues practical commitments to help victims on the ground, and support for a new international protocol on the investigation and documentation of sexual violence in conflict.

Third, the action we secure at the G8 will be the foundation of a wider international effort. We are taking this cause to the EU, the UN Security Council, NATO, the OSCE and the Commonwealth. We hope that other nations will follow our example and increase funding for UN bodies carrying out vital work in this area, particularly the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence.

I hope that if Foreign Ministers and world leaders around the world are prepared to speak out on this issue -- as Secretary Clinton always has done -- we can help shift the stigma away from survivors and onto the perpetrators of these crimes. I take heart from the courage of brave individuals like Congolese Doctor Denis Mukwege, who suffered an assassination attempt in October but has already returned home to continue his work with survivors. And I'm grateful for the support of those like UNHCR Envoy Angelina Jolie who has shone a light on crimes committed in Bosnia.

In the past, slave trading was seen as a problem that was much too complex to be tackled. But eventually the groundswell of public outrage and efforts from powerful countries led to its abolition. I will have that example in mind in April, when I urge our G8 partners to redouble their efforts against another scourge the world has put up with for far too long.