09/24/2013 08:59 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Like Landmines and Cluster Bombs, Rape Is a Weapon of War and Must Be Outlawed

During my time as Head of the Near East and North Africa Department in the Foreign Office, I watched in hope as thousands of Syrians -- men and women -- took to the streets to demand that their human rights be respected and voices be heard.

Their aspirations are far from reality now, as the harrowing front page stories and photos will attest. But, the most troubling part is that these accounts don't paint the full picture of the situation on the ground.

In June, I read a report in The Atlantic about Alma Abdulrahman, a battalion commander in the Free Syrian Army and former accountant, who was gang-raped and whipped with wires in a detention centre close to Damascus after being captured by the Assad regime. Alma's story is not unique. She is just one of the few women in the Syrian conflict to speak out about having been raped.

According to a UN Commission of Inquiry report released earlier this month, sexual violence has been used by government and pro-government forces during raids, and in detention centres and prisons, including too coerce confessions. At one checkpoint in Daraa, a university student was raped because her brother was wanted by the Syrian government. The report also highlights that women are not the only victims -- "the threat of rape is used as a tool to terrorize and punish women, men and children."

The international community has outlawed cluster munitions and landmines, and it works tirelessly to limit the flow of illegal weapons. Yet sexual violence, which deepens sectarian divisions, entrenches instability and undermines peace building efforts, is treated as a lesser crime. Typically, it goes unprosecuted and survivors can face a lifetime of rejection, illness, and trauma. No wonder those who carry out these terrible crimes think that they will get away with it.

To end sexual violence in conflict, we must shatter this ingrained culture of impunity. That is is why today at the UN General Assembly the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, with support from dozens of countries including the United States, will be calling for all countries to support a new Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Those endorsing the declaration will pledge to four very important commitments:

  1. Rape and serious sexual violence in conflict constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Convention and suspects should be apprehended wherever they are in the world.
  2. No amnesty for sexual violence in peace agreements, challenging the idea that these are somehow lesser crimes.
  3. A new International Protocol in 2014 to improve the consistency and standard of evidence collected so that greater numbers of survivors of sexual violence can achieve justice.
  4. To provide support and protection for civil society groups who are working to monitor and document sexual violence.

To me these are clear steps that anyone can support. As William Hague and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, wrote last week in the Miami Herald, putting them into practise "could make a turning point in international attitudes to rape and sexual violence, and finally, the beginning of an end to impunity."