Sexual violence against women of vulnerable religious communities – Remarks

Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union

and the Aid to the Church in Need

Online webinar

Targeting vulnerable religious communities through sexual exploitation of women

EUSR for Human Rights remarks

30 June 2021, 11-12:45


Good morning to all. It is a pleasure to be with you today. I am glad that I have the opportunity to address this timely event focusing on multiple abuses suffered by women and girls because of their religion or belief, because of their gender or as a way of attacking their community as a whole.

Despite some achievements since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and its Platform for Action, women and girls continue to face discrimination. In all parts of the world. In times of peace and even more so in situations of conflict and terrorism.

We still remember the Boko Haram abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, back in 2014. In the same year, ISIL militants launched a genocidal attack against Yazidis in northern Iraq. Thousands of Yazidi women and girls were killed or kidnapped and enslaved.

Sexual exploitation is the primary focus of traffickers; some 50 percent of detected victims of human trafficking are traded for sexual exploitation, according to the latest UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. And for every 10 victims of human trafficking detected globally, five are adult women and two are girls.

Sexual violence is also rampant in today’s armed conflicts and has grave humanitarian consequences. Sexual violence is often used as a tactical or strategic means of warfare to weakening the adversary, by targeting the civilian population. Sexual violence is unfortunately nothing new, it has occurred during armed conflicts at all times, on all continents.

International humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law prohibit all forms of sexual violence at all times and against anyone. It is part of international customary law and therefore binding on all. In addition, in international criminal law there is an individual criminal responsibility of  perpetrators of sexual crimes. These three bodies of law bolster each other. But there is a huge difference between the law and the facts on the ground, which should be a matter of great concern to all of us.

The European Union has both the resolve and tools to fight this scourge. The EU is a global force for multilateralism, for international human rights system, for international humanitarian law, and for international criminal justice. In February, we renewed our strong commitment to rules-based multilateralism in a new strategy to reinvigorate the multilateral order (Joint Communication on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism). But we cannot succeed alone. Multilateralism requires partnership and dialogue – with States and non-state actors alike, including civil society, churches and religious organizations.

For example, we cannot strengthen our joint fight against the most serious crimes when the International Criminal Court is undermined. Unfortunately, we have witnessed backsliding on international human rights and humanitarian law exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those hit the most are women and girls, especially those suffering from other, intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization such as poverty or belonging to a minority.

The European Union has worked to increase its capacity to address human rights violations and abuses and promote non-discrimination and women’s rights. Last year, the new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 was adopted as an ambitious agenda promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment through all external action of the European Union. The Gender Action Plan recognizes that humanitarian crises and conflict exacerbate the risks of sexual- and gender-based violence, which must be prevented and addressed from the very onset. Survivor-centred approaches that take into account intersecting forms of discrimination remain key.

Violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, is one of the major obstacles of women’s empowerment and a scourge often leaving a lasting mark on the victims. The Spotlight Initiative, which the EU launched in partnership with the United Nations with our initial contribution of 500 million euros, is an unprecedented global programme, investing in prevention and support to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.

In 2020, despite COVID-19 lockdowns, more than 650,000 women and girls worldwide were provided with gender-based violence services through the Spotlight Initiative; 84 laws and policies have been signed or strengthened in 17 countries.

Last year, we also launched our key strategy to guide our human rights activities globally until 2024: the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. Earlier this year, I have hosted launches of the Action Plan in different regions of the world. I want to stress that the empowerment of women and girls is a priority across all areas of action and the elimination of all forms of sexual and gender-based violence is an important line of action.

There are several references to international humanitarian law in the Action Plan, such as its dissemination and advocacy, the protection of civilians, the development of an EU due diligence policy to safeguard that EU security sector support is in compliance with IHL and human rights. The Action Plan also pays particular attention to ensuring accountability for the most serious crimes of human rights law and IHL, and to supporting victims in seeking remedy by linking national and international efforts, including through the International Criminal Court or the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

As the European Union Special Representative for Human Rights, I have a central role in guiding the implementation of this Action Plan. However, for both the Human Rights Action Plan and the Gender Action Plan, the role of 143 EU Delegations and hundreds of embassies of our Member States across the world is key. They are our eyes and ears on the ground and those adapting these Action Plans to local context and into human rights country strategies.

The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, also adopted in 2020, is an important addition to our human rights toolbox. The first broad package of sanctions under this novel Regime was adopted this March, including sanctions against two North Korean officials responsible, among others, for widespread forced labour and sexual violence against women.

For the first time, the EU has equipped itself with a framework that allows it to target individuals, entities and bodies – including state and non-state actors – responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses, no matter where they occurred. This horizontal sanctions regime complements our existing geographical sanctions regimes adopted for specific country situations. Crimes that we are discussing at this event clearly fall within the scope of this new human rights instrument.

Our commitment is also stated in the EU Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with IHL. They give an overview of actions the EU can and does take – a toolbox if you like – in its relations with third countries. The toolbox includes measures such as general public statements, political dialogues and demarches, cooperation with international organisations, such as the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, restrictive measure and sanctions as well as arms export.

The Guidelines also outline the main features of IHL to provide understanding, for those working within and with the EU.

To protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflicts, prevent violations and hold perpetrators to account, we need to take different actions on many levels. Let me give you a few further examples of what the EU is currently doing.

Our strong focus on the promotion of respect for international humanitarian law, accountability and the fight against impunity includes in-country initiatives. For example:

In 2020, the EU provided support to strengthening national criminal justice systems of a number of countries, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Georgia, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Myanmar and Uganda.

Other measures include strengthening links with international and hybrid criminal tribunals and with UN mechanisms mandated to support the collection, consolidation, preservation and analysis of violations. As an example, the EU supports the international mechanisms for Syria, Libya and Myanmar.

The EU conducts global demarche campaigns and the systematic inclusion of a clause in EU agreements with third countries encouraging the ratification of, or accession to, the Rome Statute.

The issues we will be addressing today are also regularly raised by the European Union with third countries in bilateral Human Rights Dialogues or other formal consultations on human rights. For example, at the EU-Pakistan Sub-Group on Democracy, Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights held earlier this month, we raised the issue of sectarian violence targeting religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Shias and Christians. We also inquired about steps taken by Pakistan to monitor and prevent forced conversions.

As the largest beneficiary of our scheme of trade preferences, or GSP+, Pakistan is a good example of the leverage we have through this instrument. Freedom of religion or belief remains one of the key issues under review in the GSP+ monitoring process. We should fully use this tool to facilitate a positive change on the ground. In Pakistan and elsewhere.

Last but not least, I have my own real time engagement on humanitarian contexts and conflicts. To address the situation we are currently witnessing in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, I have met with the Minister of Finance and Minister for Women, Children and Youth on the situation. I have also talked with the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and reiterated EU’s concerns in relation to the humanitarian crisis, the need for humanitarian access, sexual violence and monitoring and documentation of alleged violations and welcomed the cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in this regard.

In May, I met with the Yemeni Minister for Legal Affairs and Human Rights, where I raised EU’s strong concern of lack of humanitarian access, sexual violence, the recruitment and use of children in the armed conflict and the widespread lack of accountability for violations committed.

But we must do more. We need to find other ways to enhance practical action on the ground to protect women and girls and hold perpetrators to account.

We need to take concrete measures to prevent sexual violence as a weapon or consequence of conflict. Where it continues to occur, we need to provide adequate support to the survivors, such as medical care and mental health support.

And survivors must be at the heart of informing and formulating such policy.

What measure do we need to take for survivors get justice?

– States must establish effective investigative and prosecutorial measures at the national level, since the primary responsibility lies with states.

– States need to cooperate; as grave violations against women and girls often transcends borders, this includes sharing data and evidence.

– We should continue to improve the collection of gender-disaggregated data to strengthen and develop gender-responsive policies and gender-sensitive justice mechanisms.

– We should involve survivors when designing and implementing our policies.

There must be an end to impunity for the use of sexual violence in armed conflicts and everyone must be brought to know that whenever and wherever a women or a girl is sexually assaulted and abused, the perpetrator will be made accountable.

That is why we must continue to promote the universality of the Rome Statute and support the ICC and other courts or tribunals.

Sexual violence during conflict cannot and should not be accepted. Action against sexual violence must be taken now!

I am looking forward to our discussion. I am looking forward to hear suggestions for further EU action.

Thank you.