LONDON — The age-old link between warfare and rape can be broken, and perpetrators cannot assume that they will get away with it, actress Angelina Jolie and top diplomats said Friday as they endorsed international efforts to increase the investigation and prosecution of a crime that has historically gone unpunished.
“We refuse to believe that this is too big to defeat,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, “that this is somehow too deeply ingrained in human nature or society not to care about it.”
He closed a four-day conference headlined by the Hollywood actress that examined all aspects of sexual violence in wartime, including the widespread expectation that victims will not report the assault. “We are convinced that we can make a difference and that there is no place in the civilized world for sexual violence as a tool of war,” Kerry said.
Several hundred diplomats, activists, lawyers, judges and victims met at the invitation of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has made ending sexual violence in conflict his signature cause. Individual nations pledged millions of dollars for initiatives, including outreach to improve reporting and documentation of the crime and special courts for prosecution.
“Young lives are being ruined by sexual violence in Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic, as we gather here, as we speak,” Jolie said. “For people in those countries, the actions we have promised cannot come soon enough. For them, shattering impunity must begin now.”
Earlier in the week, Hague and Jolie launched an “international protocol,” a set of guidelines on collecting evidence and investigating sexual crimes. The 140-page manual includes specific proposals on, for instance, how to store forensic evidence in the aftermath of a rape and what types of questions to ask in an interview.
“I am convinced that the greatest strategic prize for our century is the full social, political and economic empowerment of women everywhere, and this subject is part of that,” Hague said.
The stories that participants heard were horrifying. Esther Ruth Atim said she was abducted at age 9 by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Her abductors killed a man in front of her with a machete, threatening to do the same to her if she tried to escape, she said. She did, three years later, but not before being repeatedly raped, often on a daily basis.
“I was raped whereby I couldn’t even move with my legs,” said Atim, now a 20-year-old who wants to see her former captors brought to justice.
Jolie and Hague joined forces two years ago after Hague saw the actress’s 2011 directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” about sexual violence in 1992-1995 in the Bosnian conflict. The United Nations estimates that 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during that war.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as tools of power and intimidation against civilians around the world. Women and girls are the most frequent victims, but young men also are raped as a means to humiliate and enslave them to their abusers, activists told the gathering.
The vulnerability of women and girls in areas of conflict was highlighted by the mass abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls in April. The same armed militia that took them is suspected in the abduction of 20 additional girls last week.
Kerry said the ancient pairing of “rape and pillage” can be undone and sexual violence no longer considered a spoil of war. Peace agreements must never exonerate rapists, Kerry said.
Most of the world has collectively agreed to other rules of war when confronted with its devastating effects, Kerry said. He cited the global ban on chemical weapons after World War I and the compact to limit nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Thousands of years after rape was written into the lexicon of warfare, we know that it is time to write it out and to banish sexual violence to the dark ages and the history books where it belongs,” Kerry said. “We can make clear to the world we will not tolerate these horrific tactics.”
Demonstrators outside the conference this week demanded greater asylum for immigrant rape victims in Britain and called the British government hypocritical for deporting some women who claim that they will be raped upon return to their homelands.