The Foreign Office has been accused of neglecting its pledge to tackle sexual violence in conflict zones, after the number of experts on a flagship team designed to improve protection for women was halved. The preventing sexual violence initiative, founded by the former British foreign secretary William Hague alongside Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, promised to increase support for victims and help to end the culture of impunity that has allowed transgressors to go unpunished. As part of the initiative, a team of 74 experts was assembled, including lawyers and psychologists, that could be sent promptly to conflict-hit areas to help with evidence gathering and support survivors.
At an international development committee session last month, MPs questioned Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt about the size of the team. The Department for International Development had told the committee that the expert group was cut to 38 or 39 individuals in 2015 – even though the government said the following year, in response to a Lords report on sexual violence in conflict, that the group consisted of 74 people. Burt said he did not know the specifics relating to the team’s size or why varying figures had been given. The Foreign Office has since confirmed to the Guardian that the team was shrunk to 38 people to make it more streamlined and that the figures given in 2016 were supplied in error. Funding for the Hague-Jolie initiative and related work on gender issues was also cut by 10% last year. Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, expressed alarm over cuts to the scheme and warned that the initiative is losing direction. “It needs to get back to focusing on documentation [of sexual violence] – done correctly – and looking at how and in what ways we should be focusing on prevention,” she said.
Britain has been criticised for failing to deploy experts quickly in response to the widespread rape of Rohingya women and girls. Two experts were sent to Bangladesh in November to visit refugee camps to which the Rohingya, a persecuted and stateless Muslim minority, had fled following violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The experts spent seven days in Bangladesh, where they were tasked with assessing sexual and gender-based violence affecting the Rohingya community and recommending humanitarian action to be taken by the UK.
The report and recommendations have not yet been published. The Foreign Office is understood to have promised that an executive summary will be made available soon.
David Mepham, UK director of Human Rights Watch, said the Rohingya crisis is “a critical litmus test” of Britain’s commitment to the initiative. “The widespread rape of Rohingya women and girls in Myanmar is just the kind of situation that the preventing sexual violence initiative was set up to address. The British and wider international response has not matched the scale, gravity and urgency of the crisis,” said Mepham. “Six months after the horrific abuses began, many of those who were raped and gang-raped – and left injured and profoundly traumatised – are still not receiving basic health or psychosocial support. Nor is there yet any agreed process to bring at least some of the perpetrators of these egregious crimes to justice.” Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Rakhine state in Myanmar to Bangladesh. Thousands of people have been killed, while research by Human Rights Watch suggests that widespread sexual violence has been committed against Rohingya by Myanmar’s military. A UN fact-finding mission, as well as the national human rights commission of Bangladesh, are documenting human rights abuses, including sexual violence.
An independent criminal lawyer with the Hague-Jolie initiative’s team of experts, who wished to remain anonymous, warned that a rush to investigate cases could prove detrimental without the right systems and support in place. “There needs to be some big-picture thinking,” the lawyer said. “Taking the statements too early could hinder a successful prosecution because if they are inconsistent with any subsequent statement taken by an investigator of a particular court, they could undermine that witness’s credibility. If you’re documenting for legal purposes you must have an interpreter that speaks the same, and not just a similar language, and interpreters have got to be trained to take this type of testimony,” she added.
There is little privacy in the camps for survivors who want to be interviewed, as well as a shortage of translators to accurately record testimonies. The Department for International Development said it is providing a range of assistance to Rohingya refugees, including psychological support for women affected by the conflict, sexual and reproductive health clinics, and other specialist services. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said Britain is leading the international response to the Rohingya crisis: “In February this year, I travelled to Cox’s Bazaar to see for myself the horrendous conditions the Rohingya people have to endure. I will continue to place the rights and freedom of women and girls at the heart of everything the foreign office Foreign Office does, including our response to the terrible crisis in Burma and Bangladesh.”
Credit: Rebecca Ratcliffe for The Guardian, 12 April 2018.