Nobel doctor calls sexual violence in conflict a `pandemic’


UNITED NATIONS — Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege warned Wednesday that the scourge of sexual violence and rape in all conflicts is now “a real pandemic” and without sanctions and justice for the victims these horrific acts won’t stop.

The Congolese doctor told the U.N. Security Council in a video briefing that “we are still far away from being able to draw a red line against the use of rape and sexual violence as a strategy of war domination and terror.”

Mukwege appealed to the international community “to draw a red line against the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.” And he stressed that the “red line” must mean “blacklists with economic, financial and political sanctions as well as judicial prosecutions against the perpetrators and instigators of these egregious crimes.”

Mukwege founded the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congo city of Bukavu, and for over 20 years has treated countless women who were raped amid fighting between armed groups seeking control of some the central African nation’s vast mineral wealth. He lamented that sexual violence and impunity continue.

He shared the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize with activist Nadia Murad, who was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by Islamic State militants in 2014 along with an estimated 3,000 Yazidi girls and women.

Mukwege said there has been progress in international law, and the greatest challenge today is to transform commitments into obligations, and Security Council resolutions into results. Accountability and justice “are the best tools of prevention,” he said, and without punishment and sanctions, rapes and sexual violence in conflicts will continue.

Mukwege spoke at a council meeting on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ latest report on sexual violence in conflict which said the COVID-19 pandemic led to a spike in gender-based violence last year. It focused on 18 countries where the U.N. said it has verified information that 52 warring parties are “credibly suspected” of patterns of “rape and other forms of sexual violence” in conflicts on the council agenda. The majority of the parties are opposition, rebel and terrorist groups — so-called “non-state actors” — and over 70 percent “are persistent perpetrators.”

In the latest example, Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on conflict-related sexual violence, told the council that right now in Ethiopia’s remote, mountainous regions of north and central Tigray, where fighting continues between the government and the region’s fugitive leaders, “women and girls are being subjected to sexual violence with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension.”

“Health care workers are documenting new cases of rape and gang-rape daily, despite their fear of reprisals and attacks on the limited shelters and clinics in operation,” Patten said, noting that the report records allegations of over 100 rape cases since fighting began in November but it may take months to determine the full scale and magnitude of the atrocities.

She said the report documents “over 2,500 U.N.-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence committed in the course of 2020,” including in Congo, Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan’s western Darfur region.

“Each of these cases cries out for justice,” Patten said. “It is time to write a new social contract in which no military or political leader is above the law, and no woman or girl is beneath the scope of its protection.”

Caroline Atim, director of the South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network who represented non-governmental organizations focused on women, peace and security, became the first deaf person to brief the Security Council. She used sign language for her remarks which were voiced by an interpreter.

Despite a 2018 peace deal, Atim said, “South Sudan remains engulfed by intercommunal, ethnic, political and armed conflicts where gender-based violence is deliberately used as a tool of humiliation against women and girls.”

“More than 65% of South Sudanese women have experienced sexual or physical violence, a figure that is double the global average and among the highest in the world,” she said, echoing calls for a halt to sexual violence, a survivor-centered approach for victims, and accountability for perpetrators.

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