Press Releases

    ECOSOC/6225
    18 July 2006

    Economic and Social Council Holds Panel Discussion on Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Emergencies

    (Reissued as received.)

    GENEVA, 17 July (UN Information Service) -- The Economic and Social Council this morning held a panel discussion on the topic of gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies, as it continued with its humanitarian segment.

    Prasad Kairyawasam ( Sri Lanka), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said ending gender-based violence in all its forms was the responsibility of States.  It was part of their obligation to protect civilians within their borders and, when they were unable to do so, to allow aid organizations to provide assistance and protection to survivors.  The Council came together today to jointly reflect on this growing problem, and to identify and discuss legal, judicial, medical and psychological solutions with an esteemed panel of experts.

    Moderating the panel discussion was Erika Feller, Assistant High Commissioner, Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, who said gender-based violence had become such an endemic feature of conflict and its aftermath that it threatened to reach epidemic proportions.  It was unsettling to observe that the international community had been aware of this for quite some years; yet, its performance had been very patchy when it came to setting up, and even advocating for, effective systems where they were most needed to prevent gender violence, adequately support victims and ensure no impunity for the perpetrators.

    Nicolas Michel, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Legal Council, said gender-based violence was particularly prevalent during humanitarian emergencies, when civilian populations were especially vulnerable.  During conflict, it was commonly used as a deliberate tactic of war to destabilize populations, destroy community bonds, and humiliate victims and their families.  In responding to such crises, it was the role of the United Nations and its Member States to take effective measures both to ensure that there was accountability for such crimes (and that they were effectively investigated and prosecuted), and to prevent their occurrence in the future.

    Françoise Ngendahayo, Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender of Burundi, said Burundi was recovering from a long and serious crisis, which had devastated everything.  At the peak of the crisis, rape was used as a weapon of war that was not limited to only physical destruction, but also as a weapon to affect morals and customs of the country.  The Government was committed to denounce and condemn the resort to rape and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment as a weapon of war.  The political will existed to promulgate laws that protected children, widows, women living with AIDS and those who had no children, and would soon be put into action.

    Gabrielle Nanchen, Member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Assembly, said, among the many crimes perpetrated against civilians during armed conflict and other situations of violence, one was of particular concern to the ICRC: sexual violence, of which the principal victims were women and girls.  Even though sexual violence was recognized as a problem by the media, by academics, by humanitarian workers and by donors, there remained numerous obstacles to preventing such crimes, stopping them when they occurred, punishing those responsible, and helping the victims effectively and appropriately.

    Lois Lewis Bruthus, President, Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, said the exact magnitude of gender-based violence against women in Liberia had not been established, as there existed no reliable and comprehensive data on gender-based violence in Liberia.  Because of the inclusiveness of gender-based violence, it was imperative that countries in conflict, or those emerging from conflict, reviewed their laws and statutes, in order to determine whether they were indeed responsive to present-day realities.

    Speaking in the course of the interactive debate were the representatives of Guinea, Bangladesh, Finland, United States, Haiti, Russian Federation, Canada, Sudan, Australia and Iran.

    The next meeting of the Council will be held at 3 p.m. on Monday 17 July, when it will take action on draft resolution E/2006/L.14, entitled sustained economic growth for social development, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, and conclude its coordination segment on the same theme, before concluding its general discussion, begun on Friday 14 July, on special economic, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance.

    Statements

    PRASAD KARIYAWASAM (Sri Lanka), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said as Mr. [Jan] Egeland [Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs] had said on Friday, gender-based violence in humanitarian crises remained a significant and growing concern, not only because it occurred with increasing frequency and severity, but also because of the profound and enduring impact it had on both individuals and communities.  As conflicts and natural disasters became more intense and complex, the societal disintegration, lawlessness and the trivialization of human values often inherent in those situations would only fuel the problem further.  Women and girls of all ages made up the majority of the victims of sexual violence, largely because of their status in society; however, some men and boys were also victims.

    Ending gender-based violence in all its forms was the responsibility of States.  It was part of their obligation to protect civilians within their borders and, when they were unable to do so, to allow aid organizations to provide assistance and protection to survivors.  The Council came together today to jointly reflect on this growing problem, and to identify and discuss legal, judicial, medical and psychological solutions with an esteemed panel of experts. 

    ERIKA FELLER, Assistant High Commissioner at the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, in an introductory statement as moderator of the panel discussion, said the objective of the session was to provide an opportunity to review how gender-based violence manifested itself and was being addressed in humanitarian emergencies.  Gender-based violence had become such an endemic feature of conflict and its aftermath that it threatened to reach epidemic proportions.  It was unsettling to observe that the international community had been aware of this for quite some years; yet, its performance had been very patchy when it came to setting up, and even advocating for, effective systems where they were most needed to prevent gender violence, adequately support victims and ensure no impunity for the perpetrators.  Gender-based violence did not have to rise to the level of ethnic cleansing or genocide to constitute an abhorrent act, deserving an unequivocal, international response. 

    Refugee camps providing refuge to victims of conflict were by no means the guarantee that sexual violence would not occur.  It was clear that victims continued to suffer, even after the crime, and could be ostracized from community and family, and even punished by further violence, while the perpetrators benefited from almost absolute impunity.  Women and girls were not able to avail themselves of medical support services, despite being raped, because they feared consequences if the authorities found out, just as they feared the rejection of their own communities.  There were also reports of sexual violence against men and boys, albeit that these were much rarer, because of overwhelming fear of stigmatization and shame on the part of the victims, who were very reluctant to report or seek redress.  Gender-based violence could set off a chain of human-rights violations, and this, in part, resulted from trivializing this form of violence and maintaining it, as a result, in the private domain, in a way which punished the survivors, not the perpetrators.  This morning's session should hopefully contribute to efforts to put the issue more squarely into the public domain and ensure that prevention, response and justice were responsibilities accepted at the highest levels of Government. 

    NICOLAS MICHEL, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Legal Council, said humanitarian emergencies came in a variety of different forms, whether generated by natural disaster, armed conflict or other means.  Gender-based violence was particularly prevalent during humanitarian emergencies, when civilian populations were especially vulnerable.  During conflict, it was commonly used as a deliberate tactic of war to destabilize populations, destroy community bonds, and humiliate victims and their families.  In the aftermath of armed conflicts, and in the devastation caused by natural disasters, it was also prevalent in a variety of forms, including human trafficking, in situations where mass displacement disrupted Government and community structures, institutions of law and order were challenged and poverty was rife.  In responding to such crises, it was the role of the United Nations and its Member States to take effective measures both to ensure that there was accountability for such crimes (and that they were effectively investigated and prosecuted), and to prevent their occurrence in the future.

    The most widespread type of gender-based violence was of a sexual nature.  Rape, in particular, had been increasingly used as an organized and systematic weapon of war.  With respect to what laws applied during armed conflict, the applicable law was international humanitarian law and human rights law, and it applied in respect of both international and non-international armed conflicts.  Although sufficient laws existed to criminalize forms of gender-based violence in times of armed conflict, they were powerless to protect and deter, if they were not implemented and enforced.  Ending gender-based violence was the primary responsibility of States.  Many international agreements recommended that Governments reviewed their laws from time to time, in order to ensure that they were as effective as possible in preventing violence and discrimination against women, and in providing protection and support.  Legislation was extremely important, as it both provided the means to address gender-based violence and to promote the understanding that such crimes were a matter of public concern, rather than a purely private matter.

    FRANCOISE NGENDAHAYO, Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender of Burundi, said Burundi was recovering from a long and serious crisis, which had devastated everything, mainly positive values, the ones related to respect of the human being in her physical, moral and spiritual integrity.  The social, economic and cultural reference system that had been a pride for Burundians for long had been deeply disrupted, thus giving free way to mad schemes without name in standard vocabulary.  At the peak of the crisis, rape was used as a weapon of war that was not limited to only physical destruction, but also as a weapon to affect morals and customs of the country.  It had been committed in varied circumstances.

    The Government of Burundi was aware of the necessity to repress all forms of violence against women.  It had decided to bring proceedings against all the authors of violence in order to fight against impunity, which was a source of revenge.  The Government was committed to denounce and condemn the resort to rape, and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment as a weapon of war.  The country's legislation should accommodate itself to today's situation, with the aim of fighting any form of discrimination and violence related to gender.  Legal gaps, as a source of confusion, discrimination and violence, should be filled.  The political will existed to promulgate laws that protected children, widows, women living with AIDS and those who had no children, and would soon be put into action.

    GABRIELLE NANCHEN, Member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Assembly, said, among the many crimes perpetrated against civilians during armed conflict and other situations of violence, one was of particular concern to the ICRC: sexual violence, of which the principal victims were women and girls.  For far too long, rape and sexual violence had been underestimated, considered inevitable, seen as collateral damage in time of war, or even as the soldier's well-deserved reward.  But, the systematic use of rape in Bosnia and Rwanda had made the international community aware of the problem, and humanitarian agencies were now taking the issue into account.  And yet, even though sexual violence was recognized as a problem by the media, by academics, by humanitarian workers and by donors, there remained numerous obstacles to preventing such crimes, stopping them when they occurred, punishing those responsible and helping the victims effectively and appropriately.

    Studies of the problem, attempts to understand it and efforts to respond appropriately all suffered from the lack of experience in this area and, only recently, had people become aware of the devastating consequences of such actions at the individual, family and community level.  Even though the work of the ICRC did bring relief, it was no substitute for political will on the part of States and arms bearers to ensure compliance with the laws that existed.  Its primary role was to remind belligerent States and bearers of arms that this protection was an obligation, and not merely a noble aspiration.  International humanitarian law contained all the provisions necessary to ensure that those who were taking no part in hostilities, especially women, received the protection and respect they needed in time of war.  The ICRC, therefore, called on all States, armed groups and armed forces to promote the application of international humanitarian law, so that this terrible and unnecessary suffering could cease. 

    LOIS LEWIS BRUTHUS, Director, Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, said, in the attainment of gender equality, a balance should be struck between science and political consciousness on the one hand, and morality on the other.  Political and scientific knowledge were vital to economic issues, but moral values were of utmost importance to the realization of social justice and gender equality.  It was interesting to note that the marked improvement in the Liberian justice system in addressing gender-based violence could be attributed to the combined interventions of institutions and individuals that had over the years fought against the systematic oppression of women, before, during, and after the civil war.  The exact magnitude of gender-based violence against women in Liberia had not been established, as there existed no reliable and comprehensive data on gender-based violence in Liberia. 

    Because of the inclusiveness of gender-based violence, it was imperative that countries in conflict or those emerging from conflict reviewed their laws and statutes, in order to determine whether they were indeed responsive to present-day realities.  There was in Liberia a dire need for a holistic reform of the judicial system to retrain judges, lawyers, magistrates and other support staff of the system.  Laws were not static, but progressive, hence, with the 14 years of civil strife, the need for retraining and capacity-building to include both the physical and material could not be overemphasized.  For the first time in Liberian's history, laws had removed everything that denied women's rights.  Irrespective of this, tradition, habit and attitude continued to strangle women.  Gender-based equality must be achieved legally and economically.

    Interactive Debate

    During the interactive debate, speakers made comments and posed questions on such issues as the importance of population displacement in the context of increasing the vulnerability of women and children; the need for an analysis of the situation subsequent to natural disasters; issues linked to forced prostitution; the need to incorporate gender awareness in situations following natural disasters; the need to empower women at all times, in order to reduce their vulnerability during crises; the need to scale up effective prevention programmes and measures to ensure that different agencies could provide a well-coordinated multisectoral response on the issue; and the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for sexual and other forms of violence.

    LOIS LEWIS BRUTHUS, Director, Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, said customary laws and traditional practices had been strangulating the positive laws that protected the rights of women and children.  The advancement of women's empowerment was being hindered by customs and traditions.  The sentences handed down by judges were weakened by traditional practices.

    FRANCOISE NGENDAHAYO, Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender of Burundi, said that, on the issue of tradition and customary law, in Africa, not just Burundi, men accepted some changes, such as women wearing trousers, but, when it came to changing laws that impacted tradition, this was not accepted, and the flag of tradition was raised as a means to block women and stop them from having access.  One strategy that could be helpful was, in a post-conflict situation, for the United Nations and other donors to bring pressure to bear, in order to insist on the participation of women in institutions.  The police and armed forces needed to be trained, and punishments inflicted where necessary.  A whole series of measures should be taken to bring pressure to bear on the Government of Burundi to take such matters seriously.

    NICHOLAS MICHEL, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Legal Council, said that combating discrimination against women had been going on for some time now.  However, a new concept was now introduced with new modalities of protection.  The obligation of ensuring adherence to international laws, in particular the Geneva Conventions, with regard to human rights, was essential.  States were obliged to protect people under their jurisdiction and assist victims.  The behaviour of participants in peacekeeping missions, both military and civilians, should be taken into consideration.  When such persons committed crimes, actions should be taken by trying them where the judiciary was functioning properly.  The rule of law was essential for efficient implementation of useful means of protection.

    Continuing the interactive debate, representatives asked further questions and made comments on such issues as prosecution in terms of the Government and Parliament in Burundi; that problems could also lie in the laws enacted by the Government; and the need to increase representation by women at all levels, including parliamentary, the judiciary, and the police.

    FRANCOISE NGENDAHAYO, Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender of Burundi, said that, at the Government level in Burundi, women were represented in high posts.  At least 30 per cent of seats in parliament were reserved for women.  A series of seminars had been held to increase awareness of women who were involved in Government affairs.  The issue of gender-related sexual violence should be combated.

    Continuing the interactive debate, representatives asked and commented upon, among other things, the need for all concerned countries to be involved, in order to help the most vulnerable segments of the population; the need to emphasize the need to work together on the normative process on a world-wide level; a request for a definition of gender-based violence, as it would be understood at a ministerial level; that solutions were not found just in policy, but also through plans and programmes aimed at empowering women, increasing access to justice, the protection of victims, and the monitoring and collection of data and analyses; the need for countries to play their role in protecting the most vulnerable from violations of their rights; the reinforcement of the rights of victims to medical and psychological care; the need for promulgation of best practices and concrete steps to implement the frameworks that existed; the need for a multisectoral and coordinated response; and how Governments could deal with victims of gender-based violence in post-conflict areas and when natural disasters took place, in the context of the need for international assistance.

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