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APPG on Women, Peace and Security: Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine: Lessons from Bosnia

On Wednesday, February 7th, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security organised an event in collaboration with the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity titled “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Ukraine: Lessons from Bosnia.” The event—chaired by Baroness Hodgson, co-chair of the APPG-WPS—focused on responses to the perpetration of CRSV in Ukraine; lessons learned from past conflicts, such as the Bosnian War, that could be applied to Ukraine and beyond; and the execution of survivor-centered approaches to bolster reparative justice measures for survivors.

Emily Prey, Director of the Gender Policy Portfolio at the New Lines Institute, discussed her report “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine: Lessons from Bosnia” co-authored with Dr. Kinsey Spears and Tanya Domi. She highlighted that the intention behind the drafting of the report was to fill a gap in the ways in which gender-based crimes are addressed, given that their perpetration is often overlooked in conflict. Prey shed light on the distressing situation in Ukraine, where Russian forces have committed numerous acts of CRSV against civilians of all ages and genders. The deliberate use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and a method of genocide was a central concern. Drawing from the experiences in Bosnia, where survivors of CRSV—including an estimated 50,000 raped women and 2,000-4,000 children born of wartime sexual violence—still await justice, Prey stressed the importance of a survivor-centered approach. She argued for the integration of this approach into the loss and damage registry and reparative measures, highlighting the missed opportunities in Bosnia’s peace negotiations to address root causes of the conflict and making a compelling case that a peaceful future for Ukraine is contingent upon adequately addressing the survivors of CRSV. By examining CRSV in Bosnia and the subsequent accountability and justice mechanisms, or the lack thereof, Prey provided a roadmap for the international community for the social reconstruction of Ukraine. Additionally, she emphasised the replicability of the report’s recommendations in other conflict zones, stressing the global relevance of the issue.

Hoar Habrelian, Legal Advisor at Global Rights Compliance (GRC), outlined the intensified efforts on the part of GRC in pursuing accountability for the perpetration of sexual and gender-based crimes in Ukraine, including the establishments of mobile justice teams to assist prosecutors in investigating these crimes in different areas of the country. Habrelian highlighted challenges in investigating CRSV, including reluctance among victims to report due to trauma, stigmatisation fears, and the desire for anonymity. The emotional toll on legal practitioners engaged in these issues was also acknowledged in her remarks. To conclude these opening remarks, Habrelian mentioned the creation of the CRSV unit in Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General in 2022, which was step forward in keeping victims informed about legal processes and statutes.

Professor Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics emphasised the interconnectedness of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI) initiative and the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda, emphasising the importance of prevention in ending conflict and CRSV. She noted that, in 2012, the PSVI initiative became closely tied to the UK’s championing of the WPS Agenda. Through the PSVI initiative, the UK government collaborated with organisations for criminal investigation to establish principles, including the international protocol on the investigation of CRSV. Despite this connection, Professor Chinkin noted that prevention, a crucial aspect of ending conflict and addressing CRSV, often receives less attention. She stressed that while focusing on CRSV is crucial, it should not be isolated but should coincide with efforts addressing other forms of violence and gender-based violence (GBV). Displacement, a major aspect of conflict, was emphasised for its linkages to CRSV, posing challenges but also reinforcing gender relations and stereotypes. Professor Chinkin concluded by stressing that criminal justice is only one part of a survivor-centered approach, and she raised concerns about the lack of international implementation of the WPS agenda despite verbal commitments, attributing it to the failure of states to budget for implementation and accountability.

Baroness Arminka Helic’s remarks delved into a reflection on the progress made in countering sexual violence while drawing important lessons from the situation in Bosnia. Expressing a nuanced perspective, she began by expressing a desire to commend achievements in countering sexual violence but acknowledged the complexity of the situation. Reflecting on Bosnia, she highlighted the sobering reality that, despite strides made, there is still much work to be done. Baroness Helic underscored the gravity of the situation in Bosnia, where an estimated 30,000 women were subjected to rape as part of a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide, lamenting the limited number of convictions, emphasising the inadequacy of sentences and the post-conviction fines. The legal architecture for prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence theoretically exists, but Baroness Helic urged for proactive capacity building in Ukraine, emphasising the importance of laying the groundwork before crises arise. In referencing conflicts beyond Bosnia, such as Sudan, Baroness Helic urged collective action, drawing inspiration from the International Commission on Missing Persons as a commitment to solving a problem. She advocated for a similar commitment to addressing CRSV in Ukraine. Importantly, Baroness Helic brought attention to the need for accountability, not only during conflicts but also in the post-conflict phase, emphasising that failures to address CRSV in post-conflict settings can perpetuate unacceptable behaviours.

The Q+A session covered inquiries into Da’esh crimes, universal jurisdiction, preservation of evidence, military training for survivor-centered approaches, and addressing stigmatisation of men and boys. The importance of applying specialised strategies, training investigators, and involving survivors in peace processes was underscored throughout the discussions. The event highlighted ongoing challenges in addressing CRSV and advocated for comprehensive, survivor-centered approaches on an international scale.

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