For more than 70 years, constraining armed aggression and improving rights and freedoms for all peoples have been accepted as common responsibilities by most countries. Central to this is the idea that those who carry out war crimes and crimes against humanity are held to account — as a precondition for peace, as moral restitution for survivors and to deter future aggressors.
In the past two decades, a measure of justice — however imperfect — was served to some of those responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing, including in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Far from an admission of weakness, this was an expression of strength: It showed our determination and ability to isolate and ultimately punish those who violated international law and the rights of their citizens.
But today, decades of gradual progress in expanding human rights and entrenching international law are threatened by a rising tide of intolerance and a weakened commitment to human rights.
In particular, as voices of bigotry rise, the wait for gender equality is growing. Women’s rights are again being called into question, and demands for sexual and reproductive health and rights are met in some quarters with open hostility. Risks for human rights defenders have grown. And we have been unable to hold to account the architects of mass atrocities in Syria and Myanmar.
Nowhere has this retreat been more visible than in wars and post-conflict situations. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as a tactic of war and terrorism in conflicts around the world. Though we have seen the first international prosecutions focused on charges of rape and a range of international commitments — such as a pledge not to include amnesty for rape in peace agreements and greater effort to improve training for militaries and for peacekeepers — impunity is still the norm.
This impunity has devastating consequences. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege, who will brief the U.N. Security Council this week, speaks of treating in his clinic in Congo three generations of the same family who had been brutally raped: a mother, her daughter and her infant granddaughter. We have both met survivors in countries such as Iraq, Bosnia and Sierra Leone who have urged us to help overcome the lack of criminal accountability that contributes to the continued prevalence of sexual violence.
When we met in New York a few weeks ago, in advance of the high-level open debate at the United Nations scheduled for this Tuesday, we agreed three areas need urgent focus, building on the work already done through the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.
First, we want to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable. We will stand up against all attempts to weaken systems of international criminal justice, which play an essential role when governments are unable or unwilling to provide justice for the gravest war crimes.
Crucially, we will work with like-minded countries and organizations to strengthen the international community’s ability to gather evidence of these crimes, and to support the United Nations’ investigative mechanisms. In 2014, Germany’s prosecutor general initiated an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. These trials led to what is believed to be the first international arrest warrant of a torturer of Yazidi women anywhere in the world, and to the classification of these acts as genocide. Others should follow that example.
Second, we need better monitoring. Resolutions from the U.N. Security Council remain mere pieces of paper if we don’t ensure compliance. Many parties to conflict listed by the secretary-general of the United Nations for committing rape or other forms of sexual violence in conflict completely disregard their obligations. This gap ought to be closed. Germany is proposing strengthening the channels through which information on non-compliance reaches the Security Council and its sanction committees by invigorating the work of the Security Council’s informal working group.
Finally, we must increase support to survivors of sexual violence and ensure their voices are at the center of our response. A survivor-centered approach must include victims often overlooked, including boys or men and children born of rape. All victims deserve full access to justice, compensation and financial support to lead a dignified life and to be able to play their part in changing their societies.
As current president of the Security Council, Germany is proposing a resolution that addresses these three concerns, urging targeted sanctions on those who perpetrate and direct violence, anchoring the topic in an informal working group and laying out an inclusive, survivor-centered approach. Adopting it would be a much-needed step toward ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict. It would also send an important message to those who attempt to roll back human rights: We don’t take progress for granted. And we will fight to keep it alive.
Heiko Maas is foreign minister of Germany. Angelina Jolie is co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.