Last week was a big week at the United Nations (UN). President Obama and many other heads of state attended meetings at the UN. As I arrived with my fellow NYU classmates and Professor Colette Mazzucelli, the first thing I spotted once emerging from security was President Obama’s limousine. I wasn’t excited about the car per se, but rather the knowledge that he was still in the building. Once inside, I spotted the President on a video monitor, he was speaking at the lunch hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. As I turned to walk to the elevator, a classmate quietly said look right, and next to us was National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
In a matter of five minutes, I was fairly certain it was going to be a worthwhile afternoon.
A little backstory…
In 2012, Madame Zainab Bangura (former Minister of Health of Sierra Leone), the current Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, along with UN Special Envoy for Refugees Angelina Jolie, and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague spearheaded the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative in the U.K.
Rape in war is pervasive and widely ignored. It destroys the lives of women and families. In many cultures the injured parties do not speak of the assault because it brings shame upon their families. The numbers of women, children and men raped are staggering, and reports exist of assaults on children under the age of 1.
Fast forward to my attendance at the UN on September 24th.
The aforementioned individuals appealed to UN members to sign a Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in War. No, Angelina Jolie did not give this particular speech in person; it was taped – but very effective. Short films by Invisible Children and Witness.org were also presented. Then UN member representatives began giving short speeches in support of the Declaration, with many citing the Democratic Republic of Congo as a main problem region.
I found speeches by Madame Bangura, a survivor, and representatives from Croatia, Brazil and Canada most memorable. The representative from Croatia noted that signing the declaration is not enough; the actions taken on the ground are the true measure. Macky Sall, the President of the Republic of Senegal, was the only President that I know of who spoke during the proceedings. He clearly stated that he would make rape in war a priority for his new administration. Valerie Trierweiler, France’s First Lady, made a passionate appeal and spoke of her work with a doctor in Africa and the importance of ending rape in war, which she views as crimes against humanity. After the final representative had spoken Mr. Hague announced that the representative from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would like to make a statement. This moment appeared unplanned and in response to the many people who had mentioned the long-running conflict in her country. She thanked people for acknowledging the suffering that has plagued the DRC for over two decades and said that she and her government support the Declaration.
By the end of the UN General Assembly, 113 countries had signed on. At my last check, the total was 119 countries. Though, I am pleased to see the total still climbing, I am disappointed that more countries do not view rape in war as a significant problem that should be treated as a violation of international (human rights) norms.
After the conclusion of the Declaration, our group of NYU students went to another conference room to wait for a private audience with Madame Bangura. She spoke with us about the need for not only action on the ground, but also more scholarly research on rape in war.
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