Sexual violence ‘most hidden crime’ being committed against Ukrainians, civil society representative tells Security Council.
Allegations of sexual violence by Russian troops in Ukraine are mounting as the conflict passes its 100-day mark, a senior United Nations official told the Security Council today, voicing regret over a stark discrepancy between that painful reality and the global community’s ambition to end the use of rape as a tactic of war.
Pramila Patten, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recalled her recent visit to Ukraine and outlined the elements of a recently signed framework of cooperation on the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence, which seeks to strengthen accountability and combat those abhorrent crimes. “Too often have the needs of women and girls in conflict settings been side-lined and treated as an afterthought,” she said, welcoming that the newly signed framework makes them an explicit priority.
Recalling the Council’s many resolutions — backed up by international law — prohibiting the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, she noted the gaping chasm between those commitments and the situation of many women around the world. “Painfully, my visit cast into stark relief the gap that still exists between the aspiration of prevention expressed by this Council through the robust normative framework that has been established over the past decade and the reality on the ground for the most vulnerable,” she said. As of 3 June, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had received reports of 124 alleged acts of conflict-related sexual across Ukraine — mostly against women and girls — and a national hotline had received reports of crimes ranging from gang rape to coercion to watch an act of sexual violence committed against a partner or a child.
Against that backdrop, she urged humanitarian actors to prioritize support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence as a life-saving component of their work and warned against waiting to act. “We do not need hard data for a scaled-up humanitarian response, nor for all parties to put in place preventive measures,” she stressed, detailing the provisions of the recently signed framework — which seeks to strengthen cooperation between those working to combat and deter sexual violence in Ukraine and reduce the risk posed by human traffickers — and calling for the international community’s steadfast support.
Natalia Karbowska, Co-Founder and Director of Strategic Development for the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, recounted her organization’s efforts to provide food, medicine and other support to Ukrainian women whose lives were destroyed by the Russian Federation’s invasion. Describing sexual violence as “the most hidden crime”, she noted that for every girl or woman who is willing to tell her story, there are many others who will be silent for years. The Russian Federation is using sexual violence and rape as instruments of terror to control civilians, she said. Although the full scale of conflict-related sexual violence is not yet known, human rights activists and law enforcement agencies estimate that hundreds of cases have been committed not just against women and girls, but also men and boys and people of other gender identities, she said.
Also briefing the Council was Sherrie Rollins Westin, President of the non-profit organization Sesame Workshop, who said her group supports children and caregivers affected by conflicts and crises around the globe. Urging the international community to prioritize caregivers and young children in their humanitarian response, she said the latter have the most to lose, as their brains are developing faster than at any time in their lives. Exposure to traumatic events can have lasting impacts on their health, cognitive development and emotional stability. “Right now, children are experiencing the kind of exposure to trauma and stress that has the potential to derail their lives,” she warned. Against that backdrop, she urged the humanitarian community to build interventions to support young children into their work — including mental health services, quality early childhood education and help for caregivers — and pointed out that less than 3 per cent of humanitarian funding currently goes to such crucial programmes.
As Council members took the floor, many expressed support for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General’s framework of cooperation, and called for an urgent end to the use of rape and other sexual crimes as tactics of war — both in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world.
Brazil’s representative reiterated his country’s call for urgent, independent investigations of all reports of sexual violence being committed in Ukraine, emphasizing that perpetrators — be they agents of the State or not — must be held accountable. Also noting that human traffickers and criminal networks may be taking advantage of the conflict to exploit women and children, he said States have a duty to prevent predatory individuals and criminal organizations from profiting from the situation. “This Council has already failed in preventing the outbreak of the conflict and in ensuring the cessation of hostilities — it must not fail in repudiating sexual crimes and human trafficking,” he stressed.
The representative of the United Arab Emirates said that, even before the crisis in Ukraine, the world was already in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Some 28.7 million women and girls around the world were in a condition of forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage and slavery, with millions of displaced persons in the Middle East at the epicentre of the crisis. Commending the recently signed framework, she urged the Council to keep “top of mind” the conflict’s knock-on effects on global food security, and to pursue the only true path towards ending conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine — namely, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said sexual and gender-based violence remains a global threat faced by women across the world. In its own neighbourhood, the European Union stands committed to protecting all those seeking refuge from the fighting in Ukraine — largely women and children — and to providing them with education, health care and access to the labour market. He also described Moscow’s attempts to use food supplies as a “stealth missile against developing countries”, emphasizing that the Union has “zero” sanctions against the Russian Federation’s agricultural sector, and does not prevent it from transporting grain, food or fertilizers.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s delegate voiced grave concern about the fate of some 1 million Ukrainians, including children, who have been forcibly removed to the Russian Federation and are being turned into Russian citizens. Calling on the international community to do more to protect them, he also cited numerous allegations of sexual crimes committed by Russian troops, with the bodies of those tortured or raped burned to hide evidence. Welcoming the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry’s visit to Ukraine to gather first-hand information, he went on to note that Kyiv is ready to resume food exports from Odessa to the rest of the world. However, efforts are needed to prevent the Russian Federation from exploiting those operations, he said, also cautioning that any concessions advised by Ukraine’s well-meaning partners would only lead to more war.
For his part, the representative of the Russian Federation criticized Ukraine and Western members of the Council for ratcheting up accusations — levelled without evidence — of sexual crimes committed by Russian troops. Unlike those baseless accusations, he provided numerous “concrete examples” of crimes by Ukrainian nationalists, including a threatened rape and shooting committed by a Ukrainian senior lieutenant against a couple in Mariupol. In recent years, Ukraine has risen to the top five countries in Europe with the most victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. On another matter, he noted the stated intention of the United States and the United Kingdom to supply long-range artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine, describing promises that Kyiv will not use such weapons against targets in Russian territory as “unconvincing”.
Also speaking were representatives of France, Mexico, United States, China, Ghana, Norway, India, United Kingdom, Gabon, Kenya, Ireland, Albania, Italy, Latvia (on behalf of the Baltic States), Germany, Poland and Slovakia.
The meeting began at 10:02 a.m. and ended at 12:58 p.m.