Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Third Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2022–23, From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow: Preventing future mass atrocities around the world, HC 149, and the Government response, HC 992.]
14:30
Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the prevention of sexual violence in conflict.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank Labour Friends of Israel, the all-party parliamentary group on UK-Israel and others for the briefings they have provided for this debate. I also thank Baroness Helic, who is a leading campaigner on this issue.

The focus of this debate is to ensure that we keep shining a light on the horror of the use of sexual violence in conflict. As we know, throughout history sexual violence was considered just part of the spoils of war. Rape, enslavement and murder, particularly of women and girls, formed an accepted part of the narrative of conflicts over centuries. Finally, a breakthrough came just 30 years ago. The deliberate use of mass sexual violence in armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo provoked a loud and very angry response from global women’s organisations and human rights activists, which could not be ignored.

Under that pressure, the United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1993. Significantly, that had an unprecedented commitment to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity, along with other war crimes. A Rwandan tribunal followed with the same objective. In 2000—really not that long ago—the UN Security Council recognised women’s perspectives, rights and roles in relation to peace and security for the very first time. I am pleased to say that that initiative was championed by the UK Labour Government.

Important steps in recent years include the Government’s creation of the UK women, peace and security national action plan and the establishment of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which has been allocated funding. However, in an increasingly volatile world, women and girls continue to bear the brunt of the violence, and those legal frameworks and tribunals have been insufficient to ensure gender justice.

The use of sexual violence in conflict and the denial and dismissal that so often occurs afterwards remain a constant scourge in conflicts around the world. Shockingly, just last month, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, reported that wartime sexual violence increased by 50% in 2023, compared with the previous year.

Perhaps the most well-known example of our failure to tackle sexual violence in conflict in the past year is the atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli women and girls on 7 October. Most of the victims of that violence were subsequently murdered, so we may never have a full account of what actually took place.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On issues not being fully reported, does she agree that one of the advantages that we have in the west is that where there is a free press, these issues are highlighted, as they are being today? In some of the more repressive regimes, we hear very little, if anything, about the types of sexual violence that she is rightly alluding to.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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That is a very important point, and I did not include it in my opening remarks, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.

What happened on 7 October was a well-documented case of mass sexual violence, in part because the terrorist perpetrators proudly filmed and advertised their crimes. A first responder at kibbutz Be’eri reported finding “piles and piles” of dead women “completely naked” from the waist down, and there have been horrifying reports of sexual mutilation. A survivor of the Supernova music festival massacre, Yoni Saadon, recalled:

“I saw this beautiful woman with the face of an angel and eight or ten of the fighters beating and raping her…When they finished they were laughing and the last one shot her in the head.”

Tragically, Hamas’s use of rape as a weapon of war may not be over yet. Reports indicate that female and male hostages have been sexually assaulted and abused during their incarceration. The fact that sexual violence was committed at multiple locations suggests that it was part of a systematic effort. As the Israeli women’s rights campaigner Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari told the BBC, such a concentration of cases in a relatively short span of time left her in “no doubt” that there was a

“premeditated plan to use sexual violence as a weapon of war”.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)
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Does my hon. Friend share my anguish at the fact that the United Nations chose not to recognise that sexual violence took place during the attack on 7 October? Does she further share my horror at the testimony I heard from a woman who was responsible for looking at the bodies when they came into the mortuary? That woman talked about the greyness that confronted her, adding that every now and then there was a bit of shining colour, which was the nail varnish left on the bodies of people who had been sexually abused and then killed.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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I agree with my right hon. Friend on that point, and I heard that testimony too. On that very day, I had bright red nails, unlike the paler-coloured nails that I have today, and the testimony struck me in a profound way.

For months after the 7 October attacks, there was a deafening silence from many organisations and international agencies that are supposedly dedicated to addressing these kinds of crimes. The best that the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls could respond with initially was a very evasive expression of “concern” about

“reports of sexual violence that may have occurred since 7 October, committed by State and non-State actors against Israelis and Palestinians.”

Another organisation, UN Women, which is supposedly

“dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women,”

issued multiple statements following 7 October, none of which addressed Hamas’s sex crimes.

It is deeply concerning that that has been mirrored in the response of some progressive groups, some of which have refused to believe the testimony of eyewitnesses and sought to characterise evidence as “unverified accusations”, even though the evidence of organised and systematic planned attacks in different locations at the same time is clear. The choice made by many to downplay the testimonies of survivors and ignore the evidence about those who were murdered, which we have seen in conflicts around the world, shows just how far we still have to go to change attitudes, even among groups that purport to believe all women.

It is important to note that, although it is particularly stark in relation to the sexual assaults committed on 7 October—I cite that atrocity as it is the most recent example—the denial and dismissal of sexual assault in that conflict is not unique. Many conflicts receive less international attention and reports of sexual violence are often met with an international wall of silence or ineffective expressions of concern. In that regard, it is important to draw attention to the serious allegations of sexual violence reported by interlocutors in Ramallah who raised concerns about the treatment of Palestinians in detention, and in particular the use of sexual harassment and threats of rape during house raids and at checkpoints.

In both 2021 and 2022, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had the world’s highest number of verified cases of sexual violence against children committed by armed forces and armed groups, yet how many of us here today knew that? Well, perhaps more of us knew than is the case in other parts of society. So far, we have clearly failed to achieve the far-reaching change that the world needs. I believe that an important component of that is that sexual violence is seen as an unintended consequence of conflict, instead of a heinous act, in parallel with other war crimes.

Where do we go from here to address the issue? We must centre women’s voices in peace negotiations to help ensure that the victims of sexual violence in conflict receive recognition of the crimes against them, to ensure that crimes of sexual violence are recognised in parallel with other war crimes, and to provide alternative perspectives on the impact that conflict has. We must also hold to account Government initiatives such as the UK women, peace and security national action plan for 2023 to 2027, to ensure that its commitment to put women at the centre of conflict resolution peacebuilding programmes over the next five years is realised.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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I thank the hon. Member for bringing forward this important debate and allowing me to intervene. There are 614 million women and girls living in conflict regions. Women often face disproportionate violence in those conflict zones. Sexual violence is often used against women in conflict, as the hon. Member has so powerfully set out. Does she agree that it is the UK’s moral obligation to provide humanitarian support and funding to help rebuild infrastructure in those conflict zones, and to increase our international aid to 0.7% of GNI?

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I agree with what she said. The UK needs to play a leading role in that regard.

The international community should work to create an international commission with the sole mandate of focusing on sexual violence in conflict. To the hon. Lady’s point, we would be leading the way on the matter. That idea has been pioneered by Baroness Helic, informed by her role helping to create the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, and inspired by the International Commission on Missing Persons. That was formed following an agreement during the G8 and has now transformed into a treaty-based body that works in more than 40 countries.

There are gaps in international architecture, which means that sexual violence is slipping through the net. Instruments used to achieve justice internationally are able to focus only on perpetrators at the highest levels, and national courts often experience limited resources or a lack of willingness. The proposed commission would perform a similar function to the International Commission on Missing Persons, which has the dual aims of ensuring the co-operation of Governments and others in addressing issues of missing persons, and providing technical assistance to Governments in locating, recovering and identifying missing persons.

The proposed commission would have a two-pronged approach. First, it would work with Governments and other international bodies to co-ordinate the deployment of experts in countries where sexual violence in conflict has occurred, to help collect vital evidence and record testimonies in a sensitive way, and build up local expertise. On 7 October, the primary focus of emergency services was responding to the heinous act of terror, which meant that forensic evidence of sexual violence diminished over time. Should a body such as the one that is proposed have existed, it could have played a key role in collecting that vital evidence in a timely but culturally sensitive manner, which would ultimately have helped refute all the denials.

Secondly, the commission would act as a centre for excellence, helping to drive forward forensic technology that could help in confirming the use of sexual violence and provide a space to share best practice, train and educate investigators, and discuss preventive strategies. I believe that such a body would provide the much-needed tools and joined-up co-operation required to hold perpetrators to account and bring victims justice. I believe that we must take these steps to prevent backsliding on the progress that has been made so far, to ensure meaningful justice for victims, to deter future crimes and to press for further international change that will make a difference.

We must take steps to address sexual violence in conflict, because those who have been victims of it, and those who will sadly, no matter what we do, become victims in future, cannot afford for us not to.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
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I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called to speak. I call Jim Shannon.

14:44
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to be called so early in the debate, Sir Charles—I am used to jumping up, then sitting back down again. It is great to be here and I look forward to all the contributions. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this debate. I will give examples and perspectives from across the world.

The violence that happens to ladies and young girls across the world is horrendous. It upsets me and makes me physically and emotionally annoyed. I shudder whenever I think of the things that happen. As Members of this House, we have a platform to raise awareness of significant human rights concerns. We are here to advocate for those who are subjected to some of the most extreme cases of violence that threaten their safety, freedom and dignity. For me, each of those three points is incredibly important.

This debate has been called at a time when the world is witnessing the highest number of violent conflicts since the second world war. I am a person of faith. The Bible talks about how there will be wars and rumours of wars. I never in my lifetime can remember as many wars and as many rumours of wars as there are now. That tells me that the Bible is an indication that the last times are coming. Perhaps that is something we should take note of.

That fact makes me shudder. Knowing that that entails a rise in conflict-based sexual violence affects me physically and emotionally. The UN verified that there were 3,688 cases of conflict-based sexual violence last year alone, a 50% increase from the previous year. Women and girls account for 95% of those cases and children account for 32%. How could anyone in this world carry out anything sexual against a child?

Sexual violence occurs in conflicts across the world, with the highest numbers recorded in Ethiopia and, as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I read some time ago that in Ukraine there were attacks on women and girls as young as eight years old and as old as 80. Can anyone envisage what that means? Those people must think they are Russian monsters, because that is what they are. They think it is okay to abuse girls and women whenever they want. That is the world we live in and why this debate is so important.

I look forward to hearing the contributions from the shadow Ministers, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for the SNP, and my good friend, the shadow Minister speaking for the Labour party, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown). I often say that when she is in Westminster Hall, so am I. I thank her for her contributions in these debates, where she speaks with passion and belief. We will not be disappointed in the Minister’s response, so I look forward to his contribution as well.

I want to relate a story that is pertinent to this debate. I visited Israel the week after Easter. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West referred to the Nova music festival, which unnerved me a wee bit. I walked through the Nova music festival site where people were murdered, which really disturbed me. I met some of the families, including a mother, Amanda Damari. She told the story of her daughter, Emily, who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists and has not been heard of for the last three months.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West outlined the case of what is happening. I will not dwell too much on the mum because we can understand what she was thinking, and perhaps what we were all thinking. Since that day, as I vowed I would do, I have made sure that Amanda, the mother, and Emily, the daughter, are very much on my prayer list. I am sure that they are on the prayer lists of many others as well. I am a great believer in prayer.

It would be remiss not to mention the men and boys subject to conflict-based violence. It has happened in Ukraine and in other parts of the world, but many countries do not include this demographic in the scope of their sexual violence legislation. Sexual violence against men and boys occurs most often within the context of detention and interrogation. Those are the examples I am aware of, although I am sure that there are many other circumstances in which it happens.

As a person of faith and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I feel obliged to draw attention to the vulnerability of religious minorities, which experience sexual violence in ongoing conflicts. It is terrible. Each time I comment on conflicts in countries across the world, I find that those of Christian faith or minority faith are in a position where they are victims of abuse—first, they are victims of human rights abuses, then they are abused because of their faith. The APPG speaks up for those with Christian faith, other faith or no faith. It is really important that we do so, and as chair of the APPG, I speak up regularly for all groups.

Militant groups and terrorist organisations often target members of opposing ethnic, religious or political groups. Those belonging to religious minority communities are often stripped of the freedom to exercise their faith in conflict-affected areas. People who are Christian or who are members of an ethnic minority automatically receive sexual abuse as well, because it makes them vulnerable and they are specifically targeted. That is something we must speak out about. Their religion provides them with identity and purpose, but during conflict it makes them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Nigeria and meet the mother of Leah Sharibu, one of the wee schoolgirls who was kidnapped. She has never been released. About a month ago we heard rumours that she was going to be released, and we were hopeful, but unfortunately that fell through. Leah refused to renounce her faith as a Christian and convert to Islam. She was kidnapped by Boko Haram and forced to marry one of their fighters. The latest story is that Leah has three children and has been subjected to abuse over a number of years.

We met Leah’s mother, and her pain was palpable and deeply saddening. I witnessed how the pain of those subjected to sexual violence ripples through their families and communities. The case of all the young schoolgirls who were kidnapped—some of them are still held, including Leah Sharibu—underlines that. This experience has greatly affected me and motivates me to speak in today’s debate. Leah’s reality is an unfortunate reality for many girls, not only in Nigeria but worldwide, so it is important that we give voice to this debate, and we are all here to do that. I thank Members in advance for their contributions.

The UK is recognised as a global leader in promoting human rights, and we must utilise this role to advocate for those affected by conflict-based sexual violence. Where praise is due, I always give it—the same goes for criticising, which we do all too often—so I want to praise our Minister and Government for exhibiting excellent leadership in tackling conflict-related sexual violence by establishing the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. When I was in Israel, one of the Israeli lady MPs said that she wished to establish something similar in Israel. I put her in touch with some MPs—unfortunately they are not here today for various reasons—so she could come here and engage with them and try to press those things that are happening in Israel.

The PSVI’s goal to rally global action to end conflict-based sexual violence has led to the empowerment of other Governments to lead efforts in different areas on this issue—for instance, the example I gave of Israel and what we are doing here. Others have echoed the statement that the aid allocated is not nearly the amount needed to match the magnitude of the issue. Perhaps in summing up, the Minister could give us some indication of what has been done.

I thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for all it has done thus far. However, it is evident that more needs to be done to support those globally who are victimised on a daily basis. For all those young ladies and those girls and boys—maybe not in the same numbers—who have been sexually abused, we have a right to be their voice in this Westminster Hall debate. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for bringing the debate forward. It is incumbent on me to be here to support her because the subject matter, while difficult to talk about, is one that we cannot ignore.

14:55
Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles, and to speak in this incredibly important debate. I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing today’s debate. Sexual violence is the most forgotten, and one of the most reprehensible, weapons of war. It is, as the United Nations has rightly stated, rarely simply the action of rogue soldiers but a deliberate planned tactic designed to terrorise, assert power and inflict lasting trauma and psychological scars. It has a particularly sickening attraction for its perpetrators. As Amnesty International put it,

“rape is cheaper than bullets”.

While the conflict in Bosnia saw the first ever convictions for mass rape as a war crime, that hardly seems to have served as a deterrent. In recent years, women and girls in Ukraine, northern Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been subjected to horrific sexual war crimes, but we have no hope of combating this evil if we cannot even acknowledge its existence, if we cannot agree that it must never be ignored, doubted or dismissed, and if we cannot recognise that rape is rape whatever the victim’s race, religion or nationality. That is why I want to briefly comment on the abhorrent acts of sexual violence committed by Hamas in its attack on southern Israel on 7 October. As we have heard, those were acts of exceptional brutality. As Meni Binyamin, head of the international crime investigations unit of the Israeli police, has suggested, they were

“the most extreme sexual abuses we have seen”

—truly horrifying acts of rape, sexual mutilation and torture.

An extensive investigation was carried out by The New York Times in December, which utilised video footage, photographs, GPS data from mobile phones and interviews with over 150 people, including witnesses, medical personnel, soldiers and rape councillors. They all identified at least seven locations where Israeli women and girls were sexually assaulted and mutilated. They included the site of the Nova music festival, kibbutz Be’eri and kibbutz Kfar Aza. The attacks against women were not isolated events, The New York Times concluded, but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence. That confirms the analysis made by Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, an expert on family law and international women’s rights who works with Israeli women’s groups, that those were atrocities that the world, including those supposedly committed to human rights and the safety of women and girls, had decided to downplay and ignore. It took over seven weeks for the UN Secretary-General to call for an investigation into Hamas’s campaign of rape. It took UN Women, which says it is dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, 50 days to even acknowledge that these crimes had occurred. Where was the sisterhood? Where were the feminists? “Me too, unless you’re a Jew.” Let the call come from this House today directly to those women: we are here to tell you that we see you, hear you and believe you.

I had the privilege of being present at the sitting of the UN Security Council where special representative Pramila Patten presented her report on the sexual violence that took place on 7 October. Describing her experience as unlike anything she had witnessed elsewhere in the world, Patten said:

“The world outside cannot understand the magnitude of the event”.

Her report outlined the desperate need and moral imperative for a humanitarian ceasefire to end the unspeakable suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages.

If the conflict and violence overseas were not bad enough, we know that this has had a knock-on effect on the levels of violence against women and girls here in the UK, where Jewish Women’s Aid stands virtually alone among charities dedicated to combating violence against women in speaking out about those brutal events. I know from my discussions with the charity as the shadow Minister for domestic abuse and safeguarding that the accusations levelled at Israeli women—that they were lying about the brutal rapes and sexual violence that took place on 7 October—served to undermine confidence in the services that Jewish Women’s Aid offers.

As Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, and Michelle Taylor, the US permanent representative to the UN Human Rights Council, have argued, this reaction is in stark contrast to the global gender-based violence movements’ typical emphasis on the importance of listening to, and believing, survivors’ accounts.

Sexual violence is seen as a weapon of war all over the globe. According to the national prosecutor’s office, over 200 accounts have been recorded of sexual abuse committed by Russians during its war on Ukraine, which have begun proceeding through Ukrainian courts. Since the start of the brutal armed conflict between the Sudan armed forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in mid-April 2023, conflict-related rape and sexual violence against women and girls in Sudan has increased significantly. As conflict escalates in Gaza and the middle east, UN experts describe credible allegations that Palestinian women and girls have been subject to sexual assault, including rape, and are calling for a full investigation. At least two Palestinian detainees have been raped, with others being subject to multiple forms of sexual assault and humiliation.

These brutal events are not confined to overseas and have led to a rise in incidents of Islamophobia and abuse here in the UK. Just yesterday I was told by police and Tell MAMA that since 7 October and the escalating conflict in the middle east, there has been a dramatic increase in incidents of domestic abuse in Muslim households reported to them right here in the UK. This once again demonstrates that British Muslim women have borne the majority of the brunt of anti-Muslim hate during this time.

The devastating truth is that sexual violence is commonplace in war, but this does not have to be the case. Let us be clear that rape and sexual violence must never be used as a weapon of war, and those seeking to capitalise on foreign events to spread hatred at home will not be allowed to get away with it. Preventative work is key to tackling this and I am pleased that work is already being done through initiatives that we have already heard of, such as the PSVI. Cross-departmental work like that is essential to tackling the issues. While we can do little to alleviate the suffering of victims, survivors and their families, we can stand here today and speak up on their behalf, acknowledging these devastating crimes, no matter where they are positioned on the globe. Victims and survivors deserve to be listened to, validated and believed.

15:02
Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and a true honour to be part of this debate, which I have a feeling is going to be this place at its best. It is at its best when it speaks for those who cannot yet be heard, and when it confronts difficult truths in our society and makes a plan to act. I suspect that the Minister shares our concern on this matter and so we are pushing at an open door, because, sadly, this is something we have seen for many years.

Let me start by joining my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) in honouring Baroness Helic and her work on this matter, as well as thanking my hon. Friend for securing this debate. She made such a powerful opening speech, and I agree with everything that my colleagues have said. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who has just blown us all apart with her powerful call to action.

International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is 19 June, so the Minister has a mere couple of weeks to agree and put in place what we shall decide today should happen in this House. But that should be a very easy task, because the asks are very simple. We must act, because we know that this is getting worse. I am not going to join the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in suggesting that we are in the end of days just yet, although I respect that as part of his faith, but I recognise that we live in a very uncertain world. Six out of seven worldwide are plagued by a feeling of insecurity. We are facing the highest number of violent conflicts since the second world war, and 2 billion people —a quarter of all humanity—are therefore in places affected by those conflicts.

The challenge that we face here today is that, too often, sexual violence is seen as an inevitable consequence of such conflict—as day follows night, so women will be violated. That is not the case. Women are not mere collateral damage to conflict. The first thing that we must do in this House is to challenge that notion—that complacency—that it is part of the process so our challenge is to find a way just to stop it. No; we need to prevent it, and we prevent it by, first of all, recognising that it does not need to happen. It is chilling to me that many non-governmental organisations talk about how, for those who fight wars, sexual assault is seen as more destructive than using fire to damage a community, because the resulting damage lasts for generations.

We should recognise that, across the world, there are 15 conflict-related settings where there are active concerns that sexual-based violence is taking place—Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. There are also three post-conflict settings where we are, again, concerned that this is a very live issue—the western Balkans, Nepal and Sri Lanka. And there are three situations of concern where the UN thinks that further sexual violence may be taking place—Ethiopia, Haiti and Nigeria.

It is little wonder that more than 3,500 verified cases of sexual violence were reported last year alone—a 50% increase in this reporting cycle. The highest numbers are being reported in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I suggest that that is because those conflicts have been going on the longest, and therefore the capacity to record is the greatest. We should recognise the evidence, speak out for the victims across the world, and stand with them in the way that, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Pontypridd has rightly said, we stand with those women in Israel and Gaza.

In Sri Lanka, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recognised that, during the conflict with the Tamil Tigers, there has been a horrific level of violation and abuse, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings and the use of torture and sexual violence. While it is difficult to get accurate numbers, we know that at least half a million women were raped during the Rwandan genocide, and 50,000 in the war in Bosnia.

We know that rape and sexual violence are the hallmarks of the military genocide for the Rohingya women. The Women’s League of Burma documented more than 100 cases of conflict-related sexual or gender-based violence during the coup. As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, we also know that there is a growing but emerging evidence base from Ukraine that, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, since the start of 2014, Ukrainians—especially but not exclusively women and girls—are victims of rape, gang rape and forced nudity perpetrated by Russian military troops.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd is right; so often in these cases there is denial and dismissal, and we are seeing that in Israel right now—and actually we are seeing it in Gaza too, because there have been very credible reports. In this country, those of us who want to tackle violence against women start from a position where we believe, because we know how hard it is to come forward and report in the first place. So we believe until the evidence proves otherwise, but the evidence basis that we have got is very clear. I want to mention this because I know that there will be people watching this, and I have seen myself the querying, the questioning and the double-bluffing about whether or not sexual violence is taking place. The evidence basis of the special representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict included interviews with 34 individuals —survivors and witnesses of the 7 October attacks, released hostages, first responders, and health and service providers. Some 5,000 photographic images and 50 hours of footage of the attacks were also reviewed. These are not in-passing recollections; it has been a systematic approach to identifying what has happened.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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Both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) have stressed the organised nature of what happened on 7 October, but no one has yet said what the reason was for that. The principal reason, as far as I can see, was to try to goad the Israelis into precisely the sort of overreaction—thus alienating world opinion from their cause—as that on which they have subsequently embarked. So, if it can be proven that the mass rape and other sexual abuse was planned by the organisers of Hamas, does it not follow from that, that they, as well as the actual perpetrators of these attacks, must face retribution in the international courts eventually?

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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Many of us have consistently called for all allegations of war crime—and the use of sexual violence in war is a war crime: we should be absolutely clear about that—to be investigated. I want to go on to develop an argument around that. I would just say that it is really important, today of all days and in this debate of all debates, that we centre our thoughts on the victims of sexual violence, and do not go down some of the rabbit holes about whether this is a strategy in war. Because those who study these situations point out that sexual violence is not inevitable; it is not an inevitable tactic. There are decisions being made. By switching our focus, we deny the women the right to have their voices heard—women who require accountability and justice. If sexual violence is something that happens as a matter of course in a war, when you end the war you end the problem: job done. But as I said at the start, the challenge is not just to stop sexual violence but to prevent it, and to take it out of this arena altogether. So I hope the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) will understand if I am very firmly focused on the evidence of sexual violence and assault in war and the challenge that we face from the work that the UN has done.

The UN has also recognised concerns in Palestine. The special rapporteur also went to Ramallah and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd pointed out, she highlighted instances of sexual violence in the context of detention, particularly invasive body searches, beatings, including in the genital areas, and the threats of rape against women and family members.

My point is that none of this is inevitable.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with intent. She says that we have to hear women’s voices on this; I think we all hold that point in common. But does she agree that, important though it is, it is just not enough for us in Britain to pronounce here, in a debate in Westminster Hall, our horror and our anger and our determination to prevent this from happening? It is absolutely vital that the international institutions—the UN and others—give far greater priority to looking at sexual violence as wars evolve, rather than in retrospect, after a war has come to an end.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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As ever, my right hon. Friend prefigures what I am going to argue, about that mindset change and that cultural change. There is this idea that as long as we stop the war, we stop the violence, and that is enough. It is not enough, and that is what we need to change.

I also want to recognise that this is not just about sexual violence by states. As I get older, I seem to find myself in more and more agreement with my colleague the hon. Member for Strangford—I do not know whether that is accidental or deliberate. He talked about Boko Haram. We have seen in conflicts around the world the use of violence by insurgent organisations. NGOs report that sexual violence often occurs in religious conflict, particularly in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where sexual violence is used to keep minority communities in their place.

Almost 10 years ago, ISIS seized huge swathes of Iraq and Syria and launched a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in northern Iraq. Some 6,000 women and children were captured. To this day, half of them are still missing. The captive women and children were used for sexual slavery and trafficking. One of the most horrifying points for me about the Yazidi community and how they deal with the trauma is that those women who are still missing, and who are not presumed dead, are considered to have stayed displaced because they are staying with children who have been the product of rape. They face an impossible choice of being separated from their children if they return to freedom.

Boko Haram is a good example of where women have been brutalised by insurgents and then further brutalised by the state, and stigmatised by Government state action. In Nigeria, the governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima, publicly warned that those women who had become pregnant by Boko Haram fighters could breed a new generation of terrorists, and advocated for those women to be educated not to bring up their children to be terrorists. That is the cycle of blame and shame continuing on.

It is also not just women and girls who are risk; again, the hon. Member for Strangford is absolutely right. There is evidence from the Red Cross that there is sexual and gender-based violence against men and boys, and particularly against LGBTQI people in humanitarian settings, and also against refugees. One of the most depressing studies you will ever read shows that approximately one in five refugees who are displaced women have experienced sexual violence as part of fleeing a conflict zone.

We condemn without reservation those who question whether sexual violence happens. We condemn without reservation any of those people who seek to minimise it or say it is less of an issue in some conflicts than in others. It is an issue in all of them. That matters because over 90% of survivors of sexual violence do not report it to the police or officials in those conflict zones because of their lack of faith that anything will happen. That is understandable when we look at the mixed record of our action, which is where my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) is absolutely right.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda does not reflect the high levels of sexual violence that we know happened in that conflict in its record for action. In contrast, after what happened in the former Yugoslavia, 93 individuals were indicted. Some 44 of those were for crimes involving sexual violence. Of those 44, 29 were convicted, representing a 69% conviction rate.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
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Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady. I will call the final speaker at 3.18 pm, so she has a couple of minutes.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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I apologise, Sir Charles; I am confused about my timing.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
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No, you are giving a wonderful speech. It is just that I have to get the last speaker in.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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Absolutely. Let me say just a few things. First, sexual violence when it happens in conflict is not an accident. It is deliberate. Whether it is organised or happens progressively, it is not an accident. Secondly, it is not inevitable. Analysis of sexual violence in conflict over the last 45 years shows that it has been different in different conflicts. For example, rape was widespread in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste, but far less likely in El Salvador. That is why we have to break the cycle, and we break the cycle only by saying that it matters.

My appeal to the Minister is for the UK to demand an explicit accountability mechanism for the allegations of sexual violence in Israel and Palestine as part of the peace process. Let us not brush this under the carpet. Let us not say that once the conflict has been resolved—we all desperately want that urgent ceasefire—that is enough. Let us have accountability for all these mechanisms.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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I was going to sit down, but I will happily give way.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I just wanted to say that the UK has made an offer to Israel and Palestine to support evidence gathering and technical support on the issue of conflict-related sexual violence, as per the report of the special representative of the Secretary-General, Ms Patten.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
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Stella Creasy—one more minute.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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I appreciate what the Minister is saying. Will he also clarify that the UK has made representations with the United Nations and the International Criminal Court for a specific criminal tribunal process for this conflict to be part of the ceasefire negotiations, so that all actors, including Hamas, Israel, and the third-party actors who are supporting the peace process, recognise it, respect it, contribute to it and prioritise it?

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
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I imagine that will be answered in the wind-ups.

15:14
Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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I am pleased that we are having this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing it, and on the way she introduced it by talking about the horrors of violence against women on 7 October in Israel, and the violence against women and children going on in the continuing conflict in Gaza and in other parts of the world.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) quite correctly pointed out, the time to investigate, if possible, is while the conflict is going on. We should at least preserve evidence during a conflict so far as that is possible, but that is never particularly easy. In her opening lines, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West pointed out the levels of conflict around the world and the prevalence of sexual violence, particularly against women and children, in all wars going on at the present time, including those in Yemen and Ukraine, and in other conflicts going back, such as Vietnam. It is sadly not a new situation, but it is one that we have to address and do everything we can about.

I will particularly refer to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have many constituents from there and they have often talked to me about it. In the few minutes I have, I will quote from the report on the DRC given by Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the Human Rights Council only a couple of months ago on 4 March. He said:

“I fear that the enjoyment of human rights in the country has come to a grinding halt...The absence of State authority over large swathes of territory has also cleared the way for brutal levels of violence and attacks. The insecurity is being fuelled by a seemingly impassable mountain of challenges: from large-scale corruption, to the unbridled race between multiple parties to take control and exploit the country’s wealth of natural resources, to ongoing violent land disputes...Between 1 October 2023 and 15 March 2024, the UN Joint Human Rights Office documented 2,110 human rights violations and abuses throughout DRC. Of these, 59 per cent were committed by armed groups…Almost half of these violations and abuses were committed in the North Kivu province…The UN Joint Human Rights Office has documented 156 people who were summarily executed at the hands of the M23. M23 was also found to have sexually abused 30 women and 12 children”.

Amnesty International goes on to report that 38,000 cases of sexual violence were reported in North Kivu during the first quarter of 2023—that is in the first three months of last year. In May 2023, Doctors Without Borders said that levels of sexual violence in internally displaced camps around Goma reached an unprecedented “catastrophic scale”. The UN Population Fund says that between 2021 and 2022, there was a 91% rise in reports of gender-based violence in North Kivu province, and its mobile clinic reports on the number of people it is trying to assist who are victims of that violence. The situation is unbelievably appalling.

A report by the TG Foundation in a study by the American Journal of Public Health, published in June 2011, stated that 48 women were raped per hour in the Congo, which would mean that since the start of the war with Rwanda, an estimated 12.5 million Congolese women have been raped. The report goes on to demand action by international Governments over the behaviour of the Congolese Government, armed forces and armed groups, and over the relationship between Rwanda, the Congolese Government and the mineral companies.

I want to put on record that, having on several occasions visited the DRC, I have never forgotten arriving in Goma after a very complicated journey by road from Kigali. It was almost dark, and we went to a women’s centre—by that time, it was completely dark—and the audience waiting for our small delegation were 300 or 400 women, all of whom had been victims of rape. They wanted some degree of closure on the horror of their experience, if that is possible, and some degree of international recognition of the horrors they were going through, where the armed groups routinely used rape as a weapon of war.

Behind the violence is the thirst for minerals in the Congo, the search for cobalt and coltan, and the use of child labour, as well as the exploitation of women, in doing that. The international mining companies wash their hands of this and pretend that they are buying the vital minerals from responsible sources. They are not; they are buying them second hand from the exploited children and others who have suffered in the Congo. We have to put this issue in the wider context of insecurity there.

We are very proud in Islington to have a councillor who comes from the Congo, Michelline Safi-Ngongo. She just sent me a message—it is quite long, so I will not read it all—saying,

“Loss of income and high food insecurity can lead to spiking violence, abuse”.

She goes on to say that the high incidence of abuse reflects the gender inequality and poverty of so many people in the DRC.

When the Minister replies, I hope he will say what we are also doing about the breakdown of any form of law or process in the Congo to try to protect women and children from the violence, and what demands we are making of the mineral companies—in this country, Switzerland, China and elsewhere—that are buying minerals knowing they have been produced in the most appalling circumstances. The victims are women who have no means of protecting themselves—no defence whatsoever—so rape has become a pandemic of violence against women in the DRC. I hope we can reflect that in the policies we pursue.

15:24
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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I thank everyone who has taken part, especially the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who secured the debate. I also thank the staff team of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), who provided me with some information in advance of the debate.

We have heard already that sexual-based violence is increasing in conflict zones and that at a time when we should be moving forward, we are moving backwards. This is a difficult and uncomfortable subject to talk about, but it is incredibly important that we do talk about it. It is incredibly important that we do highlight the issues that are being faced around the globe, particularly by women and girls. I am really pleased to hear that we are standing together on this as a House—that we are saying that this is illegal, immoral and unacceptable, and that we will all work together and support the Government in taking action to eradicate this violence. It feels to me that we are speaking with one voice in this regard: that we do not believe this should be allowed to continue.

I want to talk about a number of things. I will try to do what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) did by centring victims and their views. Although I may mention a few individual situations and countries, everybody who commits war crimes—regimes or individuals —should be held to account for those crimes, no matter who is committing them and no matter who they are being committed against. We should be considering every single case as incredibly important. I agree again with the hon. Member about the explicit accountability for sexual crimes in Israel and Palestine; that is key and I was pleased to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

Let me turn to reporting and the mechanisms around reporting sexual violence. We must ensure that we increase reporting, the ability for individuals to report and the safety of making those reports. We know that in Afghanistan, when the Taliban came in, women who had reported being victims of sexual violence were at risk of being attacked again and of being ostracised by their communities, because the Taliban dismantled the systems and protections that had been in place around them. That is completely and totally unacceptable. The UK should be using whatever powers it has and it can—whether soft powers or more extreme powers—to ensure that the protections in any country in relation to sexual violence reporting stay, no matter which regime is in charge, and that those victims are protected or safe from those situations.

The debate has emphasised the importance of supporting the universal application of human rights and the developments in the rule of law. We should do everything that we can as an international power to ensure that no one who comes forward faces reprisals for reporting and coming forward. Otherwise, how can we have the clearest possible picture of what is happening, and how can we ensure that we are using the powers that we have to prevent that from happening in any conflict?

As a number of different people mentioned, including the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), women and girls are disproportionately impacted in crises. Sexual violence is often used in conflict and in post-conflict zones; it is important to say that refugees and those who are displaced are also at risk and continue to be at risk, even though they may have escaped that war zone. There are so many people who are displaced just now, and we need to ensure that they are being protected in whatever scenario they are in and whatever country they are hiding in. In Afghanistan, there is evidence to suggest that sexual violence is being used as an interrogation tool against detained women. That is torture that these women are facing, and we should be doing what we can to condemn that violence towards women.

A number of people mentioned Boko Haram. The countries of origin in my constituency go UK, Polish, Romanian and Nigerian, so I have a significant number of Nigerian constituents, some of whom have family members who have been affected by the actions of Boko Haram. A third of the schoolgirls who were abducted 10 years ago are still in captivity, still in sexual slavery and still in domestic servitude. They now have children in those horrific situations, but they cannot find a sensible way out that ensures that they can protect their children and also have their freedom. Mention has been made of the 3,000 Yazidis, many of whom have experienced sexual violence and who are still missing and in a very similar situation. We should never be quiet about that; we should continue to raise what has happened and what is happening and to condemn those who have taken these women and girls away from their families.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West talked about the horrific sexual violence that occurred on 7 October. A number of others mentioned that it was planned and systemic, and in some ways it is even more horrific because of the planning that went on behind it. For every one of the women, girls or men who were targeted, the ripples go far beyond what happened that day. Sexual violence is not something that just affects someone during the initial crime and is then forgotten. We must try our best to prevent these things, and we must do what we can to condemn them, but we must also put in place support afterwards so that people can recover as best they can. We must also support regimes so that they can put that protection around victims of sexual violence—

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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Survivors.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, the ones who did survive—absolutely. But we also need to ensure, where people are still in a hostage situation, that they get the support they need once they are freed so that they can get through that.

The situation in the west bank has escalated, and there are issues with women and girls being disproportionately impacted. Violence and conflict increase the structural inequalities that already exist, and we know that women and girls are already disadvantaged and that any conflict situation means they are further disadvantaged. Everything relating to sexual violence—including rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and forced marriages—is used as a weapon of war. Those things are used to genocide communities.

Lastly, because I know I do not have much time, Sir Charles, we need to do what we can to support women’s leadership and that the UK Government need to take action. Women have a leading role to play, not just in rebuilding communities, but in brokering peace and in ensuring that systems and support mechanisms are in place and that women’s voices are heard. In too many countries around the world, women do not have that platform and are not able to make the case for other women. I would also like the UK Government to look specifically at the UN report on sexual violence and to integrate gender analysis into planning and responding to emergencies and conflicts, because we know about the structural inequalities involved.

I have far more I could have said, but I will end by mentioning the work being done by the Scottish Government to ensure that their aid money is used to support and empower women and girls whenever it can be. From 2016 to 2018, gender-based violence aid funding was only 0.1% of total humanitarian funding. That is grim when we know the situation that so many women and girls are in right now.

15:33
Lyn Brown Portrait Ms Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab)
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As ever, it is a pleasure to serve with you as our Chair, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for bringing forward this important debate. She made an absolutely excellent contribution, and it has been a good debate.

As we have heard, horrific sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the world. Across the House, we are absolutely united in our opposition to that practice, no matter where it occurs and who the perpetrators are. I am therefore grateful to my hon. Friend for creating time for us to talk not just about this utter horror and the damage it does, but about how we can play our part in supporting solutions.

I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I focus on a few of the African contexts where we continue to see sexual violence used as a weapon on a truly appalling scale. I will start with the ongoing generals’ war against the people of Sudan—against the women and the girls of Sudan. There have been 5,000 reports of grave violations in Sudan, including sexual violence, but that is likely to be an underestimate, given that 60,000 survivors of sexual violence in conflict have been identified in Sudan as of June 2023, which is almost a year ago.

Sexual violence by armed men has been reported in areas across Sudan, with many different groups targeted. In Khartoum, Sudanese women, girls and whole families have been raped in their homes and in the street. In Darfur, targeted sexual violence against the Masalit people and other non-Arab Darfuris has formed a major component of the ethnic cleansing campaigns. The link between racism, misogyny and the political agenda of some armed groups in Darfur has been evidenced again and again. Women who are attacked are labelled “slaves”, using racist slurs. I would just like to quote from an Al-Jazeera report that sums up the utterly chilling mentality of these rapists:

“After [we] rape [you], you will carry our babies […] to change the non-Arab portion within the Sudanese blood”.

These patterns of targeted violence against women and girls in Khartoum and Darfur are mostly attributed to the Rapid Support Forces or their allied forces. The UN reported in February that one victim was held by the RSF and gang-raped repeatedly for 35 days. The sheer horror of it! As a woman, I honestly cannot comprehend how one might survive that. There are also continued reports of sexual violence being used to intimidate women’s rights activists, and that is often attributed to the Sudanese armed forces.

The healthcare system has almost entirely collapsed. Few of the women victimised through rape can access the immediate support needed to deal with physical and mental trauma, the risks of infection or the risks of pregnancy. The UN has reported that women who have tried to access abortion have been denied it because Sudan’s 90-day legal window to obtain an abortion in the case of rape had passed. We must continue to work together against the stigmatisation of children born following rape and to argue for universally accessible abortion for all women who face these terrible circumstances.

We need to redouble our efforts to stop the generals’ war in Sudan and to support forces for sustainable peace and justice, because right now in Darfur hundreds of thousands remain trapped in the city of El Fasher, under siege, in famine conditions and with the imminent threat of attack by the RSF. This is already an atrocity. How many more women and children will be targeted for rape and violence if El Fasher falls? The international community must surely act now to protect the civilians trapped in that city, and I hope the Minister will be able to say something about the Government’s plans for action and what immediate further steps the UK might take.

Sadly, the horrors I have described in Sudan are familiar from other recent and continued conflicts, as we have heard. I have spoken many times about the large-scale and often ethnically targeted sexual violence that was evidenced in Ethiopia during the Tigray war. UN experts have estimated that this conflict has left 10,000 survivors of sexual violence, mostly women and girls, with very limited support. If he is able to, will the Minister therefore update us on the Government’s engagement with Ethiopia over the process of accountability for these abuses? Sadly, the threat is far from over, because conflicts between ethnically organised armed groups continue in many areas of Ethiopia, including Amhara, Tigray, Haramaya and the south-west.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned in his contribution, the threat to women and girls is even greater in the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly among the hundreds of thousands of civilians forcibly displaced by the M23’s advance—that is the M23 for which there is credible evidence of material Rwandan support.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned that issue. The reality is that 7 million people in the Congo have been displaced. The world’s media barely recognise that—it barely registers on their scale—but it is probably the greatest abuse of human rights anywhere in the world at present.

Lyn Brown Portrait Ms Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from and I utterly agree.

Let me quote the heartbreaking words of a 15-year-old girl called Florence:

“One of them took me by force, strangled me, and”

they

“raped me one after another. He had strangled me so much that I no longer had the strength to scream.”

The rape survivors supported by Save the Children in the DRC are as young as nine years old. The impact on children, women, families and communities is enormous. We cannot be content with just raising our voices repeatedly against these atrocities; we need a clear strategy for how the UK can play its part. For me, preventing sexual violence must be integral to the wider approach to conflicts and violence.

These horrific cases, whether in Sudan, Ethiopia or the DRC, do not end at those countries’ borders; they spill over into the wider region and undermine security for many communities. To truly prevent that, we have to recognise how it works politically. The perpetrators are individual men—soldiers, commanders and politicians —but their violence can take hold only because the state fails to stop it. Ultimately, this will stop only when there are robust state institutions, justice systems to hold people to account, and security forces that protect communities, rather than bearing responsibility themselves for the violations.

In contexts such as Sudan, there are no trustworthy state authorities that play that part, so we have to be smarter in the way we act. We have to look beyond the easy options of international NGOs and expensive consultants and to be far more open to working directly with small local organisations. In Sudan, there are many women’s groups and other local organisations that are opposed to both military factions. They are a force for peace, democracy and justice, and at the same time they provide support to survivors of rape in their own communities. My main question to the Government today is, why are we not doing more to support them? Why are we not supporting the Sudanese women who challenge the power of the generals—the men who have plunged the country into this nightmare and put millions of sisters in such dire risk? Why do we not recognise that building the capacity of local organisations is a strategic intervention in the UK’s interests?

We cannot see this issue in terms of silos. It is a humanitarian and medical response. It is development. It is accountability and justice. It is diplomacy and sanctions. It is peacebuilding. It is all those things. Let’s face it, our resources are limited and the challenges in regions such as the horn of Africa are massively complex and interconnected. It is more important to break down the barriers and recognise that, unless our interventions help to solve many challenges simultaneously, they will not be effective. They will not support our efforts to build strong partnerships for mutual benefit in Africa, and they will not genuinely help to prevent this horrific form of abuse, which continues to blight our world.

15:44
Andrew Mitchell Portrait The Deputy Foreign Secretary (Mr Andrew Mitchell)
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It is a pleasure to appear before you once again, Sir Charles.

I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who represents an area where I first stood for Parliament 41 years ago, for securing this debate on preventing sexual violence in conflict. She made an excellent speech. I will not only try to respond to much of what she said but look at all the ideas she put forward and write to her afterwards about any that I do not cover. I am incredibly grateful for the contributions of all Members and will try to respond to the points raised. This has been an outstanding debate and I feel privileged to try to respond to it for the Government.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always brings so much to these debates, said that he has never known so much violence and misery in the world as he sees today. The fact that there is so much violence and misery is one of the reasons why Britain has put aside £1 billion this year to meet humanitarian need, and I am grateful to him for recognising that the UK is a global leader in that respect.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) made an outstanding speech. She spoke up about the horrendous events of 7 October and about the lack of response by parts of the international community. She called for the immediate release of the hostages and spoke with great feeling when she said that the phrase “Me too, unless you’re a Jew” has resonated with parts of the community. She also spoke with great eloquence about Ukraine and Sudan. The House will be grateful for what she said and I hope that many people who are not able to be here will read her powerful contribution.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke about the importance of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is 19 June. She also talked about the importance of focusing directly on the victims of this dreadful violence and made the point, which the whole House will echo, that there can be no impunity.

The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the former leader of the Labour party, spoke about the DRC, Goma and the terrible humanitarian tragedy that has unfolded for years in the Kivus, an area I have visited on a number of occasions in the last 20 years, as has he. The Government urge all the military forces there to lay down their arms and support the various different political processes, particularly in Nairobi and Rwanda, to try to ensure that there is a political track to end the terrible violence. The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically what more can be done on minerals. He will know of the work of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; the Government want more effort to be made in that respect to follow and track minerals.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) said that this is a difficult subject to talk about, but then did so very well. Again, she spoke about there being no tolerance of impunity, and about the terrible legacy of the teenagers and young women who were taken by Boko Haram. She also talked about the role of women, including the voice of women in conflict resolution, the work to end GBV and—again—the importance of ensuring that there is accountability.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) spoke for the Opposition about the whole of this subject, but in particular about Sudan and the terrible events there, including the particular role Britain has through the troika and through holding the pen on Sudan at the UN. She also talked about Darfur and the dreadful situation in al-Fashir, about which the Government have spoken up, and the clear evidence of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The demands of the international community are that the troops should return to barracks and enable the humanitarians to operate in those dreadful circumstances, and to open up a political track as soon as possible. Britain is supporting the collection of evidence through open-source means, and we will make sure that that evidence is retained for future use.

The hon. Lady also talked about the situation in Ethiopia. Britain supports the Pretoria agreement and we have done a lot of work to help to head off famine conditions, including in Geneva just a few weeks ago, where we supported a replenishment at a conference that I co-chaired with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, and which raised $610 million. The hon. Lady also talked about the harrowing evidence and work of NGOs such as Save the Children.

I am sure the entire House agrees that conflict-related sexual violence, or CRSV, is not an inevitable consequence of war. It is morally abhorrent and illegal and does not discriminate. It affects women and girls, and men and boys too, as we have heard, and has devastating consequences, yet it continues to take place in conflicts around the world and is often used as a deliberate tactic to terrorise entire communities. We are witnessing its horrific impacts in Ukraine, Sudan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to name just a few.

The whole House was particularly horrified by the reports, which have been mentioned today, of sexual violence on and since 7 October. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West spoke eloquently about that in her opening remarks, as did the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), and about the appalling violence perpetrated by Hamas on that day.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis
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Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I am afraid not because of the time, but if I have a second at the end, I promise my right hon. Friend that I will give way.

We have clearly and unequivocally condemned all allegations of reports of CRSV in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and led calls for a UN Security Council debate on that specific issue. We continue to call for thorough investigations, for hostages to be released immediately and for detainees to be treated with dignity and in line with international law. We have also, on a number of occasions, including at the UN Security Council, offered PSVI expertise and tools to help to ensure that victims and survivors of CRSV receive the support they need.

It is 12 years since the launch of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. For their tireless efforts I pay tribute to Lord Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict; Lord Hague, who started the UK’s exceptional focus on the issue; and Baroness Helic. The UK is at the forefront of the fight to end this heinous crime, and I will briefly highlight five steps to demonstrate the impact of our work.

First, since 2012 we have used our influence and convening power to draw global attention to the issue. For example, at the PSVI conference that we hosted in London two years ago we brought together over 1,000 delegates, including survivors, experts, states and multilateral organisations. I personally led several sessions at that meeting and collectively we succeeded in getting 54 countries to sign an ambitious political declaration to deliver change.

At the conference we also announced the international alliance on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Lord Ahmad launched the alliance last year, and it brings together a range of global actors to prevent and respond to CRSV. Its membership continues to grow and it now has 26 members, including Governments, multilateral organisations, civil society and survivors. We are working closely with the current chair, Colombia, to drive action through the alliance. We have also launched the PSVI strategy, backed by £12.5 million, with four clear objectives: to strengthen global response, prevent sexual violence in conflict, promote justice and support survivors.

Secondly, we are coming up with creative solutions to prevent these crimes. For example, Britain’s flagship What Works: Impact at Scale programme is encouraging and supporting innovative ideas. We have invested £67.5 million into the second phase of the programme. That is the biggest global commitment by any Government to prevent gender-based violence.

Thirdly, we are setting a global benchmark by giving survivors a say in the decisions that affect them. Britain has appointed two PSVI survivor champions, Kolbassia Haoussou and Nadine Tunasi, and established a survivor advisory group to put survivors’ voices at the heart of policy proposals. Since 2018 we have committed almost £8 million to the global survivors fund to provide psychosocial and educational support for survivors. We know how important it is to ensure that we gather information from survivors safely, which is why two years ago we launched the Murad code with the Yazidi human rights activist and Nobel prize winner Nadia Murad, to collect information responsibly and ethically.

Fourthly, we are working to make these crimes punishable by law. Impunity may be the global norm, but that is unacceptable. The UK is taking steps to change that, and we have made some progress. We sanctioned 14 perpetrators over the last two years and we are boosting the capacity of countries to investigate and prosecute these crimes. In Ukraine, for example, we are supporting the Office of the Prosecutor General to investigate the crimes effectively.

We are also backing the draft UN crimes against humanity convention to make the global legal framework stronger and more effective, and we are working with the International Criminal Court to help survivors to engage with courts using technology. I am grateful to Baroness Helic, who is helping us to find new, innovative solutions to tackle impunity, but I agree that we still have a long way to go.

I want to share two examples of the tangible impact we have had on the ground. Since 2012, we have deployed our PSVI team of experts times across the world over 90. These highly trained independent individuals provide direct support to national and international bodies. They have helped to plan missions, convened workshops and supported Governments to execute their projects. UK programmes have also contributed to vital recent legislative changes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The changes will advance the rights of survivors and children born of CRSV—for example, by enabling them to access finance for higher education.

To conclude, the five steps that I have highlighted show that we have come a long way and that our work matters, but there can be no doubt, particularly given what we have heard today, that we need to go further still and ensure that our efforts are bearing fruit. We are making progress, and the UK will continue to drive sustained, united and innovative action globally. That is the only way we can consign conflict-related sexual violence to the history books.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis
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Does the Minister agree that the mass rapes on 7 October were not a biproduct of the attack but an integral part of the plan to provoke Israel? If that is proven, does it not mean the people who planned the attacks, as well as the perpetrators themselves, must be held to account in the international courts?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I completely agree with what my right hon. Friend says about accountability. On 7 October there was the greatest murder of Jewish people at any time in one day since the holocaust and the end of the second world war. The impact of that, which we have heard about so graphically today, underlines why it is so important that we continue this work. We are making progress, above all because we have unity, drive and support in all parts of the House. That gives Britain a particular locus and focus internationally to make sure that this work is effectively pursued.

15:58
Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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I thank all speakers and echo what has been said about this consensual and important debate. I thank the Minister for his contribution, and I join him in thanking Baroness Helic and the work of the PSVI. The five measures he outlined are welcome, but I would still suggest that an international commission is needed to lead on this work, including those measures, and that women’s voices and survivors of sexual violence in conflict especially should be included in any peace negotiations in conflict areas. That is needed if we are going to start to find a way through for the survivors and ensure that their voices are heard.

The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) made an important point in his last intervention about the most recent conflict, the intentions behind it and the way it was carried out. I agree that it was intentional, although this can be seen in all conflicts, as has been discussed this afternoon. I thank everyone for an excellent debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the prevention of sexual violence in conflict.