LONDON— A conference in London - organized in part by actress Angelina Jolie - has launched a new international protocol on investigating sexual violence in war. Jolie is a special envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The conference's goal is to tackle the culture of impunity that now surrounds rape and sexual violence in conflict.
Lejla Damon was 18 years old when her parents told her the details of her adoption at the height of the Balkans war.
She was born on Christmas Day in Sarajevo in 1992 - in the midst of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. Her mother did not want to see her newborn child. Lejla explains why.
“My mother, who was Bosnian Muslim, was raped repeatedly in the concentration camps at the time, and she became pregnant and then in the end, ended up having to give birth to me in the central hospital in Bosnia, in Sarajevo,” said Damon.
She grew up in Britain after being adopted by the husband and wife team who filmed her birth. The guns on Bosnia have long fallen silent, but the conflict has cast a long shadow.
“Out of so many rapes that went on in Bosnia, I think there were only 12 that actually went to court. It's probably my birth mum's story; this kind of sense of injustice, that nothing ever really got done to help her,” said Damon.
She now works with the charity War Child, which is taking part in a four-day global conference in London on ending sexual violence in conflict. On Wednesday, organizers launched an international protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict.
Jolie, a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke at the launch. “I have met survivors of warzone rape around the world. And almost without exception, they ask for one thing: justice. The right to be accepted, not shunned by society. The right to long-term economic and health support. And above all, the right to see their attackers held accountable in a court of law,” she said.
Sense of impunity
Campaigners say the level of impunity in many African countries is particularly high - and the use of rape as a weapon of war in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo is endemic.
Helen Kezienwha is Uganda country director for the charity ISIS-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, which gives medical and emotional support for rape victims.
“Most times, when women are raped, their families and especially their husbands reject them, so they suffer from depression, loss of memory sometimes, and sometimes they have suicidal thoughts. Sometimes they see the perpetrators of the violence and nothing has happened,” said Kezienwha.
In Burma, political reforms have drawn widespread praise from the international community. But activists say the situation for women has not changed - particularly in ethnic minority areas where there is still conflict. Zoya Phan is Campaigns Director at Burma Campaign UK.
“In Burma Campaign UK, the reports of rape and sexual violence that we received has increased since President Thein Sein started this reform process. And many of the women who have been raped have been gang raped.”
Conference organizers hope the international protocol will shatter the culture of impunity for sexual violence in conflict. Ministers from dozens of countries will debate the proposals over the coming days.