Pramila Patten, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative working to end rape in war, was speaking at a press conference in the capital, Kyiv.
Standing alongside Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, she expressed solidarity with survivors, saying they are not alone.
“My promise to you is that international law will not be an empty promise. Today’s documentation will be tomorrow’s prosecution. And I want you to know that your rights don’t end when wars begin,” she said.
“Women’s rights don’t end when wars begin. Your bodies are not (a) battlefield and must never be treated as part of the battlefield.”
Interventions and assistance
Ms. Patten and Ms. Stefanishyna on Tuesday signed a framework for cooperation that supports the design and delivery of priority interventions in the areas of justice and accountability as a central pillar of deterrence and prevention.
The agreement also addresses comprehensive service provision for survivors, including sexual and reproductive health services, medical and specialized mental health services, legal assistance, and livelihood support.
Responding to a reporter’s question, Ms. Stefanishyna described sexual violence committed in war as “one of the most silent types of crime”, underlining the difficulty of gathering information on exact numbers.
“Today we have started working to gather this information using volunteers, working with medical facilities, and documenting these cases outside the criminal proceedings,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.
Ms. Patten added that “we cannot expect to have accurate bookkeeping on an active battlefield,” stressing she does not wait for hard data and statistics to act.
Services for men and boys
Although sexual violence is mostly perpetrated against women and girls, Ms. Patten has also received reports of cases involving men and boys in Ukraine, which the UN has not yet verified.
“I am working with the different UN agencies to ensure that there are services adapted to the needs of men and boys, because everywhere in many conflict situations, I have observed that there is a lack of services adapted to the needs of men and boys,” she said.
Preventing human trafficking
The framework with the Ukrainian authorities also covers gender-responsive security sector reform, as well as prevention of conflict-related trafficking, amid rising displacement.
More than five million people have fled Ukraine since the war began just over two months ago, generating the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
“It is a fact that conflict does exacerbate vulnerability to trafficking, and human trafficking of Ukrainian women can be a dangerous by-product of this conflict-fuelled refugee crisis,” said Ms. Patten, emphasizing the critical need for mitigation measures.
UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Sparing no effort
The UN official also responded to questions about “extremely disturbing” reports of Ukrainian women who were raped before being killed. She has met with the country’s Prosecutor General and said there is “solid” forensic evidence of such incidents.
“This is very serious, and the United Nations, through this framework of cooperation that we have signed, will not spare any effort to bring perpetrators to justice,” she said.
Ms. Patten acknowledged that prosecution for cases of sexual violence committed in war comes with challenges, stating it is “never easy”.
She reported on her meeting with several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ukraine who have shared anecdotal reports.
“One NGO representative was referring to cases where the perpetrator wore a mask, so identification becomes extremely difficult,” she said.
Ms. Patten stated that “whatever reports are surfacing, they can only represent the tip of the iceberg,” highlighting the need to focus on reporting.
In this regard, she has also held discussions with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights, which could establish “hubs” across Ukraine where people can report cases of sexual violence and also receive medical, psychological and other support.
Having these safe spaces available would also avert the people, who don’t possess the adequate skillset required, interviewing victims, which carries the huge risk of re-traumatization and re-victimizing.
“We have to learn lessons from the other conflicts where this has been the case, with victims interviewed over 10 times, 15 times, with all the inconsistencies in the reports which make their case not tenable in a court of law,” she said.
“Every war, we say ‘never again’. I think this time we have to say, ‘never again” and mean it, and take the necessary action to give justice to these victims of sexual violence.”
The world is watching
The mandate of the UN Special Representative was established by the Security Council more than a decade ago, to tackle conflict-related sexual violence as a peace and security issue.
International human law makes it clear that even wars have limits, said Ms. Patten, and sexual violence is beyond the scope of acceptable conduct even in the midst of combat.
“Wartime rape can no longer be dismissed as an inevitable by-product of war. It must be recognized by all parties as a crime that can be prevented and punished,” she said.
Although deeply concerned about what she called “the emboldening effects of impunity”, Ms. Patten said it was “critical that all actors and parties know that the world is watching.”