Sexual violence plays a role in any conflict and the ongoing war in the east of Ukraine is no exception. Hromadske met with Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, to discuss the relationship between war and sexual violence, peacekeeping's connections to human trafficking, and the role of women in peacekeeping processes.
Hromadske talked to Madeleine Rees, former gender expert for the UN Human Right Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to discuss the relationship between war and sexual violence, peacekeeping's connections to human trafficking, and the role of women in the peacekeeping processes.
In preparation for this meeting, I read a lot about the Bosnian case. It was unbelievable how the people, who should ensure peace and safety, were involved in terrible things such as human trafficking and forced prostitution. What is the origin of these issues?
It was the most incredible violation of human rights in one place in post-conflict, by peacekeepers that I think has ever taken place. Trafficking, as in many war-related economies, is all about financial gain. It’s all about the extremism of capitalism, if you like. You have a market –in Bosnia you have 80,000 male peacekeepers who are there without families, and you have a supply, as in the ability to supply people. In Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria to a certain extent, Romania, countries that have become impoverished and women were willing to migrate to try to earn money. They weren’t told that they were going to be forced into prostitution, they were told they were going to Germany or Greece to work in hotels. In fact, I have to say that I hadn’t met anyone from Ukraine until I went to Bosnia, and then I met hundreds of women from Ukraine, who had been brought from Ukraine into Bosnia for the specific purpose of sexual exploitation How did it happen? Because there was nothing to stop it. The police were not getting paid so many of them would take a small amount of money just to avert their eyes so it didn’t happen.
Are the guilty people being punished now? Have they been sentenced?
The worst perpetrators were actually found guilty and sentenced to jail. That said, many of the men who were successfully prosecuted are now out and free, because they’ve served their sentences and they are back in Bosnia. Some of them were allowed to run to become mayors, to become politicians, to go back into the system and what sort of message does that send? Many, many men, the vast majority of those who perpetrated the crimes were not prosecuted and we can’t blame the international tribunal for that because the international tribunal wanted to focus on the commanders, on the ones who organised the crimes against humanity, the war crimes and the genocide in one case, the ones who organised it and who gave the orders then to implement it.
They weren’t really going after every single guy, that was supposed to be done in the Bosnian courts and the cases are still going, but the vast majority have not been prosecuted. Unfortunately, has there been real justice? No, there has not, some have been punished. I think if we look at the positive, because of the incredible bravery and courage of the women from Bosnia, we now have an international law which recognises what rape really is in the context of conflict. It’s changed the way in which we prosecute, if not think about rape. It has been prosecuted as a crime against humanity, it is persecuted as torture, very, very important, and in certain circumstances, as an element of genocide.
What about peacekeeping forces - has something changed within their structure?
We don’t know of any single peacekeeping mission where there are no incidents of sexual exploitation. The biggest one, most recently, has been in Burundi and then in the Central African Republic where it was the constant exploitation of children by peacekeepers. What has happened? Nothing. And this is the biggest scandal that I think exists within the United Nations and they have got to do something about it.
In Ukraine, there is sexual violence committed by the Ukrainian Army and by separatists and we know about the phenomenon of prostitution for food.
What has to happen is that the government of Ukraine and those running the so-called independent provinces, need to take responsibility for making sure that their troops do not commit these sorts of crimes, do not force women to pay with sex, for money, or for milk, or for food in order to survive because those are criminal offences, serious criminal offences which must be prosecuted. So there are several things that the government must do. It must insist on the training of the troops so that they know that if they commit an act like this there will be prosecution and imprisonment if found guilty. The commanders must be informed, they are the ones who are responsible and this is a principle that is fundamental in preventing sexual violence.
How do you find these women?
The ways in which it worked in various different conflicts, and I would cite Bosnia as one, there is a very good system of support and that was to have NGOs that are providing medical assistance, and you will find that women will access medical assistance because it is often needed, and then by accessing that medical assistance they can have the opportunity to talk about what happened to them. They don’t have to, but if they want to they can and there will be a councillor available. The best have a lawyer available as well, so if you want to talk to a lawyer, just to say: I want to give a statement, I’m not sure I want to prosecute but I want to identify who it was, or, I want it recorded so that I can, at some point, maybe take part in a reparations programme. But, you do it in such a way that the person who survived the attack has agency, and this is confidential.
It’s also very important, whether it be in conflict or non-conflict, you have a responsive police to allegations of sexual violation. Going into a police station and being immediately interrogated as to where you were: you wanted to sleep with him because you wanted to have payment. What you want is to have a safe space where you can talk, preferably to someone of the same gender, who understands and take you seriously, who will take a statement from you and give you the sort of support that’s needed in order to go forward. We are a long way from that in Ukraine, but that is what police reform is for, as is what the training has to be about.
I think, really, really importantly, the way that rape has always been approached is that it’s always the woman’s fault, it’s never the guy. I think what will happen now with this increase in the knowledge of sexual assaults on men, sexual violations of men, it will show that the comments that we were making about women were ridiculous. They have always been ridiculous. No one is going to say about the guy: well, what were you wearing when that guy raped you? No one is going to say: you were out drunk, weren’t you? So what we’re doing is we’re actually showing it was always about power, it was always about the exploitation and exertion of your power over an individual.
Some day the conflict in Eastern Ukraine will end and we will need to find some point to understand each other. In your opinion, what is the role of women in this peacekeeping process?
I have been coming here since 2014 and met women from the east, as well as from the west, and, I would say, from the very beginning, there was no hostility. It was that conversation we were having before - we wanted to maintain our culture, our values, our understanding of Russian - everyone has a Russian grandmother - but we also want to have the greater liberty that we think that western values offer. But how do we maintain that balance together? Then the conflict got worse and then there was a polarisation. I saw it happen. It was very difficult for women to keep that conversation, to keep that narrative going, and it wasn’t just women, it was men as well, but then men got conscripted into military, it becomes more difficult to be anything other than a nationalist. If you have a different opinion, then you are seen as someone who is against the government and so that division has become deepened.
That said, I think that the women are trying very hard to hold it together, to try and say that, even those who went nationalist for a while are now saying now. Because, this conflict, unless there is a dialogue, it’s going to go on. You can have a war in a country and it’s not making everybody concentrate solely and only and stopping that conflict, but I find that the economic reform programme is being done without any real attention to how the reform programme must be implemented in the east, without any consideration of what needs to be done to make sure there is budgetary allocation for the end of the conflict. How are the IDPs going to be adequately returned housed? What about the particular types of healthcare that’s going to be needed and supported? How are you going to set up a justice system which is going to make sure that the social and economic rights of those people are adjudicated? This means money being paid out in order to create a unified and entire Ukraine where human rights are respected and it’s not being done. If you don’t do it now it’ll be like Bosnia. It’s going to be there forever as something which is going to destroy any possibility of peace.
What I think is happening among the women’s organisations and individual women that we met with today, for example, they see this and they want a part of the peace process. They want to be included in and have their voices, their narratives, what’s really happening on the ground to real people, not just discussions of battles and who won what battle. What we need to know is: how are the children surviving this? Where are they going to get their education? How are the pensioners going to access sufficient money in order to be able to feed themselves? These are the burning questions. How are we going to fix that? We should learn from other people’s histories as well as our own and the approach that was taken in Bosnia is the approach that is being taken here, and it didn’t work. Bosnia, for all the money that has been pumped into it, the attempts to try and reform it, is a failed state. That cannot be the fate of Ukraine. It’s possible to stop it and I think women are crucial in carrying that message forward.
/Text by Eilish Hart
/Interview by Anastasiya Kanareva