What's In Blue

Posted Fri 3 Jun 2022

Ukraine: Briefing on Conflict-related Sexual Violence and Human Trafficking

On Monday morning (6 June), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The focus of the meeting will be on conflict-related sexual violence and human trafficking in the context of the war in Ukraine. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten will brief via videoconference. Two civil society representatives, one from Ukraine and another from the US, are also expected to brief. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. The EU, which will participate in tomorrow’s meeting under rule 39 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, will be represented by President of the European Council, Charles Michel.

One hundred days into Russia’s military offensive, the fighting—which is now concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine—continues to have devastating effects on civilians. As at 3 June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 9,197 civilian casualties, including 4,183 deaths, while noting that true figures are likely to be considerably higher. Approximately 13.9 million people have been forcibly displaced by the war, according to a 2 June OCHA humanitarian impact situation report. That figure includes 7.1 million internally displaced people and 6.8 million refugees who have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries.

On Monday, members may wish to receive an update on the situation of, and the response to, conflict-related sexual violence and human trafficking in the context of the ongoing war. At a 12 May special session of the UN Human Rights Council on “The deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression”, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that her staff “has verified a dozen cases” of sexual violence across the country. Bachelet expressed concern about allegations of sexual violence in areas of the Kyiv region that were under the control of Russian forces and said that there were instances of rape and murder of victims or their relatives. She also noted that survivors are often “unwilling to be interviewed because of fear and stigma” and that, while cases often involve women and girls, “reports of men and boys being affected are starting to emerge”.

Patten is expected to brief the Council on her recent visit to Ukraine and neighbouring countries. In light of the mounting allegations of conflict-related sexual violence, Patten visited Ukraine (Lviv and Kyiv) from 2 to 6 May. On 3 May, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olga  Stefanishyna and Patten signed a Framework of Cooperation on the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence. During a 3 May press conference after the signing of the agreement, Patten said: “My promise to you is that international law will not be an empty promise. Today’s documentation will be tomorrow’s prosecution”. In her briefing on Monday, Patten is likely to underscore the importance of accountability for conflict-related sexual violence and may stress that failure to address these crimes will likely result in their repetition. She may also ask for support from the international community in the implementation of the Framework of Cooperation.

Patten visited Poland (6-10 May) and Moldova (10-12 May) in response to the heightened risks of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation faced by women and girls fleeing Ukraine. A recent report by La Strada International—a European anti-trafficking NGO platform—says that although it is too early to quantify the scale of human trafficking associated with the war in Ukraine, “there has already been evidence of human trafficking activity”. The report states that, as the conflict continues, the risk of trafficking is likely to increase as “more people are internally displaced, access to services and livelihoods becomes more precarious, and millions of refugees face the need to settle for longer periods in other European countries and begin to access the labour market”. On Monday, Patten and Council members may call for the strengthening of risk mitigation measures and strategies to prevent a human trafficking crisis from developing in the context of the war.

Patten may also refer to the work of other UN agencies involved in supporting survivors of gender-based violence, including rape and conflict-related sexual violence. For example, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is developing an online platform in which psychotherapists, medical personnel and legal experts will be able to provide online support for survivors of gender-based violence. Moreover, the International Migration Organization (IOM) has recently opened a medical rehabilitation centre in Kyiv, which assists people affected by exploitation, gender-based violence, trafficking or human rights violations.

At the briefing, Council members are expected to condemn conflict-related sexual violence and call for investigations and accountability. Several members may stress that conflict-related sexual violence can constitute a war crime. Some of the statements may echo and expand the messages put forward by some Council members at the 13 April annual open debate on conflict-related sexual violence. For instance, France said that the growing testimonies of rape and sexual violence committed in the context of the war in Ukraine “are terrifying and must be investigated impartially and independently without delay”. Similarly, the UK said that “reports of rape and sexual violence committed by Russian armed forces must be properly investigated”. Russia countered that allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by its troops are part of a “smear campaign” and are used to “cover up real cases of sexual violence by Ukrainian radicals”. On Monday, Russia might reiterate similar messages.

Council members may stress the need to adopt a survivor-centred approach in response to conflict-related sexual violence, and some may highlight the importance of working with local women’s civil society organisations and guaranteeing access to sexual and reproductive health services. According to a recent gender analysis of the situation in Ukraine prepared by the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, survivors of gender-based violence who have crossed into neighbouring countries are struggling to access basic sexual and reproductive health and rights because of cost and pre-existing legal and policy barriers. On 5 May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the use of sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war and calling on “the EU and host and transit countries to guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services, particularly emergency contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis and abortion care, including for survivors of rape”.

Several Council members may also underscore that women’s full, equal and meaningful participation should be guaranteed in all decision-making processes, including regarding the humanitarian response and in political negotiations on ending the conflict. A 4 May Rapid Gender Analysis on the situation in Ukraine issued by UN Women and the NGO Care International notes that while women’s leadership has increased in community-level humanitarian efforts and some women lead the response at the national and international level, women’s “participation in formal decision-making processes at the local level has decreased”.

Several Council members are expected to emphasise the need to support accountability efforts in Ukraine, including investigations by Ukraine’s national authorities and international investigations such as those conducted by the ICC. Some members may highlight the support that they have provided to Ukraine in this regard. For example, in late April, the UK sent investigators to help the Office of the Prosecutor of Ukraine collect evidence of war crimes. Furthermore, on 25 May, the EU, the UK and the US launched the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine—a mechanism aimed at ensuring a coordinated approach to accountability efforts on the ground.

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