Rape as a weapon of war will trigger UK sanctions, says James Cleverly

James Cleverly spoke at the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict in London on Monday - James Manning/PA Wire
James Cleverly spoke at the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict in London on Monday - James Manning/PA Wire

The UK is set to impose sanctions on those who use rape as a weapon of war from December, the Foreign Secretary has announced.

Speaking at a major conference in London on Monday, James Cleverly warned that although conflict-related sexual violence is illegal and “morally abhorrent”, it is still widespread across the globe.

In an attempt to clamp down on the frequency of the practice, the UK will start to sanction those accused of committing sexual violence in conflict from Thursday.

Mr Cleverly told the Preventing Violence in Sexual Violence conference that Britain already uses this approach to tackle serious human rights violations and abuses across the world. Sanctions applied include arms embargoes, financial sanctions including asset freezes, travel bans, and aircraft and shipping sanctions.

“Most recently, following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, our sanctioning of over 1,200 individuals including members of the Russian military responsible for atrocities, and in Iran we have used our sanctions to target the officials responsible for heinous human rights violations,” Mr Cleverly said.

“In December we will be using sanctions to specifically address the abhorrent crimes of sexual violence,” he added.

Russian officials could be among those targeted. Writing in the Telegraph ahead of the event, the Foreign Secretary accused Russia of “chilling” reports of sexual violence in Ukraine.

“In Ukraine, an alarming number of reports are coming in from areas illegally controlled by Russia. The UN has begun to document them, and they are chilling,” he said.

Last month, a UN Commission documented what it described as “patterns” of rape and sexual violence inflicted on Ukrainians throughout the war. “Victims range from four to over 80 years old,” it said.

World is ‘slow to hold perpetrators to account’

Olena Volodymyrivna Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, called for a “global response” to sexual violence in conflict at the conference.

“Unfortunately, such war crimes will keep on going in the world as long as the servicemen think that they can go without any punishment and that there’s going to be any chance of impunity for them,” Mrs Zelenska said.

Sexual violence can be used against all members of a community as a tactic of war, torture, terrorism, reprisal, and political repression. Today, it is used in at least 18 conflicts around the world, including in Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan.

Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, who was raped and threatened with violence by Isis, said it is “clear that we need a stronger global response”.

“The international community is quick to condemn sexual violence but slow to hold perpetrators to account,” she said. “We must use sanctions and jurisdiction to end the status quo of impunity.”

Meanwhile, Dr Denis Mukwege, also a Nobel laureate and famed for treating tens of thousands of war rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, called for the establishment of international tribunals and an international convention for the elimination of sexual violence in war.

“The suffering of victims is universal, and it is absolutely essential we ensure justice is also universal,” Dr Mukwege said.

The UK used the conference, which has been ten years in the making and cancelled three times because of a general election and Covid, to announce the initiative’s three-year strategy. The strategy will see £12.5 million of new funding invested into the global response of tackling sexual violence in conflict.

Mr Cleverly also announced that £3.45 million in separate funding will be delivered to tackle gender-based violence in Ukraine for the UN Population Fund, on top of £2.5 million to prosecute atrocities.

Representatives from 70 countries, including more than 50 ministers, are attending the conference, which continues on Tuesday.

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