Interview: Margot Wallström talks about sexual violence in conflicts

Article Published 26 Jul 2011 Last modified 21 Mar 2023
4 min read
Photo: © opendemocracy/
This page was archived on 17 Mar 2023 with reason: Content is outdated
This year as we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, Congo Remains our Most Daunting Challenge

For far too long, sexual violence in conflict has been seen as "unevitable." It is high time for us to end this distorted outlook, replace our vocabulary and start treating these crimes like all other human rights abuses: Let us make sexual violence in conflict "unthinkable" and "unacceptable."


On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, there are few greater challenges to the protection of women’s human rights world wide than ending the use of sexual violence as weapon of war. Regardless of whether the survivor of sexual violence is an eight-year old or an 80-year old grandmother, we must know that the UN is doing all we can to end this scourge.

A few months ago I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and met with women survivors of sexual violence during the war in the Balkans. Still today, 15 years after the war ended, women live without justice. One woman who together with her then 21-year old daughter was held in a rape camp in Bosnia during the war, told me that today she runs into her rapist in the local super market or at the bank – and still unpunished he laughs at her. The estimated 20 000─50 000 rapes have resulted in only 12 convictions in national courts. Justice for the overwhelming majority of women is painfully slow. But perhaps nowhere is the issue more prescient than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congo is ground zero in the fight against sexual violence and conflict.

In recent history it is difficult to find a case where sexual assault and violence has been as inextricably linked to the perpetuation of conflict and destruction of communities.  Beginning to not only unravel the complexities behind the drivers of this conflict, but also reduce the systematic violence perpetrated against the communities of eastern Congo is, in many ways, a test case for the international community. 

At the crux of this test is ending the culture of impunity for the perpetrators of abuses as a means to creating an environment where communities can recover from conflict. This is why I have made ending impunity for this type of crimes my first priority.

On a recent trip to Washington I met with a cross-section of American governmental and non-governmental leaders working on issues related to sexual-violence and conflict in Congo, as well as the broader central Africa region. Whether at the White House, the State Department, or on Capitol Hill, policy makers were aware of the urgency of reducing violence in Congo, and I impressed on them the need to address the root causes to reduce violence in the troubled east. This means regulating the trade in conflict minerals that acts as the economic fuel to the conflict, creating the political will to reform the Congolese national army from predator to protector, and tackling the blatant impunity for war-criminals and illegal actors that continues to enable those most responsible for mass atrocities.

The U.S. is currently a leader in addressing the issue of sexual violence and conflict in Congo. Recently, in its role on the UN Security Council, the U.S. demonstrated strong leadership on the passage of UN Resolution 1960, which requires the Council and member states to honor commitments to combat sexual violence in conflict, investigate abuses, and hold perpetrators to account. I strongly encourage the U.S. to continue to lead on this issue in the coming months as they develop their own strategy to tackle the root causes of sexual violence and other human rights abuses in eastern Congo.

In addition to UN Resolution 1960, the U.S. is also the largest contributor to the UN Mission to Congo, or MONUSCO, and the first country to pass a law monitoring publically traded companies using minerals mined in eastern Congo in an effort to reduce the direct or indirect financing of illegal armed groups. Its Departments of Defense and State are also engaged in a number of initiatives to build capacity through military professionalism and justice training.

However, without continued leadership at senior levels within the U.S. government and a more robust international effort, these contributions can not alone deliver a durable peace.  Following this model of U.S. leadership I have personally pushed for similar legislation on conflict minerals with leaders in Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, and the European Union. Additionally, Canada is in the process of trying to pass similar legislation. Such action by these countries would not only send a strong signal to armed groups and the traders of conflict minerals in Congo, but also garner sufficient leverage to be able to begin to change the economic calculus of the criminal networks driving conflict on the ground.

As global citizens we are all tied to the sexual violence taking place in Congo. The extraction of conflict minerals that sustains this conflict connects us all. These minerals are used in the technology that advances our businesses, communications infrastructure, our social engagement, and our national security. It is time for the international community to commit to ending this war fueled by the global trade in conflict minerals and waged on the bodies of women and girls. The U.S. must continue to lead on stopping the use of sexual assault as a weapon in Congo, and other nations must follow suit.

During the Nürnberg trials it was said of the sexual violence inflicted on survivors of the Second World War that it was “unspeakable.” For far too long, sexual violence in conflict has been seen as “unevitable.” It is high time for us to end this distorted outlook, replace our vocabulary and start treating these crimes like all other human rights abuses: Let us make sexual violence in conflict “unthinkable” and “unacceptable.”


Margot Wallström is the UN's Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, former Vice President of the European Commission and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders' Ministerial Initiative.




Filed under:
Filed under: violence, poverty, wars
Document Actions