Interview with SRSG Margot Wallström

Margot Wallström was appointed as the first-ever Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict on February 2, 2010. Her mandate is global and multifaceted, focusing overall on leading and coordinating efforts to prevent, address, and end conflict-related sexual violence against women and children.

Ms. Wallström spoke to Pim Valdre, IPI’s Director of External Relations, on June 27th on the challenges in combating sexual violence in conflict, focusing in particular on the urgent situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and what the UN and the international community can do to end impunity for perpetrators and bring justice to victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Pim Valdre (PV): Margot Wallström, thank you for being with us today. You are the first ever SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict. After almost two years into your mandate, what do you see as the key challenges in addressing sexual violence?

Margot Wallström (MW): I would say to fight impunity, to empower women, to mobilize political leadership, to realize that this is not inevitable. It should not be seen as an unavoidable consequence of war. And to get the UN system to respond in a much more harmonized and better coordinated way.

PV: Speaking of that, the UN currently has 15 peace operations deployed around the world, and many of them are in places where rape and sexual violence occur, such as in the DRC. What role do you see for peacekeeping in addressing sexual violence?

MW: A very important role. And for that, they have to be better trained and better equipped. They need to be given a better understanding of this phenomenon. So, we are now rolling out a scheme of scenario-based training, and that is built on a model of an inventory that we have made of best peacekeeping practices. We don’t want this to be ad-hoc, but to be integrated into the normal day-to-day business of peacekeepers. We are making a real effort to make sure that this is better understood in the peacekeeping missions.

And, of course, today most of them have protection of civilians mandates. That means you cannot do it in a gender-blind way, but you have to look at the particular needs of women and you have to be able to address this problem of sexual violence.

PV: Both resolution 1820 and resolution 1888 call on member states to put an end to impunity, to prosecute perpetrators, and to bring justice to victims. How are member states living up to these obligations?

MW: Unevenly, and there is still so much more to do to fight impunity. And, of course, we have seen a few examples of progress in the DRC, with high commanders of the national army actually being prosecuted, being put into jail. But this has to become part of the normal legal procedures in those countries. And there is still no justice done to these women.

It also has to do with reparations and follow-up and the kind of support that is necessary–everything from medical care to psycho-social counseling for the women and survivors of sexual violence.

PV: Only this month we are hearing reports that up to 170 women and children might have been raped in the South Kivu province in the Eastern Congo. Why are we not moving forward in addressing sexual violence in the DRC?

MW: It is such a vast country, it has a huge army, it has all of these complexities. I don’t think that we should expect that something that has been going on for such a long time to end from one day to another, or even within a year.

But this is deeply disturbing, and the fact that even a sentence of 20 years for Colonel Kibibi apparently did not serve as a deterrent–Kifaru was his colleague, and now this has happened again in South Kivu. I think there is a feeling of despair at times.

We just have to continue to make sure that we do security sector reform, that we see this put in a bigger context, which has to do with how the security sector works in the DRC, and unless you also address some of the root-causes, I am afraid we won’t see much of a change. We have to make sure that these soldiers are not deployed without anything to eat, without any salaries, or without any barracks. We have to make sure that that is dealt with. Otherwise, they will live off of the population. This is what we have seen.

PV: From a broader perspective, what has the underrepresentation of women in peace processes such as mediations and the negotiation of peace agreements–what does this mean in the long-term for addressing sexual violence?

MW: Hopefully there will be more strong voices that will insist on women being represented in all peace negotiations, that this whole issue is also dealt with in any peace agreement. If you just try to ignore it, you will create and build in a lot of problems for the future. Until now, that has been the pattern, rather than the exception. This is really something we have to keep a close look at. I think in all of our negotiation delegations we have to make sure that there are women. I am bit a militant. I believe in quotas. I think that we should not send any of these commissions of inquiry without having women represented. I think it has to do with the credibility of the United Nations and our role.

PV: Finally, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future and your mandate?

MW: I am born an optimist, and as one philosopher said, it is a duty and an obligation to be an optimist. Maybe I am even a naïve optimist. I get so inspired by the women and the survivors who manage to recreate their lives despite enormous problems, things one would believe would put them away and put them down, but instead they stand up and get on with their lives. They inspire all of us.

I think that we definitely have a window of opportunity, if not a door, actually, that has been opened. The Security Council has given a very strong signal that they will take it seriously, and with the media now reporting about these types of crimes as well, let’s make sure that we also mobilize the leadership necessary.

PV: Thank you so much, Margot Wallstrom, for being with us.

MW: Thank you.