Historic transition in Libya must not forget survivors of sexual violence

After playing a central role in the revolution, women and women’s rights must be central to the creation of a new Libya.

Opening of a new appeal courthouse in Tripoli, Libya,10 April 2012.
Libya has opened a new courthouse to try those accused of crimes, including sexual violence, during the revolution [EPA]

New York, NY – As the Security Council voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the UN’s political mission in Libya, its members expressed their deep concern about sexual violence in the country. The United Nations’ mandate includes supporting the government in promoting democracy, restoring public security, and explicitly mentions the monitoring and protection of human rights – particularly those of women and vulnerable groups, which I welcome. It is now crucial that Libya’s own role in the country’s historic transition must give hope and translate into assistance also for survivors of sexual violence.

We have all been closely following the developments in the Arab world. In Libya, as well as in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, a brighter future is possible. The political possibilities – as well as the challenges – are infinite. Extensive support from the international community is continuously required in order to ensure a democratic society. But when the challenges are described by politicians, journalists and commentators, most fail to mention the most obvious but invisible resource – the women. Where are the women now? Can they feel safe?

The wide circulation of weapons does not mean that women feel safe; quite the contrary. From experience, we know that too often men in uniform carrying weapons use their power to abuse women and children. Preliminary findings from UN monitoring in Libya confirm that both women and men were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence during the conflict. While women were abducted from their homes, from cars or from the streets and exposed to rape in places unknown to them, men were sodomised in prisons and in places of detention as a means to obtain intelligence. This serves as a reminder of the importance of including sexual violence in the list of possible human rights violations whenever war crimes are being investigated.

Libya still has a long way to go in its democratic transition. The country faces a number of challenges, but most important in terms of adressing sexual violence is to urgently provide appropriate services for survivors. This includes medical, psychosocial and legal support that, critically, respect survivors’ confidentiality and privacy. Otherwise they might never come forward. “If the bleeding had stopped, I would never have reported it,” as one Libyan victim of sexual violence said. It is also imperative that conflict-related sexual violence is taken into account in the context of security sector reform, including in the training of Libya’s national security forces. It must also be an element of the transitional justice strategy.

In Libya, women took active part in and contributed to the revolution – and the country’s future must continue to involve them. A new order cannot be built without the active participation of women. Transitional governments must also have women’s representation; new constitutions must include equality and also guarantee women’s rights.

We cannot reverse the irreversible. But we can reinforce efforts to monitor, prevent and prosecute. Much still remains to be done in the fight against rape as a tactic of war. With the help of the UN Security Council, I will continue to push for an end to impunity and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice – also in Libya. In this fight, I count on the Security Council’s willingness to be prepared to use all means available.

Margot Wallström is the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict