Remarks at the Call to Action Ministerial on Protection from Gender Based Violence in Emergencies

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Waldorf Astoria
New York City
September 22, 2014

Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you all very, very much. My apologies for being a little bit late, and my apologies ahead of time for having to leave here after I speak, because we have a meeting taking place shortly on the important subject of Syria – Syria, excuse me, Libya. And I’ve got a group of foreign ministers coming in momentarily, so I appreciate your indulgence on that.

Anne Richard, thank you for your leadership on this and on so many other issues of conscience. And Cathy Russell, Ambassador Russell, thank you for your tremendous efforts on behalf of women and girls around the world.

It’s my privilege to have a chance to open this up and to share a few words with everybody and to express the profound commitment of President Obama, myself, the Obama Administration, the United States to really trying to deal with this fundamental challenge of gender-based violence and the scourge of this violence in the context particularly of conflict.

All of us in this room understand that this is not just about our common humanity, though we call on everybody to understand it is dependent upon that. It’s about our collective security in the end. Gender-based violence plagues every country and it perpetuates conflict. It creates instability that can flow from generation to generation, and it tears apart the ability of states to hold together as states in some cases. It makes all nations that experience it less secure, less prosperous, and clearly less free.

So there really are few causes worthy of – more worthy than this of our efforts. And it’s more clear than ever, witnessing what is happening in Iraq, in Syria, the world has come to learn about this new entity called ISIL. And we have witnessed their unbelievable, brutal mass murder, executions of soldiers, journalists. What is far less well known but equally intolerable is the amount of atrocity committed against innocent women and girls. ISIL has savagely raped and kidnapped countless Iraqi and Syrian women. It has forced young girls into marriages with ISIL fighters. It has awarded young women to jihadists as a reward for entering jihad. It has abducted Yezidi and Christian women and sold them off as slaves to jihadists. This is who ISIL is. And what we’re doing here is saying who we are and what matters to us.

I wish it were otherwise, but barbarity is obviously not new to the world. The term “rape, pillage, and plunder” came from somewhere, and the history books are filled with it. But that doesn’t mean it has to be something that gets repeated. It doesn’t mean it has to be with us forever. It doesn’t mean we have to accept it. Evil has been with us for a long time too, but we don’t stop fighting it. With hundreds of girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, when Afghan women brave acid burnings in their quest for a better future, when women are raped and left to die in the eastern DRC – when these appalling acts are committed, it’s a stain on the conscience of the world, and it’s a call to action for all of us. And because we have to acknowledge a basic truth, gender-based violence anywhere is a threat to peace, security, and dignity everywhere.

So for whatever reasons, this fight has long been a personal one for me. Back when I was a young prosecutor, long before I ran for political office, I took pride in launching the state of Massachusetts’s first program for counseling rape victims and for putting these cases onto a fast track. In fact, the person I picked for that became one of the nation’s experts on victim witness assistance and helped to define it.

And I was proud to introduce a – not just a rape counseling unit, but a fast-track prosecution unit so that people weren’t twice victimized, once by the rape and twice by the system itself when they never got justice.

I was proud to introduce and pass through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the International Violence Against Women Act. And as Secretary of State, this issue remains personal. Too many of the places that I have visited over the course of the last year and a half bear the scars of a time when rape was used as a tactic of oppression and intimidation. And sexual violence against women, as I mentioned, is as old as wars and conflict itself. But now, thousands of years after rape was written into the lexicon of warfare, it’s time to write it out and to banish sexual violence to the dark ages and to the history books where it belongs.

That’s why in June I was honored to join with my good friend William Hague, special envoy Angelina Jolie, and advocates from around the world for the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. And to all who say that sexual violence will always be a spoil of war, something so ingrained that it can’t be eradicated, we came together to say enough is enough. We can end sexual warfare conducted against the innocents, and partly it can happen by eradicating the impunity that has been able to go along with it. We can establish new norms of respect for women and girls, men and boys. And we can hold those who commit these acts – we must hold those who commit these acts and those who condone them accountable. That’s the way you stop it. That’s the way you change things.

So all of us share in our respect for William Hague’s leadership on this topic, and all of us are grateful to the United Kingdom for launching the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies last year. The Call to Action is about protecting and empowering the world’s most vulnerable populations. It’s about deepening our partnerships with the grassroots organizations and local communities. It’s about fighting for a global coalition that rejects gender-based violence as a byproduct of war, conflict, or natural disaster.

I’d just emphasize the word “reject.” Gender-based violence is a crime, plain and simple. It’s not and it cannot be seen as an inevitable consequence of conflict or crisis. Nor is it simply an infraction of a country’s penal code. Gender-based violence defiles the very idea of civilization, and the civilized world needs to stand up for itself, needs to take a stand.

The United States is committed to taking action now. Last year, here in New York, I announced our Safe from the Start initiative. And I’m pleased to say that our initial $10 million commitment is making a difference, whether it’s providing solar lights for refugees who fled the fighting in South Sudan, or deploying a UN human rights expert to Erbil to ensure that displaced Iraqi women get the care and the services that they need.

And that’s why we’re making available an additional 12 million to support this initiative. Our commitment with the help of leading humanitarian organizations will launch new innovation challenges, it will strengthen training for aid workers and hire more GBV experts that can be dispatched at the onset of a crisis.

We’re also launching a new Real Time Accountability Partnership in two pilot countries to make sure that we track our progress and keep disaster and conflict victims safe in real time. And in February, I was proud to announce to the world that the United States had adopted detailed guidance to make crystal clear that those who commit sexual violence in and around conflict or as a crime against humanity are unwelcome here in the United States of America. And we’ve taken steps to enforce that.

So I’ll say to all of you here: One of the reasons that I do talk about this issue as Secretary of State is that it’s important to make clear that you don’t have to be a woman to advance the cause of justice to honor women and girls. And this is a fight that demands action from every single one of us. We have to communicate in a unified way with a single loud voice that there is no place in the civilized world for those who commit gender-based violence. I really do have faith that over the long haul we can win this fight; we can convert the skeptics. Sometimes I know it seems daunting, but hope is always stronger than fear. Even as ISIL’s brutality and barbarism against women and girls continues showing the world who they really are, with every act of courage and perseverance the women of Iraq and Syria show the world who they really are.

Maryam is a young girl from Iraq. ISIL soldiers kidnapped her and her friends from a local school during their daily prayers – if you want to understand something about ISIL’s phony claim to any religious basis. They were shackled and they were marched to a relatively isolated barracks. They were held captive there for weeks and repeatedly beaten and raped. Maryam managed finally to escape this hell and she found refuge in a makeshift camp. And when she got there, her first thought was of her family. She said, “I don’t want to dishonor them.”

Well, we’re here today precisely to make it clear that we can honor the courage of Maryam and the countless other survivors whose lives have been ravaged by war and insecurity. Our job isn’t just to prevent gender-based violence from happening, it’s to help girls like Maryam recover in safety and dignity, and to let her know that the shame in her perpetrators is theirs to bear, not hers or her family’s. This is our call to action and this is our call to conscience, and together I am convinced that everybody here reaching out and touching the conscience of a lot of people who aren’t here we can altogether make a difference.

Thanks for the privilege of sharing a few thoughts. Thank you.