The humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine is rapidly turning into a human trafficking one in which women and children, who make up the majority of the refugees fleeing the war, are being exploited, according to the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten. She said there is an urgent need for a “coordinated regional approach” to what she described as “a crisis within a crisis.”

Refugees from Ukraine wait for a bus after crossing the Polish border to Medyka, on March 7, 2022. The humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine is rapidly turning into a human trafficking one in which women and children. (Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times)
Refugees from Ukraine wait for a bus after crossing the Polish border on March 7, 2022. Russia’s war in Ukraine is rapidly leading to a human trafficking crisis. (Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times)

Patten sounded the alarm on the incidence of conflict-related sexual violence being committed in Ukraine. “Although there is never accurate bookkeeping on an active battlefield,” she said, “it is clear that in the context of Ukraine, all the warning signals for the commission of atrocity crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence, are flashing red.”

Patten spoke at an event at USIP on June 6. The event was part of a series of high-level discussions being convened by the Institute on “holding perpetrators accountable for crimes against humanity and for violations of humanitarian and human rights during the conflict in Ukraine,” said USIP President and CEO Lise Grande.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 in an unprovoked act of aggression. Almost seven million Ukrainians have fled their country since the start of the war, 4.7 million of which are scattered around Europe, according to the United Nations. The war, meanwhile, is now mostly concentrated in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Rape As a Weapon of War

Russian troops are reportedly using sexual violence as a weapon of war in Ukraine. “We have all seen the harrowing images of this conflict, of the bodies of women and girls strewn naked in the streets, and of women and children killed while trying to flee to safety,” Patten said. “We have all heard the accounts of horrific acts of sexual violence, reports of gang rape, rape in front of family members, sexual assault at gunpoint, women who have become pregnant as a result of rape, as well as reports of refugee women and children being exploited by traffickers and predators who view this turmoil not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to abuse the vulnerable.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the U.N. Security Council on June 6: “It is on Russia to stop rape, violence and atrocities from within its ranks.” Russia has denounced as “lies” allegations that its soldiers are committing rape in Ukraine.

As of June 3, the United Nations had received reports of 124 incidents of sexual violence, some allegedly committed by Russian troops. Patten described conflict-related sexual violence as being “chronically underreported” and said the incidents that have been reported are “only the tip of the iceberg.”

U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten told an audience at USIP that the international community must address sexual violence in Ukraine now or the problem will only worsen.
U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten told an audience at USIP that the international community must address sexual violence in Ukraine now or the problem will only worsen.

In conflicts around the world, sexual violence has been used as a “deliberate strategy,” Patten said in conversation with Donald Jensen, director of USIP’s Russia and Europe Center. This is because it is “cost-free,” she explained: “[T]he perpetrators know that impunity is the norm and justice and accountability is the rare exception.”

While the United Nations is still working to corroborate allegations of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine, Patten said “hard data” is not necessary to justify a scaled-up humanitarian response or to have all parties to the conflict take measures to ensure zero tolerance for sexual violence.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Patten has issued a series of public statements calling on all parties to refrain from committing sexual violence, avoid attacks on essential health care infrastructure, prioritize lifesaving assistance for survivors of sexual violence and ensure swift and vigorous investigations as the basis for accountability.

While women and girls are particularly vulnerable and disproportionately targeted, men and boys are also victims of sexual violence. “The failure to address, or to even acknowledge these atrocities, is the surest sign that they will continue unabated,” said Patten. “Unpunished crime is repeated crime.”

Ensuring Accountability

Verifying allegations of rape — particularly during an active war — is not easy. Reporting such incidents is even more complicated. Besides security constraints, Patten cited other barriers to reporting, including access issues and the stigma of talking about sexual violence. Further, she said, the U.N.’s Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has capacity constraints.

Patten said she urged the U.N. Security Council earlier on June 6 to ensure that “today’s documentation translate into tomorrow’s prosecutions.”

“All actors complicit in this criminality, from the highest levels of government to the foot soldiers in the field, must face the full force of the law,” she added.

Patten called on the international community to create a safe environment so that victims of sexual violence can report these atrocities. “Without reports, there will be no justice, and there will be no accountability, so we really have to get the victims to report and we have to create that safe space with all the services that they urgently need,” she said.

Noting the ongoing exploitation of refugees — mostly young women and children — at border refugee centers, Patten said countries that are taking in refugees need help to put in place systems to vet, register and screen organizations, companies and individual volunteers who are helping refugees. This can ensure that reception, transit and service centers operate in accordance with do-no-harm principles, she said.

Framework of Cooperation

Patten traveled to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and its western city Lviv in the first week of May. She also visited Poland and Moldova, where thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing the war and from where reports of cross-border sex trafficking of refugees have been reported. She said one of the goals of her visit was to “send a strong signal to the perpetrators [of sexual violence], to the Russian soldiers” and to the “victims and potential victims that they are not alone and that the world is watching … and to urge them to break the silence.”

In Ukraine, Patten signed a Framework of Cooperation on behalf of the United Nations with the government of Ukraine to support conflict-related sexual violence prevention and response efforts. The framework has five critical objectives, Patten said: (1) ensuring survivors of sexual violence and their children have access to comprehensive services; (2) strengthening the rule of law and accountability as a central pillar of prevention, deterrence and non-repetition; (3) building the capacity of the security and defense sector to prevent sexual violence, including by the more than 100,000 active volunteer forces; (4) ensuring that sexual violence is specifically reflected in the provisions of any cease-fire or peace agreement, including those related to security arrangements and transitional justice mechanisms; and (5) addressing concerns about conflict-related trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

While the Ukrainian government will be responsible for implementing the framework, Patten’s office will provide strategic and technical support. Patten intends to deploy a team of women protection advisors to Ukraine to enhance the United Nations’ monitoring, analysis, reporting and response.

Russian forces have destroyed most of Ukraine’s health care facilities, cut off supply routes jeopardizing access to medicines and medical services and disrupted essential public services.  Jensen asked what support services are then available to victims of sexual violence in Ukraine. “It is a fact that the U.N. has got no access whatsoever,” Patten admitted, adding that she was hopeful this challenge could be addressed through the Framework of Cooperation.

U.N.’s Recommendations

Patten said that “in the midst of active conflict, sexual violence is often invisible, but is rarely nonexistent.” She warned that history has shown the danger of dismissing sexual violence as “random acts” or an “inevitable byproduct of war.” Instead, she said: “It can no longer be written off as mere collateral damage.”

The U.N.’s latest annual report on conflict-related sexual violence offers five key recommendations: concerted diplomatic action to ensure sexual violence is addressed in cease-fire and peace agreements; using early warning indicators of sexual violence to inform monitoring, risk assessment and early response; using the threat of sanctions to raise the perceived cost of sexual violence; gender-responsive justice and security sector reform; and amplifying the voices of survivors.

“Norms have no power unless they are known, respected, implemented and enforced,” said Patten. “We must send an unequivocal message to all parties that women’s rights are not Western rights, they are human rights and they are universal in times of war and peace.”

“While the eyes of the world are on the Ukrainian women and girls who are caught in the crossfire … they are looking to us,” she added. “We must not and cannot fail them.”

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