Biden announces program to combat sexual assault in conflict zones

Biden announces program to combat sexual assault in conflict zones

President Biden wants his administration to consider whether acts of sexual violence in a conflict zone were committed when identifying possible targets for sanctions by the State Department, Treasury Department and other federal agencies.

On Monday, Mr. Biden will sign a presidential memorandum to promote accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV). A senior White House official called CRSV a “too-often overlooked and underreported crime.”

“We are seeing this proliferate in places like Ukraine. The (presidential memorandum) will clarify that an act of CRSV committed by either state or non-state actors may constitute a serious human rights abuse,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters on Sunday.

Rules already on the books permitted the imposition of sanctions on groups and people who are responsible for serious human rights abuse.

“These authorities have seldom been used,” the administration official said. “This gap is particularly concerning at a time when CRSV continues to proliferate globally.”

The U.S. annually contributes $1.75 million to the United Nations office that investigates allegations of sexual violence in conflict zones. 

Under the new memo, the White House will add another $400,000 to the effort. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) provided more than $4.5 million in projects that support civil society efforts to investigate and document acts of CRSV, White House officials said.

The memo will direct agencies to use existing authorities to the “fullest extent possible” to promote accountability for acts of CRSV, which includes U.S.-imposed visa sanctions and the application of so-called “Leahy Laws,” which prohibit the State Department and Defense Department from providing military assistance to foreign forces that violate human rights with impunity.

The White House program will prioritize prevention and mitigation to address gender-based violence in humanitarian responses. 

The White House accused Russia of using sexual violence against women as a tactic in its war on Ukraine. The victims were as old as 80 and as young as 4 years old. 

A recent U.N. report identified 3,292 cases of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence around the world in 2021, an increase of about 800 cases from the year before. The vast majority of the victims, about 97%, were women and girls.

“Owing to stigma, shame and fear of reprisals, these crimes also remain chronically underreported,” the White House official said. “For every woman who comes forward to report sexual violence in the midst of conflict, a further 10 to 20 cases go undocumented and un-addressed.”