Sexual violence plagues every country. It is not just a domestic criminal justice issue. Acts of sexual violence demean our collective humanity. They perpetuate conflict and instability for generations. They make us all less secure, less prosperous and less free. So there are few causes worthier of international co-operation.
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 armed conflict, or as a crime against humanity, are unwelcome. This week, I will urge my colleagues from around the world to do the same.
This week, I will join U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and ministers and advocates from around the world in London at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. We will pool our expertise, diplomatic skills and resources toward the common goal of relegating sexual violence to the annals of history where it belongs.
Drastic change can come quickly when we commit ourselves. It wasn’t so long ago that many people in the United States did not recognize violence against women as a crime. One of my proudest accomplishments as a young Massachusetts prosecutor was launching the state’s first program for counseling rape victims and putting these cases on a fast-track for trial.
In the U.S. Senate, I fought alongside then-Senator Joe Biden to support the Violence Against Women Act. And I was proud to introduce and help move through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a key piece of legislation, the International Violence Against Women Act.
This issue remains deeply personal for me. Too many of the places I have visited as Secretary of State bear the scars of a time when rape was used as a tactic of oppression and intimidation. Indeed, sexual violence in conflict is one of the most persistent and most neglected injustices today.
As my country’s top diplomat, ending this cycle of violence is a critical mission. The first step is to begin treating sexual violence in armed conflict as a major international crime. It is not and cannot be seen as an inevitable consequence of conflict. Nor is it a simple infraction of a country’s penal code.
The next step in this overdue process will be persuading every government to deny safe haven to those who commit these vile acts. That should be a key legacy of the London conference.
The February change in U.S. visa policy affirmed that sexual violence can be a war crime: it is often organized and systematic, not an unavoidable by-product of war. According to our updated guidance, even those occupying the highest echelons of military or government who ordered, engaged in, or looked the other way when their subordinates committed acts of sexual violence will not be welcome in the United States.
I challenge other countries to do the same. Pass legislation that excludes these perpetrators from entering your countries. Participate in this global campaign of accountability and containment. Protect your citizens and send a strong message to offenders that they are unwelcome and that impunity ends at your borders. We must communicate a unified stance with a single, loud voice: there is no place in the civilized world for those who commit acts of sexual violence. We must declare in unison: “They can’t run, and they won’t hide here.”
Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared in the Evening Standard.
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About the Author: John Kerry serves as the 68th Secretary of State.