The UK government has imposed new sanctions on officials accused of perpetrating widespread sexual violence in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A series of asset freezes and travel bans were unveiled on Monday to mark an international day of action to stamp out sexual violence in conflict.
Abdel Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim, the Syrian army’s chief of staff, and Ali Mahmoud Abbas, the country’s minister of defence, were both sanctioned for what the UK alleges is the systematic use of sexual and gender-based violence against civilians. Both men were appointed in 2022, and had not been previously sanctioned.
Britain also announced it had blacklisted two Congolese militia chiefs for allegedly commanding groups to carry out acts of sexual brutality: Désiré Londroma Ndjukpa, leader of the coalition of militia groups known as the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (Codeco), and William Yakutumba, leader of the Mai-Mai Yakutumba armed rebel group.
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Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, said the threat of rape as a weapon of war “must stop and survivors must be supported to come forward.”
The sanctions “send a clear signal to perpetrators that the UK will hold you accountable for your horrendous crimes”, he added.
In the past year Britain has sanctioned 15 individuals and entities who committed specific human rights violations against women and girls, including 13 responsible for sexual violence.
In March the UK foreign office published a new strategy to help women and girls globally, which mandates that 80 per cent of bilateral aid programmes must include a focus on gender equality by the end of the decade.
Many members of Syria’s government have been hit with international sanctions because of human rights abuses throughout the country’s 12-year-war, but the measures levied on its army chief and defence minister are the first for the use of alleged sexual violence.
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Since the conflict began in 2011, rights groups have documented the widespread use of sexual violence against men, women and children by regime-affiliated security forces, particularly of detainees in Syria’s vast network of prisons, and pro-regime militia groups.
In a report to the UN Security Council in 2021, secretary-general António Guterres said UN agencies continue to document cases of sexual violence against men and women housed in government detention facilities. Damascus has repeatedly denied the existence of systematic abuse in these centres.
The Congolese militia commanders singled out on Monday lead just two of about 100 rebel groups terrorising eastern Congo in one of the world’s longest-running wars. Codeco last year was accused before the UN Security Council of committing atrocities, including forcing its victims of sexual violence to cook and eat human flesh.
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Human rights groups said the decision goes in the right direction but that other perpetrators of sexual violence needed to be pursued, such as the M23 armed group, which has Rwandan roots.
“The UK’s decision to sanction leaders of the Codeco and Mai-Mai Yakutumba for their role in sexual violence in the eastern DR Congo sends an important message that such abuse will not be tolerated,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It comes at a time when sexual violence in eastern DRC is at an all-time high, including because of the resurgence of the Rwanda-backed M23.” Kigali denies supporting the M23.
In addition, the UK modified its own rationale for Russia sanctions. They have, to date, been aimed at forcing Moscow to “cease actions which destabilise Ukraine, or undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.” They will now be broadened to allow the use of sanctions to press for “the payment of compensation by Russia”.
The Russia package, which implements commitments made at the G7 summit in Hiroshima on Russian sovereign assets, includes measures intended to help the UK identify further sources of Russian sovereign funds. Anyone holding assets in the UK on behalf of the Russian state, including its central bank, will now be forced to disclose them.