By Colin Marrs

20 Aug 2015

Colin Marrs speaks to Tom Woodroffe – former adviser to William Hague – about the Foreign Office’s mission to put tackling sexual violence in conflict at the top of the international agenda

It was a senior adviser who persuaded the coalition government’s foreign secretary, William Hague to watch the film In the Land of Blood and Honey. The movie, starring Angelina Jolie, is set during the 1990s Bosnian conflict and is unflinching in its representation of sexual violence against women. Affected by what he saw, Hague resolved to do something about the situation.

Tom Woodroffe, now head of the Office of the Prime Minister's Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, was brought on board in September 2012, with responsibility for putting a team in place to drive the initiative forward. “I joined initially as a deputy,” he says. “The first thing we started doing was working out exactly where we thought the work should focus and how our project could add value to everything else already in place,” he says.

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Scoping out the shape of the project involved frequent contact with the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and academics to canvass views. By the time of the April 2013 G8 summit, Hague was armed with a proposed programme of work to present to foreign ministers from other governments around the world. They agreed the development of an international protocol – published last year – to tackle the issue.

The work was framed around four themes – addressing the culture of impunity that exists for sexual violence in conflict, supporting survivors, increasing the number of perpetrators held to account, and encouraging a stronger and more coherent international response. By the following year, G8 foreign ministers also endorsed the development of a new international protocol to improve global standards in documenting and investigating sexual violence committed in conflict.

Since the initiative began, UK experts have been employed in 14 countries to support 17 projects in countries from Kosovo to Syria. The government is supporting capacity-building within governments in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nepal and Bosnia to gather evidence and strengthen the prosecution of sexual violence through training on protocol. It has also provided training on prevention and responses to sexual violence to peacekeepers and Kurdish security forces.

Putting the plan into place would have been more difficult without the backing and drive provided by Hague, Woodroffe says. “His commitment was evident right from the start. He made it clear that he attached the highest importance to the project both within the FCO and externally. That personal commitment made a huge contribution to our being able to engage with other people.”

Woodroffe says that the work is not aimed at providing quick fixes. “No one immediate action is going to end sexual violence in conflict situations. It is a long-term, sustained piece of work. However, there have been developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – an action plan for the army – and landmark rulings in Bosnia providing compensation to victims, that we feel have been driven by our work. Some things will take longer.”

The FCO's Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative won The International Award at 2014's Civil Service Awards

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