Willkommen auf den Seiten des Auswärtigen Amts
Address by the German Ambassador H.E. Mr. Christian Heldt at the International Conference: Giving Voice to Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict in Kosovo
International Conference: Giving Voice to Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict in Kosovo, © Jahjaga Foundation
Good day and welcome to all of you!
Allow me a breach of protocol and first greet the survivors of sexual violence in this conference, as this is about you and for you.
Prime Minister, members of government and Kosovar institutions,
Dear colleagues from the diplomatic corps and international institutions,
Ladies and gentlemen, friends,
Today’s conference will be about sexual violence in conflict, it will be about stigma and social taboos, it will be about mental walls and it will be about respect, support and integration. It is certainly a very painful and disturbing topic to listen to and discuss on such a beautiful day in March. Spring is looming, why bother with the difficult past? Well, the past is very much alive and still waiting for answers and action, we will hear more during the day.
I am profoundly grateful to former President Atifete Jahjaga with her foundation and the UN Kosovo team with Ulrika Richardson as resident coordinator that we venture jointly on this thorny and complex issue today. Both institutions are of primary importance in this, but you might ask why we as German Embassy are involved. I will try to explain and give you some elements on that, as the story of sexual violence is not new and spares no one:
Let me take you back to another spring even further back in another country, mine. From late April til June 1945, a 34 year old woman in Berlin held a diary and described in terrible details the fate of women treated as spoils of war. Horrendous accounts of sexual abuse, gang rapes, suicides and lasting traumata become disturbingly real in that account. This diary was first published not in German, but 1954 in English –then hailed by the New York Times- and 1955 in Dutch. The author preferred not to be known by her name, so the book held the title „A woman in Berlin“ by „Anonyma“. Only in 1959 a Swiss publishing house dared to launch a small edition in German language, with an absolutely devastating echo in Germany: „shameless immorality“, „dishonouring German women“, were just some of the most common reactions. The author was deeply embittered that the story of the raped women was cast away as disturbing and subsequently, she declined to lift anonymity until her death. So, only in 2001, when she passed away, her diary was republished from 2003 onwards and finally captured the full attention of society in Germany. But for half a century, Marta Hillers kept her secret and took it to her grave because society, more so the male part did not want to hear it.
Maybe my country was a special case, one could argue: Germany had begun World War II and committed terrible atrocities in Germany itself and all over Europe, including sexual abuse. So was that what happened at the end of war to women from childhood to old age, was that some kind of retribution, a sort of just return of things? But why the women? Had they been waging the destruction campaigns across our continent, had they been out shooting, bombing and spreading death and terror, had they been in power making the decisions that would lead, after leaving a trail of destruction and extermination, Germany to what was called the „hour zero“ in 1945?
Mass destruction was followed by mass amnesia, nothing was allowed after World War II to disrupt the narrative of the German people waking up after a ghastly nightmare. Nobody felt responsible, nobody wanted to know what had happened. And so the women hit by sexual violence were not able to speak, and had they done so, they would be stigmatized in a society that didn’t want to be bothered any more by these terrible things.
A whole society living with a tremendous lie and incapable of helping heal the wounds. Just to give you a rough idea of the impact in German society by sheer numbers, even though we will never know the real numbers due to social stigma: Estimates vary between 1,2 to 2 million women raped in that post-war period, with up to a quarter of a million women dead from injuries, suicides, fatal abortion attempts. But then, the surviving women, just like the Anonyma author mentioned earlier, had to bear with their posttraumatic scars til the end of their lives, with no one to share or understand. One of the most well-known survivors was someone you might not be aware of. The wife of our long serving chancellor Helmut Kohl , Hannelore Kohl endured a gang rape at the age of twelve in 1945 near Berlin, and, in her words, after the ordeal was subsequently thrown out of the window like a bag of cement. A twelve year old girl then paying a price for the rest of her life with walls of silence in German society. We all remember the smiling, perfect family pictures with Helmut Kohl as the giant of European politics for almost 2 decades. And yet the smiling woman at his side only shared her terrible personal past at a very late stage.
Why did it take so frightfully long to overcome the deafening silence? Probably, there were deeper roots than that: The rapes touched taboos which aren’t only inherent in then German society. As soon as it comes to sexual violence, there are notions like honour or shame which are touched. But isn’t this a perverted logic where societies fall in the trap of the perpetrators? Why should it be dishonouring for the rape victim, isn’t it the perpetrator who truly dishonours himself by committing such a crime? And what is shameful: to survive sexual violence or to leave the person of your family, your neighbourhood, your society alone with the horrors she has endured? And, isn’t society, by stigmatizing victims and survivors doing exactly what the perpetrators wanted to achieve, to spread a lasting poison and keep it alive?
World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars, wasn’t it? At least that was the idea when the United Nations were created in 1945, that was the thought of an old continent Europe recovering from millions of dead and devastated lands. What an illusion with more than 250 wars all over the world since then. And the proportion of so-called internal conflicts is ever-growing, now reaching 90 % around the globe. This classification in traditional wars and conflicts poses ever growing challenges to the international community when it comes to accountability for war crimes. That particular point is also crucial for our discussions: a rape is a rape, whether it’s in „war“ or in „conflict“. While we as international community are getting more and more sophisticated in wordings, so are the sick minds using sexual violence as a part of systematic warfare. These people know very well how sexual violence can hurt a society, a bullet in war can kill someone physically, sexual violence can kill a soul and destroy social tissue. We have seen it in the 90s on our common European soil, here in the Balkans, we have seen it in Northern Iraq with the Yazidis, we are still seeing it in the Great Lake region in Africa. And so many other places around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, this year will see the 20th anniversary of the UN resolution 1325. In New York, the UN are gearing up to launch new action on combating sexual violence in conflict. We in Germany are deeply convinced that we need these new initiatives to effectively fight those who think they can get away with perpetrating sexual violence as a tool of warfare. This can only be done in a strong coalition with the United Nations and the full commitment of all of it’s members. That is why we believe in multilateralism. That’s why we as acting chair of the Security Council in April will take this subject up and bring it before the highest decision making body on this planet. Action has to be taken, we are as Germany deeply committed to push this initiative to tackle impunity and silence.
Some very last personal points and questions: this is about accountability, but accountability for persons. This is not about groups or communities, this is not about pointing fingers. All communities have gone through these horrors –by the way not just female-, so it is not about numbers, it is about individual suffering and fate. In this respect, rape stays rape, so is there a difference between sexual violence before or after a set date in an armed conflict? Is a rape no longer a rape if applying for recognition comes after a preset period? The leading principle should be that survivors should not go through the horrors again and have their fate put in question once more. They should be assisted in every possible way and in a timely manner.
Societies and states, public services and NGOs can do a lot to try and heal hurt souls and bodies by support, both psychological and material. Don’t misunderstand me: Kosovo is already seen as a best practice example with the first pensions given to survivors. Please continue on this impressive path, and try to do even more like in health care or economic integration. In the administrative part, wouldn’t it be helpful to bolster the recognition commission to do their work given the complexity of these cases? Medical help, especially professional trauma therapy must be more sustainable and outreaching. Again: nobody who needs help should be left alone. Those who give help should be more and the efforts not just let to those who are personally engaged. This is a deep societal challenge only society as a whole can carry, and should carry through public institutions well equipped for this daring task. Let us know where we as international community can support you even more.
But the biggest challenge, in Kosovo and around the world, is to not let the rapists poison win: And that can only be done by giving respect and compassion to the survivors: They will continue to endure this war, if society as a whole does not embrace them and give them the feeling to belong and to be valued. That is what we as organizers try to give to the survivors today: You are not alone, we all care, we want to work to help you individually. And with your story and those like yours around the globe, together with you all, we as German government want to help launch a new international environment which prevents and sanctions all those who think they can get away with perpetrating sexual violence as a tool of warfare, just because nobody cares.
Well, let it be heard beyond today: we do care.