Remarks
John Kerry
Secretary of State
ExCeL Conference Center
London, United Kingdom
June 13, 2014


SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. William, thank you very, very much. Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests all, and particularly my colleagues in government, I know that we all share – I must say I’ve been listening for a little while and able to watch a few of the videos and hear a few of the comments. And before I came in here, William shared with me some of the extraordinary events of the last few days, the remarkable amount of interactivity, the incredible effort that has gone into this. And I know we all share in our respect for William Hague, and all of us are particularly grateful for his leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

In his extensive travels, which he and I have talked about on many occasions, Foreign Secretary Hague has personally taken the time to make certain that he bore witness to what we’re talking about here. He has seen the ravages of this horrific crime, from Darfur to Goma to Srebrenica. He has visited hospitals full of women on gurneys, all victims of sexual assault. He has not just seen these unspeakable horrors, but he refuses to stay silent. That, my friends, is leadership, and that is what conscience demands of all of us. And we are very grateful to you, William, for that effort. Thank you. (Applause.)

I also want to thank Angelina Jolie, the UN special representative. We’ve all watched her play many remarkable roles. But perhaps her most lasting legacy actually comes from a role that she plays in real life, and that is the role of fierce and fearless advocate. On her most recent trip with Foreign Secretary Hague to Bosnia, she went to a battery factory and met with the women of Srebrenica and a group of Bosnian army officers whom Angelina described as all that stands between a “child and violence that will scar her forever.” So I’m proud to say with their work to prevent and combat sexual violence in conflict, Angelina and William together with all of you here are standing with these children. And we are all profoundly grateful to every one of you, to Angelina, to William, to all of you who have taken time to come here and bear witness and tell the world that we all need to be committed to this effort.

I also want to thank Special Representative Bangura. The United States is very proud to support the essential work that she is doing with governments to make their real commitment to prevent and respond to sexual violence. And her efforts, together with all of you here, I am confident, particularly as I listen to the testimonies of my colleagues, various foreign ministers and other ministers – I think William told me there are 80-plus ministers who have been here representing 123 countries who are here – so I think everybody obviously deserves gratitude for the fact that you’ve taken the time to come and do this, but obviously, as we heard from our last speaker, the key is: What do we do when we leave here? What actions are we going to be committed to?

There are a remarkable number of thoughtful and experienced leaders from many walks of life who have come here in common cause. And I want to say to all of you that it is a privilege for me to share a few thoughts with you today and to express the commitment of President Obama and the Obama Administration and the people of the United States to this effort.

Now I realize that my comments at this conference come on the final day, in the final plenary. In other words, I’m speaking at a time when just about everything has been said but not everyone has said it. So recently, a friend of mine asked me – he said, “Why now? Why this conference now?” After all, this person, this friend, had been a student of warfare, had fought in a war, and he reminded me that sexual violence against women is a conflict that is as old as conflict itself. Well, there’s a reason why marauding armies, he said, thousands of years ago coined the phrase, “rape, pillage, and plunder” – the norm of battle, the trilogy of terror that reflected the rights of conquerors.

So why now? Because thousands of years after rape was written into the lexicon of warfare, we know that it is time to write it out and to banish sexual violence to the dark ages and the history books where it belongs. That is profoundly why now is important. (Applause.) It’s time for us, in an age where we see enough of chaos and of failed and failing states, to write a new norm – one that protects women, girls, men, boys, protects them from these unspeakable crimes.

And to all who say that sexual abuse is always going to be a spoil of war, something so ingrained that it can’t be eradicated, make no mistake – we can end sexual warfare conducted against innocent people. We can establish new norms that respect women, girls, men, and boys. And we can hold those who commit these acts and those who condone them – we can hold them all accountable. We can make clear to the world that we will no longer tolerate these horrific tactics. And they are tactics. It’s a tactic of warfare, tactic of intimidation, tactic of conquering. We can say “not now, not ever.”

And how do I know that? Because we’ve done it again and again and again when we’ve chosen to. Yes, the history of warfare is littered with unspeakable horrors and atrocities. But the history of peacetime has always been marked by advances in civility and codes of conduct that addressed the worst acts of warfare, because people were willing to stand up on reflection in a moment of conscience, in a moment of understanding the difference they’ve made and say, “No, no more, never again.”

A century ago, we just came – I was in Normandy remembering the extraordinary events of June 6th just a few days ago. And all of us were reminded how in the war that preceded that – and World War II was really the inevitable conclusion of the peace that wasn’t a peace, that never put the lessons altogether to bed. But nevertheless, one of those lessons was that a century ago, tens of thousands of young, British, American, French, and Italian soldiers died agonizing deaths from poison gas and mustard gas and the shelling in the trenches of World War I that brought those horrors.

But after the armistice, when the dead were buried and the afflicted came home, people, particularly veterans, were so horrified that except for the most depraved exception that we’ve seen once or twice since, chemical and biological weapons were banned from the battlefield within a decade of that war. That speaks to possibilities.

Two decades later, the devastation and death that was caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so massive and so mind-numbing that the very scientists who had perfected the devastating power of the atom in order to kill on massive levels led the effort themselves that galvanized the free world to vow never again to use nuclear weapons, and a treaty was soon signed in order to do that, and it remains in force today.

In fact, we are still fighting with universal support of the P5+1, the United Nations, in order to deal with the potential illegality of a couple of nations. Are these norms perfect? No. Can they stop every madman, ever bad actor who dares to defy them? No. But they draw a line, a firm line, a clear line, and they tell everyone who would dare cross it that the civilized world will not tolerate that transgression, and there will be consequences for those who do. They galvanize action to enforce the rules that keep the world from descending into places no person of conscience should bear it to go.

So when people ask whether or not we can actually outlaw sexual violence and warfare, let me tell you the answer is a resounding yes. Yes, we can achieve this goal. (Applause.) And I say that because we have banned the unconscionable before and because of the extraordinary activists gathered in this room really say to all of us we should have confidence in our capacity to do this. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the years, it’s pretty simple; you’ve got to start somewhere.

I was a young prosecutor back in the late 1970s, early ‘80s, when a lot of people still didn’t believe that violence against women was a crime. But guess what? We chipped away at that old thinking. I remember launching as the chief prosecutor in this office, one of the ten largest counties in America – I remember launching one of the very first programs for counseling rape victims so that we guaranteed that people were not twice victimized, once by the crime itself and then by the system that didn’t respond. And we put together a priority prosecution unit that took all of these cases and put them on a fast-track for trial so that we could try any case within 90 days of arrest to trial. We not only – we ended an era of anachronisms by actually speaking out loudly and created one of the first victim/witness assistance programs in the nation.

So today, when rape and sexual violence remains a weapon of war and is used on purpose as a tactic of war, the solution is actually the very same. That’s why I’m here today. That’s why I admire so deeply what William and Angelina and others of you who have worked for two years to bring this effort together have accomplished. We have to speak out loudly and clearly against one of the most persistent and neglected injustices imaginable. And we have to fight to hold the criminals accountability and end the age of impunity. Instead of shaming the survivors, we have to punish the perpetrators. And we must support the victims afterwards as they work to try to rebuild their lives.

This conference, the largest gathering of its kind in history, is about forcing the world to stop looking away. It’s about forcing the world to recognize that sexual violence is a vile crime against humanity. It is not just an excusable, inevitable byproduct of war. And there is a real and critical role for governments to play in this fight. Twenty years ago in the United States Senate, working with Cathy Russell, who now serves as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and has been here at this conference this past few days, and then working with then-Senator Joe Biden – they wrote and passed the Violence Against Women Act to protect women at home. Before I became Secretary of State, I wrote and my committee in the United States Senate passed the International Violence Against Women Act. And now we need to finish the job and pass that bill once and for all, and set an example for other governments in the world to follow.

And one of the reasons I talk about this issue, this and other issues regarding women so much as Secretary of State – and I know William Hague feels the same way – is that it is important to make clear that you don’t have to be a women to advance the cause of justice and honor women and girls. (Applause.) This is a fight that demands action from every single one of us. And in this fight we have to speak openly about male survivors of rape, with whom we stand today. (Applause.) Acts of sexual violence demean our collective humanity. When hundreds of girls are kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria; or a man in Uganda is raped by a rebel group and forced to flee his home; or Afghan women brave rape, acid burnings, and brutal violence in their quest for a better future – when these appalling acts are committed, it is a stain on the conscience of the world.

It is a call to action for all of us, and throughout this week you’ve heard their stories. You’ve witnessed their courage. You’ve learned their names. We’ve all learned the name of 14-year-old Hirut Assefa, so vividly captured in the film Difret, which Angelina helped produce. And there’s some of you who have already seen this film, seen the film tells of the courage of an Ethiopian girl in the face of abduction and the compassion of one lawyer. But this really is a story of conscience and of conviction that ought to inspire everybody.

This issue should be personal to all of us. It really should be. I know it’s become personal for me. As a veteran of war, as the father of two daughters, I can tell you it is very much so. But you know what? It ought to be personal for every man, woman and child on Earth, because it degrades and defiles the very idea of civilization. And the civilized world needs to come together and take a stand.

So what do we need to do? Well, number one, we need a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual violence against women and men. Two, we need to guarantee, country for country, that we can bring the perpetrators to justice. (Applause.) I know from my experience as a former prosecutor the difference that efforts at deterrence make, proactive efforts. And I know that we have to help countries to strengthen their domestic justice systems so that they have the infrastructure and the training to investigate and prosecute sexual violence effectively. And I might add doing so would build the capacity for those governments to survive and also to fight back against a wave of radical extremism and terror which is consuming some fragile governments today. Number three, we need to restore dignity to survivors. People can’t be raped and then be ostracized and thrown out of their village and have their lives taken, or in some cases be killed by their own family because of some perverted sense of dishonor. We have to make sure that men, women, boys and girls, the elderly and disabled alike are saved from that kind of pejorative assumption in the aftermath of something they had nothing to do with as victims. We need to give them confidence to believe that they can come out of the shadows and once again become full citizens, get back their lives.

We also need to do more to prevent and respond to all forms of gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies. The United States is very proud to be leading the call to action on protecting women and girls in emergencies which the United Kingdom launched last year. And I want to urge all governments, UN agencies, and NGOs to sign onto the call to action communique. We need to hold ourselves accountable for assuring that gender-based violence is literally addressed in every single humanitarian response. And we need to support the local organizations that are on the ground assisting survivors to recover and to heal. (Applause.) Because – and the reason we must do so is that we need to really acknowledge a basic truth: Gender-based violence, anywhere, is a threat to peace, security, and dignity everywhere. That’s why we will not, we should not, we cannot tolerate peace agreements that actually provide amnesty for rape. (Applause.)

Out of this conference we can and I think we will make it clear that we will not tolerate rape as a tactic of war and intimidation. And we are committed to making sure that women have a seat at the table in resolving conflicts – (applause) – promoting development, building a sustainable peace. We all have learned – believe me, I see it all over the world – where women are participants, where women are respected, where women are part of that dialogue, inevitably there is greater stability, greater progress, faster. (Applause.) And one thing we have learned, no team – it’s time of the World Cup, I’ll use an analogy – no team can possibly win leaving half of the team on the bench. We have to proceed with all. (Applause.)

And we need to make sure that their perspectives inform the work of security and justice and of peacekeeping operations. Without the help and guidance of all members of society – men, women, youth – we will not be able to achieve the lasting peace and security that all people deserve and yearn for.

Now obviously, this summit is not just about shared commitments. It’s about translating those commitments into action. Each of the videos that I just saw were individual pledges of each country determined to make its own difference. It’s a call to action. This is a plea to people everywhere to stand up and make a difference, and the United States also is committed to taking our own action now. We’re launching an accountability initiative to help survivors secure justice – to build the capacity of partner governments to prosecute the sexual violence crimes in countries that are ravaged by war and violence and insecurity.

We’re expanding an initiative that I announced last year called Safe from the Start. Our investments are helping aid workers at leading humanitarian organizations prevent and respond to gender-based violence at the onset of a disaster or a conflict. And I am especially pleased to share that we have just released a new funding opportunity for NGOs. We look forward to building on our initial $10 million commitment for Safe from the Start at the UN General Assembly this September.

We know that survivors often need urgent assistance in order to recover and heal, whether during times of crisis or times of peace. It’s the same challenge, and it’s labor intensive and we need to support it. We need to make sure that they have that support in whatever moment of time it is and wherever they are in the world. That’s why we are doubling our original commitment to the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative. Our goal is to address the immediate needs of individual survivors while working with governments and private donors to improve advocacy and to implement the laws that will stop gender-based violence in the first place.

And more than just dollars or programs, we also want to lift up those people, those individuals who have the courage to lead and to inspire. The United States Government stands with human rights defenders on the front lines – (applause) – courageous and compassionate leaders like Dr. Denis Mukwege who is here today. And Dr. Mukwege and the health workers around the world is often – they’re the first to respond to survivors of sexual violence. We’re proud to support the critical role of NGO partners like Physicians for Human Rights as they work to defeat the scourge of sexual violence in the DRC and in Kenya and other places around the world. (Applause.)

We are proud of those who are prepared sometimes at great risk to themselves to stand up against violence and the repression. One of the things that has struck me so intensely as Secretary of State in the course of this year and the bit that I have been Secretary is in my travels, I keep meeting these people and I keep hearing these extraordinary stories of people who take on governments, often and usually anonymously without any support system around them, sometimes completely anonymously and often disappearing – disappearing to a dank jail, to torture, to never return to their families. There are heroes all around the world who are fighting, and we need to stand up and stand by them.

Human rights defenders like abducted Syrian activist Razan Zeitouneh, they are especially on our minds. (Applause.) Razan has risked her life inside Syria to care for political prisoners and call attention to human rights violations, including against women. We stand in awe of her leadership and heroism. And again today, I call for her release and the release of thousands of human rights defenders around the world. (Applause.) Their voices must not be silenced – their voices must be empowered. And William, that’s what you and this conference are doing here today, standing up for these courageous men and women who are continuing to try to change our societies.

That’s why we support a standalone goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 development agenda, and we will fight for that. (Applause.) Long plane flight, get you any time. (Laughter.)

That’s why I am also issuing a policy guidance cable directly from me to every single embassy and every single bureau in the United States Department of State or in the foreign efforts, every diplomat and every officer at every level, in order to further integrate gender equality and advance the status of women and girls in all aspects of our diplomatic work, including – (applause) – preventing and responding to sexual violence in peacetime and conflict. I’m proud to tell you that five of my six regional bureau chiefs, assistants, are women, and four of my six under secretaries of the Department of State are women, and 50 percent of my deputy secretaries of State – that’s one of two – are women. (Applause.)

So these are steps that the United States, I can guarantee you, will continue to prioritize. But we also have a common responsibility, and that is to make sure that the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict do not find refuge in any country. That is why I issued detailed guidance to implement President Obama’s decision to suspend visas to human rights abusers. Our principle is clear: To make sure that those responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including those involving sexual violence, are not able to enter the United States. Not now, not ever. (Applause.)

And that responsibility goes straight to the top, even to the military commanders who knew or should have known about sexual violence and failed to act. I challenge all countries everywhere to participate in a global campaign of accountability and containment. That’s the way we come out of here: with a plan of action that can work and change the world. We need to send a strong message that no matter who commits these crimes, no matter where they take place, the perpetrators will find no safe harbor anywhere. (Applause.)

My friends, I do have faith that we can really win this fight. Sometimes I know it seems daunting, but hope is always stronger than fear. And nothing should give us more hope than the example of those who have survived sexual violence and found courage in their own recovery. We just lost one of these courageous women, the extraordinary poet Maya Angelou. (Applause.)

As a young girl, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She withdrew into herself. She refused to speak for six years. One day, a woman in a small town in Arkansas where she lived took her hand and led her to a segregated library with only 300 books. But to Maya it felt like thousands of books, and that library became her refuge, became her place of healing. And when Maya chose to speak again – it was her choice; she chose – she incorporated all that she had learned from her reading and her recovery into the art for which she became so famous and so loved.

The words of her poem “Still I Rise” celebrate this journey:

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide

Welling and swelling I hear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Today, together with all the people here – men and women, boys and girls – who refuse to remain victims, we rise. We rise with them as they leave behind nights of terror and fear. We rise with them into the daybreak as they speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. As Maya exhorted us, we came here to send a message: We rise, we rise, we rise. We will go out of here and do the work to end this scourge of sexual violence. Let’s get the job done. Thank you very much, and God bless. (Applause.)