New Laws Aim to Enhance Response to Sexual Violence Related to Russia’s Armed Aggression

In a recent interview, Fedir DUNEBABIN, serving as the Representative in Ukraine for both the Nobel Peace laureate Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation and the Global Survivors Fund, shared his perspective: It’s better to lean towards helping someone who might not be a victim than to risk denying assistance to someone who truly needs support. Our conversation delved into the existing support system for survivors and the urgent need to improve it through legislative reforms.

Different governmental and non-governmental entities offer assistance to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in Ukraine. How effectively are these efforts coordinated, and what challenges do they encounter?

– Unlike many countries facing CRSV amid internal or external armed conflicts, Ukraine has established a comprehensive assistance system for survivors, covering medical, legal, and social assistance. However, this system is quite complex. The primary challenge for service providers, including the Government, social support services, civil society and international organisations, and law enforcement agencies, lies in coordinating their efforts. Often, services are duplicated, or the referral mechanism fails when certain organisations lack the resources to provide necessary assistance and are unaware that other entities with suitable capabilities and funding could offer support.

This poses a significant challenge in humanitarian response as such a system consumes resources, with each organisation incurring staffing, operational, and administrative costs, while survivors may not receive the required assistance promptly or comprehensively. Despite ongoing improvements, the assistance system remains insufficiently effective, lacking coordination and feedback to promptly respond to the needs of survivors and offer them a full array of services.

– How is this problem being addressed?

– At present, service providers are actively collaborating to improve coordination efforts, exploring various approaches like establishing strategic subclusters in different regions. The Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation conducts seminars across Ukraine for service providers and frontline responders to CRSV, including medical professionals, the National Police, and the Security Service of Ukraine, etc. During these seminars, we kickstart conversations by asking: “What are you currently doing for survivors?” The knowledge exchanged among participants is highly beneficial to their colleagues. Occasionally, attendees express surprise, remarking, “We were unaware of the services you provide. We will now refer 10 survivors to you and collaborate with your team moving forward.”

Some participants have proposed hosting these meetings every three months. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient resources for this. Nevertheless, I believe that innovative and effective solutions will emerge for this undertaking.

Does the approach to countering CRSV and minimizing its consequences reflect that Ukraine initiated it during an active phase of hostilities?

– Indeed, the situation we are facing is unique. While some countries respond swiftly and effectively to CRSV, often through international humanitarian response, Ukraine’s response is primarily led by the Government in partnership with civil society and international organisations. This initiative was instigated by the Cabinet of Ministers itself. To my knowledge, no other country has taken such comprehensive measures to protect the rights of survivors, especially of CRSV, amid active conflict. The closest comparison might be Colombia, where an armed conflict has persisted for over four decades, yet they did not initiate comparable actions at the onset of the conflict.

In Ukraine, the process of crafting an essential regulatory framework began early in the full-scale aggression. Numerous draft laws have been drafted, some currently undergoing review in the Verkhovna Rada. I remain hopeful that they will be passed soon.

What, in your opinion, prompted legislative initiatives regarding CRSV?

– Several factors contribute to this situation. Firstly, the pressing nature of the issue at hand and the necessity for immediate action. Secondly, there is a growing global focus on addressing CRSV and supporting the survivors. Additionally, individual policymakers, such as Marуna BARDINA and her team, have taken personal initiative, championing the protection of survivors’ rights.

Experts also highlight the absence of a clear definition of ‘survivor of CRSV’ in the current legislation of Ukraine. As a result, state institutions such as hospitals or healthcare facilities must come up with special procedures to register survivors and provide necessary assistance.

 – What specific issues related to CRSV will the draft laws currently under review in the Verkhovna Rada address?

– The draft laws are primarily focused on establishing the definition of ‘conflict-related sexual violence.’ This definition is a key aspect of governmental Draft Law No. 10256 On Registering Individuals Affected by the Armed Aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, prepared by the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine in collaboration with various stakeholders and experts. Draft Law No. 10132 On the Status of Survivors of Sexual Violence Related to the Armed Aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine and Urgent Interim Reparations, introduced by MP Maryna BARDINA, offers approaches to address the status of CRSV survivors.

What do survivors of CRSV themselves think about the proposed laws?

– Merely acknowledging CRSV in legislation brings a sense of satisfaction. Those affected by Russian aggression in Ukraine since 2014 have felt neglected and hopeless regarding the protection of their rights. Now, they can feel acknowledged, knowing they have not been overlooked. Whether they choose to seek survivor status is their choice, but having the option available in the law is crucial.

What other benefits will be available to the survivors upon obtaining the status of CRSV survivor?

– The Global Survivors Fund conducted consultations in the format of focus groups with male survivors and intends to do the same with female survivors. The first focus group discussed whether obtaining CRSV survivor status would bring more benefits beyond existing support. Although they acknowledged the importance of interim compensation as part of reparative measures and appreciated the medical, psychological, and legal assistance currently offered by NGOs and international partners, they expressed interest in additional compensation linked to survivor status, provided they do not have to undergo further procedures, such as revisiting their experiences or recounting their stories. The perspective of female survivors is yet to be explored. However, male participants expressed doubts about the usefulness of receiving certificates labeling them as CRSV survivors, questioning where they would go with such documents, possibly to the outpatient hospital.

This issue demands careful consideration, including consultations with experts and MPs. It may be beneficial to establish a task force to develop strategies for destigmatizing the concept of survivor status, as many survivors might hesitate to apply for the status due to associated stigma.

How might the enactment of the draft law proposed by the Ministry of Social Policy, which entails establishing a Register of damage to the life and well-being of Ukrainians, impact the support available to survivors of CRSV?

– First, as I have mentioned earlier, the draft law provides definition of CRSV and outlines immediate interim reparations. However, the primary purpose of establishing the Register is to potentially synchronize with the International Register of Damage and other initiatives related to reparations, frozen assets of the Russian Federation, legal actions against the Russian Federation, etc.

My colleagues stress the importance of Ukraine aiding survivors while maintaining records of expenditures for later recovery from Russia. Therefore, the Register will facilitate tracking the state’s spending on assistance for survivors, essential for substantiating legal claims against the Russian Federation. Without such record-keeping, it would be challenging.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that international experts have flagged terminological inconsistencies in this draft law. For instance, there are questions about how to assess harm to lives and well-being of the survivors. They suggest using terms like ‘violation of personal non-property rights’ and ‘personal integrity’ to address a broader range of human rights violations.

Will the idea of establishing a Register be effective? Is it worthwhile to prioritise it over other tasks?

– I believe it’s worthwhile. Consider this: the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine has reported 128,000 registered survivors of war crimes. The International Register of Damage will only have 35 employees, and even the most prestigious courts operate with limited human resources. Processing 128,000 lawsuits would be unrealistic even over a decade. However, the plan is for the International Register of Damage and international courts to recognise the facts documented in the Ukrainian Register by the Ministry of Social Policy as credible evidence. This will streamline the process of gathering evidence, ensuring relatively prompt protection of human rights when seeking compensation from the Russian Federation for the damage it has inflicted.

The Register will contain highly sensitive information. To what extent could human factor influence the granting of status to survivors of CRSV and the inputting of data in the Register?

– The process of inputting data into the Register should be automated, with strict confidentiality measures in place, including various levels of access. This technical responsibility falls within the domain of IT teams.

However, the identification of survivors and the determination of their eligibility for reparations should be managed by a special commission. This commission should include survivors themselves, along with international and national experts in conflict-related sexual violence, and government officials. This approach ensures transparency while preserving confidentiality to maintain the trust of the survivors.

Trust should be mutual: we must believe the survivor’s testimony. Although mistakes may occur, and there are different kinds of mistakes, it is better to lean towards helping someone who might not be a victim than to risk denying assistance to someone who truly needs support.

If both proposed laws are passed, can we expect an increase in the number of identified survivors of CRSV? Will they engage in more active cooperation with law enforcement to secure reparations?

– First and foremost, I’d like to emphasize that receiving reparations should not depend on seeking help from law enforcement agencies. Assistance for victims, particularly those of conflict-related sexual violence, should be unconditional.

According to estimates from law enforcement and civil society, for every survivor who has come forward, there may be 10 survivors who have not sought any assistance at all.

We are optimistic that passing the draft laws and implementing the proposed mechanisms, including immediate interim reparations, will build trust in the response system among survivors. As word spreads about available assistance, we expect more people will seek help. Additionally, the identification process can be lengthy, with survivors sometimes coming forward over a span of two to ten years, or even longer in some cases.

Is the response system equipped to manage a significant increase in CRSV requests?

– We need to be prepared for this scenario. A key measure of our effectiveness is the fact that survivors are reaching out for assistance. More requests indicate greater strategic efficiency. Our goal is to combat stigma in Ukrainian society so that survivors feel no fear of community judgment, guilt, or reluctance to seek support. While this may pose financial challenges, our donors should also be prepared. Improving coordination with other organisations can enhance our resource pool.

Were any members of your team involved in drafting legislation on CRSV?

– In April 2023, the Global Survivors Fund team supported an initiative by Ukrainian women’s organisations, such as the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem” and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund. Together, we organised a collaborative working and training session for survivors, representatives of civil society organisations, and various government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Policy, Office of the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, the Prosecutor General’s Office, etc. During this session, we collectively formulated proposals for Bill No. 10132, initiated by Maryna BARDINA. This collaboration has continued since then.

Additionally, we contributed to refining Bill No. 10256 and actively advocated for its adoption. The Ministry of Social Policy is open for further collaboration, and we look forward to continuing our joint efforts to enhance legislation governing assistance for survivors of CRSV, and potentially extending support to other victim groups.

How important is it to engage survivors of this crime in drafting laws related to CRSV?

–  The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation and the Global Survivors Fund follow a survivor-centered approach in their work, placing survivors at the centre of any process by prioritising their interests and rights. This approach is vital not only for the organisations but also for the survivors themselves. Engaging in effective communication with survivors who have experienced trauma and are willing to cooperate helps them regain control over their lives and feel supported.

When crafting support mechanisms, we cannot decide for survivors, as they know better what they need and what assistance is required. Encouraging survivors to seek support involves actively involving them, communicating with them, and seeking their input.

While meeting all their needs may not be possible, efforts are made to strike a balance with the resources available from both the Ukrainian state and the international community.

Volodymyr DOBROTA,

National Press Club “Ukrainian Perspective”

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organization La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.