Secretary of State John Kerry announced Tuesday that perpetrators of sexual violence will no longer be issued visas to visit the United States.
Kerry announced the visa ban during an armchair discussion on sexual violence in war zones with British Foreign Minister William Hague, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Cathy Russell, and United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab H. Bangura.
"We haven't sent yet an embassy-wide message, which I am sending today, that no one, and I mean no one, at the highest level of military or governance who has presided over or engaged in or knew of or conducted these kinds of attacks is ever going to receive a visa to travel into the United States of America from this day forward," Kerry said. "We're not going to allow that."
A State Department spokesman clarified in a written message to BuzzFeed that Kerry's remarks were "guidance," rather than a new policy, aimed at implementing a 2011 proclamation by President Barack Obama banning entry to the U.S. of individuals who have committed "serious human rights abuses" or violations of international humanitarian law.
Kerry said the visa ban is intended to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence face consequences for their actions. On Tuesday, the State Department could not provide specifics about how embassies would evaluate any allegations against visa applicants, nor any other procedural details.
The announcement seemed to catch observers, and some officials at the State Department, by surprise.
"This is the first I'm hearing of it," Amnesty International's Julia Drost told BuzzFeed by telephone Tuesday evening. Drost said impunity for such crimes is a clear problem, but that visa bans "should be something that should come after a lot of other prior stuff, in terms of bringing those who commit such war crimes to justice."
Other human rights advocacy organizations knew nothing about the directive or Kerry's announcement, and sources inside the State Department said they were prepared for "an announcement" but did not know it would ban visas to rapists.
In a written statement, the department told BuzzFeed that the ban applies to "anyone who perpetrated or ordered widespread and systematic violence targeting women...This also applies to government officials, at any level, who perpetrated or ordered rape, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity."