On June 19, 2008, the United
Nations Security Council made history by declaring that rape in war
is such a bad idea they plan to do something about it.
That’s right. After
decades of reports on vicious sexual violence in conflicts across the
globe, the highest decision-making body
of the United Nations has decided that it is time to act. In fact, no other international
actor has as much power to do something about rape in war, and as disappointing
a record, as the United Nations Security Council.
It is not that the Security
Council hasn’t talked about the issue before. In 2000, the Security
Council — under intense pressure from women’s groups and UN field
personnel — established a link between the Council’s
mandate and the way in which women and girls are affected differently
by conflict than men and boys. This link is contained in a resolution,
known mostly by its number (1325/2000), which includes an urgent call
to end impunity for sexual violence and for the United Nations system
to gather information on issues related to women and girls in conflict
and report these to the Security Council.
Action to back up these good
intentions has, however, been scarce. Every year in October since
2000, the Council has celebrated the anniversary of resolution 1325
by announcing the importance of the gender perspective in its work,
and then proceeded to largely ignore it for the rest of the year.
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Up until last Thursday, that
is. On Thursday, the Security Council declared its readiness to act
on sexual violence in a resolution that contains three key components:
- The resolution establishes
sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict as a topic within the
purview of the Council’s work. "Obviously!" you might say, and you’d
be right. There is no conflict in recent history where women and girls
have not been targeted for sexual violence, whether as a form of torture,
as a method to humiliate the enemy, or with a view to spreading terror
and despair. If that’s not potentially relevant to the protection
of international peace and security, what is? But the inclusion
of this clause is essential because some members of the Security Council,
in particular Russia and China, at times have portrayed rape in war
as an issue that doesn’t deserve the Council’s attention.
With the new resolution, they will no longer be able to do so.
- The resolution creates
a clear mandate for the Security Council to intervene, including through
sanctions, where the levels or form of sexual violence merit it. Again,
this might seem self-evident. The Security Council is mandated under
the UN Charter to address situations that present a threat to international
peace and security. It has the power to chastise countries waging war
without proper cause — notably, not in self-defense — or by illegal
methods, such as the use of child soldiers and, indeed, using rape as
a weapon of war. Despite this mandate, the Council has so far
done little to prevent or punish states for rape in war. In fact,
it would seem it at times has consciously avoided doing so.
This was, for example, the case during the July 2007 discussions regarding
the mandate-renewal for the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire. Despite having received information regarding intolerably high levels
of sexual and gender-based violence in that country, the Council did
not empower its field staff to address the violence.
- The resolution asks
the Secretary-General to provide a comprehensive report on the extent
to which the resolution has been implemented, as well as on his views
on how to improve information flow to the Council on sexual violence.
This is tremendously important. In the past, the prevalence and
patterns of sexual violence have barely featured in the reports the
Council commissions and receives from the field offices of the United
Nations. This is in part because the Security Council until now
more often than not didn’t ask for such information to be included in the
reports. This crucial failure has been addressed in last Thursday’s
resolution, which asks for information on sexual violence to be included
in all reports. Still, the UN system may in many cases not be
equipped to gather information on sexual violence in conflict-affected
situations in a consistent and ethical manner. This is a root
cause of the lack of Security Council attention to sexual violence.
And last Thursday’s resolution asks the UN Secretary-General to propose
a lasting solution.
Thursday’s debate and the
resulting resolution also added a new word to the Council’s sometimes
dusty vocabulary: never before has a Security Council resolution called
on parties to "debunk" myths that fuel sexual violence. But
the historic contribution of Thursday’s debate was to "debunk"
the Council’s own and self-perpetuating myth that sexual violence
in conflict simply didn’t happen because it didn’t feature prominently
in UN reports to the Council — which, in turn, had been commissioned without seeking to elicit any information or insights on rape in war.
Of course, any UN resolution
is only as good as its follow-up. In fact, it is possible that
the Security Council’s until now tepid attention to sexual violence
in conflict-affected situations is a symptom of a more onerous problem:
a deep-seated reluctance to address rape at all, mirroring the failure
of national governments to prosecute and address violence against women
more generally. Moreover, the UN system cannot change overnight:
while it is now legally empowered to provide information on sexual violence
in conflict situations, it still needs to be appropriately structured and resourced to do so.
This requires investment in training and service-provision, and it requires
the prioritization of this issue at the highest level: field missions,
UN agencies, and peacekeeping troops should be evaluated, amongst other
things, on the effectiveness and ethics of their approach to sexual
violence. It is incumbent upon UN members states, Security Council
members, UN agencies, and civil society to make sure this happens.
The road was paved last Thursday. Now it’s time to see if the
United Nations can walk the walk.