Violence Is Not Inevitable: How UN Sanctions Can Prevent Rape and Sexual Assault in Armed Conflict

In recent months, reports from Syria, Libya and Myanmar have documented the ongoing use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. They reveal the same patterns: widespread sexual violence and rape used as a tool for genocide and ethnic cleansing— aimed to humiliate, dominate and instill fear in communities and perpetrated to forcibly displace civilians in order to redraw ethnic boundaries or control areas rich in natural resources.

This is not new. We saw similar patterns of sexual violence used as a tactic of war during conflicts in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. And although for many years, sexual violence in conflicts went unnoticed, unmentioned and unpunished, the United Nations recognized in 2008 that sexual violence used as a tactic of war against civilian populations can significantly worsen hostilities and impede peace. That recognition led the United Nations Security Council to provide for the use of targeted sanctions, one of the Chapter VII coercive measures, against those who engage in such violence—a groundbreaking shift in the treatment of conflict-related sexual violence by the international community.

Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security conducted the first review of how the United Nations Security Council has since used sanctions to address conflict-related sexual violence. We find that progress falls short of what is needed to effectively tackle sexual violence in armed conflict, and issued recommendations for better use by the Security Council and other actors.

From the UN’s 62nd Commission on the Status of Women. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

The Security Council’s move to impose targeted sanctions on individuals and entities ordering, tolerating or engaging in sexual violence was truly innovative. This means that when armed forces and armed groups are either unwilling or unable to prevent widespread sexual violence, or are deliberately using it as a tactic of war, the Security Council can take action against relevant military commanders or political leaders. At last, sexual violence can trigger consequences for the perpetrators, who would be targeted with travel bans and assets freezes which could coerce them to change behaviors, constrain their ability to engage in such violence or signal them to the rest of the world as war criminals.

This framework has been applied to some of the current conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan and also against ISIS. In these settings, the sanctions regimes provide for sexual violence as an explicit designation criteria for targeted measures, and some officials and rebel fighters have been added on the sanctions lists for actions that encompassed such violence.

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go. Political considerations within the Security Council often spoil or paralyze the design and use of targeted sanctions. Member States have differing opinions on whether sexual violence is a priority in dealing with conflicts or not; Russia, China and various other elected members such as India and Pakistan are also often reluctant to use coercive measures against governments, especially when they consider these governments legitimate in their fights against armed groups and rebel movements. The Security Council also faces competing objectives, some of which receive priority over sexual violence—for example, support of mediation efforts.

The result is that there are situations where Chapter VII coercive measures, although deeply needed, will not be adopted in the foreseeable future. This is the case of Syria and Myanmar, two countries with devastating weaponization of sexual violence that have become tragic examples of how political agendas can prevent even a simple threat of coercive measures through resolutions.

Even when countries are under a sanctions regime already, the use of sanctions to deal with sexual violence is inconsistent. Despite documented evidence on the ground, the inclusion of sexual violence in the designation criteria is sometimes completely left out, as in Libya or Sudan, or delayed for years, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When sexual violence is included, the threats of sanctions rarely translate into action, as in Central African Republic and South Sudan. The actual listings typically occur years after the adoption of the designation criteria, and they do not match the high rates of sexual violence on the ground. This demonstrates that there is still reluctance on the part of the Council to adopt targeted sanctions, especially on government officials and especially when based on human rights criteria.

Widespread and horrific sexual violence is not an inevitable part of conflict. If the Security Council begins to use sanctions consistently and systematically targets key perpetrators, they can prevent, curb or end sexual violence in conflicts around the world—and fight the impunity of those tolerating or ordering it. There are actions that United Nations member states can take as well: In the U.S., for example, unilateral coercive measures could be imposed on individuals renowned for massive human rights violations when the Security Council is unable to reach an agreement, and Congress could then lift these coercive measures only to reward efforts made and behavioral changes.

Rape in war cannot be reduced to a “women’s rights issue.” It must be understood as a major peace and security issue for its short and long-term costs. Moving forward, the Security Council must include the systematic and immediate incorporation of sexual violence as a stand-alone criterion when adopting a new sanctions regime, and not hesitate to list perpetrators when there is repeated evidence of their conduct. Its approach to bringing an end to gross violations of human rights must not remain a chronicle of failed attempts and missed opportunities.

Strong proponents of human rights in the Security Council need to keep pushing for a moral and legal stand on the weapons we can tolerate and those we must refuse. At stake are not only the maintenance of international peace and security, but also the lives of civilian women and girls living in conflict settings.

Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. GIWPS engages in rigorous research, hosts global convenings, advances strategic partnerships and nurtures the next generation of leaders.

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