Sexual Violence: A Weapon of War?

Conflict has changed dramatically since the turn of the 21st Century but as Tessel Stabel explores, one recent resolution of the United Nations Security Council could just be another empty gesture in a sea of disillusion 

‘As many here are aware, for years there has been a debate about whether or not sexual violence against women is a security issue for this body [United Nations Security Council] to address. I am proud today we can respond to that lingering question with a resounding ‘yes’. This world body now acknowledges that sexual violence in conflict zones is, indeed, a security concern’.

Condoleezza Rice


With these words, then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice opened the day-long ministerial-level debate on Women, Peace and Security: sexual violence in situations of armed conflict on the 19th of June 2008. The session resulted in the UN Security Council defining sexual violence as a threat to international peace in the unanimously adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1820.

Some say the resolution signed that day is a historic milestone, since sexual violence is now recognized as a weapon, a substantial threat and from that point became punishable. A lot of this kind of violence even continued in post-conflict resulting in a  setback on sustainable peace on the long(er) term. UNSCR 1820 especially addressed the sexual violence committed by men on the bodies of women and girls: the first follow-up resolution after UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) signed in 2000.

From this moment, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged the changing nature of warfare – especially affecting civilians and women to be excluded from peace building processes. It addressed the impact of war on women and the key role of women in conflict management, conflict resolution and sustainable peace. It was seen as a landmark  in the international legal framework addressing the need of the participation of women in conflict management.

However, ‘UNSCR 1820’ was the first  to be adopted as a response to the weak sections concerning sexual violence prevention: the first to frame conflict related sexual violence as a matter of international security, a threat to international peace and to acknowledge the need for a specific security response to protect women and girls during and post conflict.

On paper, UNSCR 1820 indeed seems a historic milestone within conflict management. However, civilians and especially women and girls have been victims of sexual violence during and post armed conflict through history – Reality did not particularly change. If else, it did around the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda when the world was confronted with rape camps and ethnic cleansing-rape.  The framing, however, did change in 2008. This was a start.

But then why did the Security Council decide at this particular time and place to securitize the specific framing of sexual violence as a threat to international security?

Since the establishment of the United Nations Security Council’s agenda through the adoption of UNSCR 1325, the Security Council gathered to celebrate its anniversary every October. In March 2008, the Security Council broke this pattern and released a Presidential Statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day. From here, A resolution on the Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of sexual violence against women was adopted and in April the first UN-wide Organization UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict was established.

In 2008 dynamics eventually really sped up. In February, another resolution called for eliminating rape and other forms of sexual violence in all their manifestations, including in conflict and related situations. A month later UN entities set up UNITE to End Violence against Women to eliminate violence against women and girls in conflict and in times of peace. In May 2008, the UN Security Council started an investigation on the alleged ongoing  sexual exploitation of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo by UN Peacekeepers. Media all over the world accused the Security Council of running behind the facts and being too bureaucratic and passive on the matter. Thereafter, the conference Women Targeted or Affected by Armed Conflict: What role for Military Peacekeepers? was held. Here it was decided that the Security Council’s agenda for June 19 2008 would be set on the matter. For the first time since 2000 a WPS official Security Council meeting was to be held apart from the anniversary meetings. The draft-resolution was adopted anonymously although several states emphasized that sexual violence is not a matter of international peace but rather of domestic politics. However, the meeting on the occasion of the (openly disputed) future of peace operations in Africa the day before seemed to have changed their minds.

Hence, the final punch to UNSCR 1820’s adoption, after a radio-silence of nearly 8 years, seems to have been the (future) of the openly criticized UN peace operations combined with the prominence of the atrocities in the DRC. UNSCR 1325 & 1820 got 4 more WPS UNSCRs. Despite of their unanimous adoptions only a limited number of UN member states, major UNs agencies and departments have prompted action. Taking into account the circumstances UNSCR 1820 got adopted one can only hope, not only for the sake of women and girls in war torn countries but for the credibility of the UN (Security Council) itself, that these were no empty gestures.




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