Imagine there is a peace dividend and only combatants benefit from it.
This worrisome reality was the main preoccupation of attendees to last week’s high-level colloquium on conflict-related sexual violence and peace negotiations, organized by the United Nations in New York. On one hand, the prevalence of armed conflict around the world has been almost halved since the end of the Cold War. The expansion of UN mediation activities and the proliferation of more robust and better funded peacekeeping operations have been partly credited for this welcome development. However, sexual violence as a weapon of war has not followed the same downward trend, and may have indeed increased. Extreme wartime rape has been a feature of many recent conflicts, such as Congo or Darfur, and has become generalized in several post-conflict environments, where mass rape continues after the guns fall silent and the peace treaties are signed.
The moniker ‘sexual violence’ falls short of conveying the ghastly nature of these atrocities, which frequently involve multiple perpetrators- gang-rapists in uniform- affect women of all ages, from toddlers to octogenarians, and may take forms such as the penetration by objects with the intention of destroying the reproductive organs of the victim. Survivors are usually left with debilitating psychological and physical trauma, including fistula, HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. The wounds are often invisible, the stigma too powerful, and the horrors too traumatizing to bear witness. The deliberate use of sexual violence in conflict shreds the fabric of entire communities, and addressing it should be at the center of the peace and security agenda.
However, sexual violence has been neglected in peace negotiations and mediation efforts, including those brokered or facilitated by the United Nations. According to research conducted by UNIFEM, out of 300 peace agreements in 45 conflicts since 1989 to present, only 18 even mention sexual violence. In order to address this silence, several UN agencies, in partnership with the Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue and on behalf of UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, convened last week an unprecedented colloquium among high-level mediators, subject experts, UN officials, and women’s rights advocates. Their goal was to develop practical ways of delivering on the promise of UN Security Council Resolution 1820, a barrier-breaking resolution adopted last June which recognizes that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence and that its use constitutes a threat to peace and security and is therefore a matter for the Security Council.
And yet, even as practitioners and technical experts were just warming their seats to engage in frank discussion about this issue in New York, news came that hundreds of prisoners in a jail in Goma had staged a riot in an attempt to escape prison, breaking into the women’s wing of the facility and raping many of the female prisoners. Sadly, this bizarre incident is not all that infrequent. Sexual violence is routinely ignored at the peace table, where the negotiating teams divvying up power and wealth are often commanders that have used it as a deliberate strategy to achieve political or military goals. Ceasefire monitoring teams do not track for it or investigate it. Sexual violence survivors witness their former rapists receiving cash rewards and positions in the army as part of disarmament and demobilization programs, while they are left with no social or economic support, perhaps even rejected by their own communities. Most peace processes do not establish reparative measures for survivors of sexual violence, and those that do often fail to implement them in a way that does not re-victimize, or even endanger, survivors. Despite the progress made in international jurisprudence in this area, one can hardly find consolation in the fact that less than three dozen individuals have been sent to jail by international war crimes courts to pay for these crimes, nor be encouraged by the even more abysmal record of similar courts at the national level. As the former humanitarian-in-chief at the UN, Jan Egeland, put it at the press conference that followed last week’s colloquium, “we leave wartime rape to the humanitarians, who can only respond with tents and blankets, but cannot stop it or punish it.”
Greater participation of women in peace negotiations must surely be part of the answer. A review of a sample of 21 major peace processes since 1992 shows that women’s participation as signatories, members of negotiating delegations, or as mediators, remains in the single digits, and no women have been appointed chief mediators in UN-sponsored peace talks. Practical guidance to mediators and those involved in peace-making activities, better accountability and coordination within the UN system itself, and targeted pressure from those with leverage, can also help mitigate the devastating effects of this scourge.
Unlike other weapons of mass destruction, sexual violence is used every day in war, affecting incalculable numbers of lives and communities and shaming us all. It is the great moral lapse of our time. What could be more urgent than that?