War and sexual violence: an issue of security

Anne Marie Goetz Joanne Sandler
3 December 2007

The organised abuse of women is not a by-product of many conflicts but is becoming a core military tactic. A vital United Nations Security Council resolution acknowledges this, but much more needs to be done to ensure that it is used to prevent women's suffering and to engage them in resolving conflict, say Anne Marie Goetz & Joanne Sandler.

United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, passed in October 2000, represents a watershed recognition by the world's paramount international-security institution of three core realities:

▪ that women and men experience conflict differently

▪ that women and girls need protection from gender-specific forms of violence

▪ that women must participate in peace-building in the interests of sustainable peace.

This article is part of a series on openDemocracy marking the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" from 25 November - 10 December, an annual mobilisation aimed at heightening global awareness of violence against women

Also in openDemocracy on the 16 Days theme, part of our overall 50.50 coverage, a multi-voiced blog where women around the world contribute

Other articles in the series:

Roja Bandari, "Iran's women: listen now!"

Rahila Gupta, "The UK's modern slavery shame"

Takyiwaa Manuh, "African women and domestic violence"

Sarah Campbell, "'She was probably glad of the attention': tackling rape in the UK"

The resolution was the culmination of an enormous cooperative effort by a great number of women's and peace organisations (of which the United Nations Development Fund for Women [Unifem] was one), whose advocacy, research and consultations helped build a case for the Security Council to take up gender and security issues. Few other UN resolutions have embodied the commitment of such a passionate and active constituency, in ways that have continued to evolve in subsequent years

It is striking now to recall the degree to which women's distinctive experiences of and perspectives on conflict, violence and peace were - less than a decade ago - seen as an alien subject for an international-security institution. In 1999, a representative from one of the council's permanent members had this advice to us during a discussion on the prospects of a resolution on women, peace and security: "Don't even go there. The Security Council only deals with issues of national and international security. This issue will never, never make its way to the Security Council, because women's human rights is not an issue of international security." Yet seven years after the passage of resolution 1325, there is greater understanding than ever that systematic and widespread sexual violence is indeed a national and international security matter.

The work of Unifem in a range of contemporary conflict-zones - among them the southern Caucasus, the Pacific, east Africa, the western Balkans, and Latin America - has been an invaluable firsthand lesson in the importance of 1325 to women across the world. These are women who for years formed peace networks unnoticed; who for years waited in the margins of peace negotiations to make their voices heard; who had little hope that rapists and others that violated their rights would ever be brought to justice, but who put their own tragedies aside to counsel and support women who, like themselves, had been raped. These are the women who are the constituency for 1325.

But there is also a shared recognition that our pledge to this constituency is not being kept. This was evident in the Security Council's open debate on 23 October 2007, which heard contributions from UN experts, spokespersons from fifty-two member-states and secretary-general Ban Ki-moon himself. Their resounding statements made clear that implementation of 1325 is grossly inadequate, and demanded a range of measures to ensure this: from a greater focus on national action plans to women's participation in peace negotiations.

The resolution has a broad constituency; UN member-states are passionate about the topic in statements to the council; and many UN entities such as Unifem support its implementation. Why, then, has so little happened? Why are there still so few women at peace-tables, and so many - from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Somalia, Burma to Colombia - bearing the brunt of violence and displacement? from UN experts, spokespersons from fifty-two member-states and secretary-general Ban Ki-moon himself.

The litmus-test

Also on openDemocracy:

Zohra Moosa on rape as a weapon of warA close study of the evidence suggests that at root, poor implementation stems from a lack of conviction at the highest level that the issue of women, peace and security is consistent with the fundamental purpose of security institutions. Article 1 of the Security Council charter states its purpose to be "to take collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace". Yet council members continue to debate whether strengthening the council's action on resolution 1325 is an important path toward fulfilling this purpose. The persistence and worsening incidence of sexual violence in conflict presents a trenchant argument for stronger council action on 1325.

A litmus-test of effective implementation of 1325 is effective prevention of sexual violence and other atrocities against women in conflict. Yet recent reports of sexual mutilation, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy in a series of conflicts - most prominently Darfur and North Kivu in the DR Congo - leave no doubt that sexual violence has become a military tactic of choice. Use of this tactic is hardly new. But by 2007, with seven years of resolution 1325 in place, it is reasonable to expect a significant difference in the international community's response to sexual violence. The fact is, however, that sexual violence is not seen as a threat to peace and as a trigger for responses by national armies, regional security actors, or international ones.

Violence against women, and particularly sexual violence, has special characteristics that have kept it off the radar of national, regional and international-security institutions. It challenges conventional notions of what constitutes a security threat. Sexual violence can be a tactic designed to transmit messages to male leaders via women's bodies, in violent acts that happen mostly off the battlefield. It has a remarkably destabilising effect on community integrity and security - signalling a community's failure to protect its women and children, and therefore undermining its identity as an integral whole. For security institutions, it is not clear how to address this attack; the assaults happen in private spaces - in homes and compounds, in fields and forests. How can so much private space be policed effectively?

Sexual violence has been identified as a tactic of modern warfare in several conflicts. It is also identified as a war crime, a crime against humanity and a form of genocide. But recognition has not been a very effective deterrent. This form of atrocity continues, and if anything is intensifying in brutality and frequency. There is growing evidence that while the worst of this sexual violence is deliberately perpetrated by military actors (including state agents), in some contexts it is becoming socially normalised, taken up as a regular practice by ordinary citizens. The legacy of impunity for wartime rape is peacetime rape.

Anne Marie Goetz is Unifem's adviser on governance, peace and security. She is also a political scientist and senior fellow of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex. Among her books are (as co-author) Reinventing Accountability: Making Democracy Work for Human Development (IDS, 2006) and (as editor) Getting Institutions Right for Women in Development (Zed Books, 1997)

Joanne Sandler
is acting executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem)

Why is this a security problem nationally and internationally? Some argue that high levels of rape - perpetrated by criminal gangs, for instance - have no meaningful impact on national and international security. But if it is not seen as a security matter, sexual violence is left in the realm of remedial responses from humanitarian actors, who in the end can do no more than only patch up a minority of the survivors. The standard definition of war-level conflict- intensity - at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year - does not record the off-battlefield tortures represented by organised rape - and the death of the family, the community, and a woman's spirit that it is designed to achieve.

A global impunity

Against this systematic neglect, the argument that rape on a widespread and systematic scale is a national and international security issue is strengthening. There are five grounds on which this case rests:

▪ as a remarkably efficient means of severing family/community bonds, organised rape undermines public order. Rape perpetrated in public for maximum humiliation and in front of loved ones who will never be able to look each other in the eye again rips families apart and prevents communities from recovering

▪ sexual violence prolongs conflict - rape and pillage is often the only incentive arms-bearers have to continue fighting. The take-up of the habit by non-combatants heightens community insecurity and terror

▪ sexual violence undermines chances for an inclusive, sustainable peace because it precludes women's participation through intimidation

▪ if perpetrators are not prosecuted (and they rarely are because of inadequate response to sexual violence in national and international transitional-justice systems) it is harder to rebuild these systems and respect for the rule of law. Impunity for perpetrators means that known human-rights abusers go free, often to assume positions of national and local leadership; this signals and fosters contempt for the law

▪ rampant sexual violence increases the spread of HIV/Aids, which the Security Council has recognised as a threat to international security.

In light of these compelling arguments, strong military and security-sector responses are needed from the apex global-security institution - the UN Security Council - as well as from regional and national-security institutions. It is true that it is extremely difficult to find effective military and security responses to sexual violence, as it is embedded in social relationships not immediately amenable to military tactics. However there is no doubt that there are some ways in which police and military could help in prevention, and certainly in apprehension of perpetrators and support for prosecutions. This needs to become standard practice. The deployment of a unit of women police in Liberia by the Indian government, and a stronger focus on encouraging the participation of women police by troop-contributing countries, are positive signs.

The Security Council and other security institutions also need urgently to take steps to reverse a global culture of impunity for sexual violence. While sexual violence, particularly rape, is a crime in every legal system in the world, it is de facto tolerated - through under-prosecution - in most countries and cultures. Indeed, impunity for sexual violence is not restricted to conflict countries. In the United Kingdom, writes Joanna Bourke, "the legal system has failed adequately to deal with the scourge of sexual violence...only 5% of rapes reported to the police ever end in a conviction...Furthermore, attrition rates are getting worse. In 1977, 33% of reported rapes resulted in a conviction..." (see " Women, men and rape", 19 October 2007).

The prospects of redress for women in conflict countries where a functioning justice system is rare are often even slimmer. Yet the post-conflict context can provide a window of opportunity to address atrocities against women via transitional-justice mechanisms such as war-crimes tribunals, truth-and-reconciliation measures, and much in between. Strong and consistent indictments, hearings, and sentencing that brook no tolerance for perpetrators of sexual violence would do a great deal to address impunity and rebuild women's sense of community belonging and public engagement. However, very few transitional-justice processes have made this a real priority. This failure stems in part from a lack of attention to the issue in their mandates, which in turn can be traced to peace-table discussions at which women were not present or able to voice their own demands for justice. Security actors can ensure women's participation in peace talks, and support war-crimes tribunals to pursue investigations and indictments on sexual violence with much more alacrity.

An action agenda

The time for debating whether or not the subject of sexual violence and the broader women, peace and security agenda belongs on the Security Council's agenda is over. At the UN debate on 23 October 2007, the United Kingdom's statement was emphatic: "The cruelty of the sexual violence inflicted upon women and children, in particular as a weapon of war, is unspeakable. This is not a debate about the institutional niceties of whether the subject does or does not belong on the Council's agenda. (....) Violence against women is a crime in itself. It is an obstacle to long-term peace and security."

Unifem would add that the systematic absence of women from peace negotiations and the inadequacy of measures to ensure that women are able to participate equally in post-conflict governance institutions - all provided for in Security Council resolution 1325 - are threats to long-term peace. Some would still dispute this. But how much more evidence is needed to demonstrate that sexual violence threatens countries and communities whose inability to protect women and children is the surest sign of their vulnerability to armed conflict, and whose inability to reconstitute themselves too often leads to children re-enacting the ghastly traumas they have witnessed?

Sexual violence is not only a human-rights issue - it is a security issue. Even when the guns fall silent, sexual violence as a political strategy means that to live in the body of a woman or girl is to live in terror. The war and the threats to security are not over until the rapes stop. It is an important leap forward that this issue is now a topic of discussion in Security Council debates. The true test of commitment, however, is whether Security Council action enhances the safety of the growing numbers who are at risk by taking collective measures for the prevention and removal of this pervasive threat to peace.

As one of many efforts to engender this commitment from decision-makers in international security institutions, Unifem co-founded a joint initiative - UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict - with twelve UN entities. The objective is to improve coordination of efforts within the UN to prevent sexual violence in conflict, protect women, and respond to the needs of survivors. A great deal needs to be done to address this issue. Recognising sexual violence as a threat to security is an important step.

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