WILPF Monitoring: Sexual Violence in Conflict at the Security Council (2021)
“Violence, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and human rights violations, operate on a peacetime-wartime continuum. They are not standalone incidents, and have their roots in existing peacetime inequalities and harmful gender norms.” UNSCR 1325 at 20 Years: Perspectives of Feminist Peace Activists and Civil Society, pg. 15
On 14 April 2021, under the presidency of Viet Nam, the UN Security Council convened an open debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) on the issue of Sexual Violence in Conflict (SVIC). The open debate “examined the persisting challenges and identified measures for the prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict” (per the concept note) with a specific focus on support and services for survivors. In the debate concept note, member states were urged to “strengthen legislation to foster accountability for sexual violence, prevent and eliminate sexual violence in conflict and strengthen access to justice for victims”. Furthermore, the concept note also underscored that the debate would provide an opportunity to discuss the implementation of UNSCR 2467 (2020) and the shortcomings of policies and programs at all levels to prevent sexual violence in conflict.
Major themes from this year’s debate included: Comprehensive services and support for survivors including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR); Adequate financing and resourcing for preventing and responding to sexual violence; Accountability mechanisms; and SGBV in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts of sexual violence on women’s participation and human rights were also mentioned by numerous speakers in the debate.
Militarization and the proliferation of weapons play a significant role in exacerbating and facilitating gendered violence, but arms and militarism remain a critical gap in the Security Council’s work on sexual violence in conflict. In recent civil society briefings to the Security Council, briefers have called for Council members, many of whom are among the world’s largest arms traders, to cease contributing to human rights violations, including gender-based violence, by providing weapons and ammunition to conflict parties. This call is in line with state obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, and the obligations of some States under Article 7.4 of the Arms Trade Treaty. However, as in previous years, the role of arms proliferation in contributing to sexual violence in conflict went mostly unaddressed by member States in this year’s open debate. Niger spoke about the impacts of the flows of small arms and light weapons in the Sahel, and Mexico called for more action to address arms trafficking in both conflict and post-conflict situations. Ultimately, it is critical to recognize that preventing SVIC requires addressing its root causes, which include violent conflict, proliferation of arms, and a culture of impunity, all of which have a foundation in patriarchal norms and practices.
The Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten, called on States to address the gaps that continue between resolutions and actions, asking: “what do these resolutions mean if we do not honor our commitments?”. Ms. Patten underlined that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated violence faced by LGBTQI individuals, men and boys, and women, however, SVIC remains under-reported due to cultural stigma, lack of services, and threats of future violence. She encouraged States to take proactive measures to create an enabling environment for survivors to overcome shame, isolation, rejection, and lack of support -- factors which limit reporting and accountability. Ms. Patten also emphasized the importance of participation and addressing the dynamics of power which impact protection and prevention efforts, calling on traditional and religious leaders and others to mobilize with a broad constituency to promote social change. The SRSG also connected sexual violence with security dynamics which trigger patterns of violence, and concentrated on captivity, migration, military bases, detention centers, and check-points, calling for prevention as the ultimate cure.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege briefed the Council with an appeal that sexual violence must be addressed with greater resources and accountability, highlighting how survivors continue to largely be met with little support, justice, or reparations for the atrocities they have suffered. He called on the Council and the international community to prioritize the effective implementation of existing frameworks and translate commitments of the UNSC into actual results, considering none of the recommendations in this year’s report of the Secretary-General have been implemented thus far. Dr. Mukwege also drew attention to the failure of political and military solutions to stabilize situations and protect civilians, such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo among other places, and emphasized the importance of transitional justice to break cycles of instability where sexual violence has been heavily perpetrated.
The civil society briefer, Director of South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network (SSWD) Ms. Caroline Atim, brought a critically absent perspective into the Security Council discussion. Ms. Atim is a deaf woman, and represented survivors, as well as women and girls with disabilities from South Sudan. Ms. Atim focused on the deeply ingrained discrimination and dehumanization of women and girls that allow for impunity for perpetrators. She also called attention to the tendency not to take GBV, including sexual violence, seriously as a crime, and to disregard the impact it can have on individuals and communities. She called for a robust survivor-centered approach standardized by UNSCR 2467, outlining the need to center the rights, experiences and voices of survivors, including those with disabilities, in response to GBV and sexual violence. She also called for the provision of comprehensive, accessible and non-discriminatory services, including psychosocial support, sexual and reproductive health and rights, mental health care, access to legal services, and training to develop livelihood skills. Drawing the connection between freely available small arms and light weapons and sexual violence in conflict, Ms. Atim reminded the Council that arms proliferation leaves women at risk of all forms of GBV, and further fuels the dimensions of violent conflict. She called on States to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes, and the government of South Sudan to prioritize women’s full, equal and meaningful participation of women in all their diversity with a 35% quota for the current peace process. Ms. Atim urged all actors to ensure that rights, inclusion and accessibility for women and girls with disabilities are at the heart of all efforts to prevent and respond to GBV.
A final briefing to the debate came from Beatrix Attinger Colijn, a women’s protection adviser at the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). In her briefing, she echoed points made by earlier briefers on the issues of stigma, social rejection, weak infrastructure and reprisals against survivors, all of which impede justice and accountability for violence.
Responding to Sexual Violence in Conflict
Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women and girls, and takes root due to underlying structural inequalities, discrimination, and patriarchal norms. Preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict was a critical subtheme in Wednesday’s debate, where States offered key observations and recommendations on how to improve existing efforts. Member States were in agreement that SVIC response mechanisms and processes must be survivor-centered and human rights-based, where affected populations are full, active, and equal participants. Furthermore, they underscored that responses to sexual violence must be timely, thorough, and inclusive.
Timely reactions and responses to reports of sexual violence ensure that survivors are serviced with the physical and mental health care resources they need. The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda addresses strengthening local and national institutions to assist survivors of sexual violence in UN Security Council resolutions 1820 (2008) and resolution 1888 (2009). States bear the responsibility of addressing structural barriers to reporting, which also impede time-sensitive responses. Council members remarked on the fear and lack of trust survivors must overcome to report incidents of sexual violence. Such observations reflect the stigma and shame surrounding sexual violence and assault that disempowers survivors. Several speakers also spoke about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to reporting structures, institutions, and services. Security Council Resolutions 1889, 2106, and 2122 call for support for SRHR and mental health services that meet the needs of survivors, including people with disabilities, as critical to addressing commitments and obligations of States and other other international actors. Moreover, UNSCR 2242 recognizes health as a direct concern for global peace and security and highlights the WPS agenda as a cross-cutting framework to health pandemics. The right to sexual and reproductive health and rights must be protected as a critical part of ensuring accountability for the fulfilling the rights of women and girls in all their diversity, with governments also ensuring adequate budgets that invest in health services and capacities of various sectors, including health professionals, judges, lawyers, and investigating officers. In order to enable a comprehensive response to reports of sexual violence, States must make a stronger effort to ensure that care services and acccess to justice are consistently available to survivors in all their diversity, including LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, and men. There must be full, unimpeded, and nondiscriminatory access to resources including medical care, sexual and reproductive health services, psychological support, and legal services. The impacts of sexual violence are manifold, and services for survivors for SRHR and other services must account for the psychological aftermath of such experiences as well.
Accountability, Justice and Ending Impunity
Sexual violence in conflict, like all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, is rooted in structural and intersecting forms of discrimination, misogyny, and gender inequality. Rather than being an aberration, sexual violence affects a third of women in our lifetimes. Even higher rates of violence are experienced by individuals who face other forms of marginalization and oppression, including on the basis of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and disability. It is this marginalization that enables widespread violence against women, girls, LGBTQI persons, and other survivors to persist, and even rewards perpetrators with impunity and continued power.
During the debate, different ways to hold perpetrators accountable were discussed, particularly mechanisms at the disposal of the UNSC. Numerous speakers (UK, Kenya, Ireland, Norway, India, Estonia) discussed the potential for the use of targeted sanctions, including with a standalone criterion for SGBV, to be used as tools of deterrence or punishment. The recent designation of Sultan Zabin in the case of Yemen was cited as a good step in this regard. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the United Kingdom both discussed support for hybrid and specialized courts and tribunals. The United Kingdom called for access to justice that prioritizes the specific needs of survivors including people with disabilities and LGBTQI people. Ireland underscored that sexual violence should be prosecuted on an equal basis with other war crimes and crimes against humanity, also recognizing that it can be a constitutive act of genocide, and Mexico called for the UNSC to refer more cases of sexual violence to the ICC. Both France and Ireland cited the recent conviction of Dominic Ongwen at the ICC in their remarks. It was also noted that States bear the primary responsibility of strengthening their capacity to prevent SVIC and develop resilient justice and accountability mechanisms.
Members spoke in overwhelming agreement about ending the culture of impunity that replicates itself every time States and institutions fail to hold perpetrators accountable. The issue of impunity for both individual perpetrators as well as other actors, including States and armed groups, remains critical; As Dr. Mukwege stated in his remarks, “impunity remains the norm, rather than the exception”. During the debate, Niger spoke about the culture of impunity for sexual violence that persists, even at the United Nations, and called for justice. Impunity exists at the highest levels, including in the Security Council - the very body convened to discuss this issue. Some Council members and their allies hold significant responsibility for perpetrating or enabling repeated violations of human rights, both historically and in the present day. The root causes of many conflicts and rights violations lie in colonialism, imperialism, racism, authoritarianism, and capitalist exploitation. Although the Council can and must take action to address the systemic issue of sexual violence in conflict, holistic action requires that Council members themselves fully engage with accountability mechanisms and cease contributing to armed conflicts around the world. Fully addressing and providing accountability for sexual violence requires structural approaches that address the root causes of gender inequality and armed conflict.
Protection and inclusion of all affected populations
Protection mechanisms, with the inclusion of all affected populations, remain a key feature of any credible response to sexual violence in conflict. The Women, Peace and Security agenda is strongly rooted in the notion that women’s agency, voice and capabilities along with a critical gender perspective is paramount to devise better policies and achieve feminist peace. During the debate, States remained cognizant of the calls that the WPS agenda makes for the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in all response mechanisms. Increasing women’s participation in prevention and responses to sexual violence in conflict is crucial to escape cycles of violence and trauma, and to develop inclusive and more democratic peacemaking that turns gender inequality into gender justice. A feminst response to SVIC demands an interruption of the normatively masculine state functions that deem women’s participation superfluous.
Facilitating the free and unhindered operation of civil society groups and women human rights defenders and financially supporting their work can move States from verbal commitments to proactive action. The critical work of these organizations warrant them indispensable in response to sexual violence, as well as for developing more holistic protection structures.
Ahead of the open debate, our coalition of 18 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) under the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security recommended the following to Council members:
Prevent and respond to GBV with holistic survivor-centered and human rights based approaches, designed in partnership with affected populations, in particular by ensuring rights of survivors, in all their diversity.
Justice and accountability efforts, including reparations processes, must be human rights-based, survivor centered, victim-informed, inclusive, non-discriminatory and designed, implemented and monitored in partnership with survivors and victims.
Local civil society groups, including women’s rights organizations, play a critical role in GBV prevention and response, including in humanitarian settings. They should be allowed to operate freely and fully supported via technical and financial means, as well as with access to humanitarian coordination structures and affected populations.