Security Council Open Debate: Sexual Violence in Conflict, July 2020

Monday, July 20, 2020


Ms. Khin Ohmar, human rights defender and democracy activist from Myanmar, briefed the UN Security Council at this year's open debate on sexual violence in conflict.
Ms. Khin Ohmar, human rights defender and democracy activist from Myanmar, briefed the UN Security Council at this year's open debate on sexual violence in conflict. Photo: Forum Asia

On 17 July 2020, the UN Security Council, under the presidency of Germany, held an open debate on the topic of sexual violence in conflict. Key themes for the debate set out in the concept note included important topics such as implementation and accountability; supporting holistic approaches to Women, Peace and Security; centreing the priorities and needs of survivors in work on sexual violence; ensuring compliance with existing Security Council resolutions; and promoting human rights and addressing gender inequality as a root cause of conflict. The debate largely focused on a survivor-centred approach and addressing accountability, with a few statements encouraging and connecting the need for access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for survivors. 

Ahead of the debate, WILPF contributed to the July Monthly Action Points coordinated by the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, which included recommendations for the Open Debate on sexual violence in conflict. These recommendations stressed that states: take action to address the root causes of violence, including militarism and the proliferation of weapons; address and respond to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), including domestic violence, using survivor-centred approaches; ensure women’s full, effective, and meaningful participation in all areas of public life; and invest in holistic, comprehensive and multi-level accountability for GBV, balancing criminal and legal accountability with restorative justice, such as reparations, grounded in international human rights and humanitarian law (IHL). 



Ms. Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, briefed on her recent report on sexual violence in conflict, which spanned 19 country situations. She highlighted the importance of accountability and that sexual violence is a significant barrier to peace and gender equality, which are interlocking issues. In her briefing, she urged Council members to remember that behind every statistic in the report is the lived experience of a survivor who shared their story. She was one of only two speakers in the debate (along with the Dominican Republic) to raise the issue of weapons flows and how arms fuel and contribute to sexual and gender-based violence, and that sexual violence occurs within a broader context of militarization. Further, she noted that this year’s discussion was taking place in a context of global pushback on women’s rights including reprisals against women human rights defenders.

Ms. Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the UNHCR, focused her intervention on a number of issues related in particular to sexual violence against children, as well as the issue of funding for services. She informed the Council that SGBV is consistently an underfunded issue, receiving less than 1 percent of humanitarian assistance, and urged member states and the international community to move beyond lip-service and keep their promises by increasing funding for services in conflict affected countries instead of repeating.

Ms. Nadia Carine Therese Fornel-Poutou, Executive President of the Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique focused on the situation in the Central African Republic, calling for the Council to ensure that MINUSCA prioritise protection of civilians against IHL violations and greater support for civil society to empower and reintegrate survivors, and consultation with civil society to improve the UN mechanisms for prevention. 

Ms. Khin Ohmar, a human rights defender and democracy activist from Myanmar, briefed the Security Council as a representative of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. Her briefing outlined the long, documented history of the Myanmar military using sexual violence as a weapon of war, particularly against the Rohingya and other ethnic minority communities, as part of a deliberate strategy that constitutes crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Her statement emphasized that these crimes take place in a broader climate of impunity resulting from structural gender inequality and discrimination against women and girls. She urged concrete and immediate action from the Security Council, including:

  • Referring the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or creating an ad hoc International Tribunal to more fully investigate the crimes suffered by the Rohingya as well as those against other ethnic minorities;

  • Acting to ensure that Myanmar complies with the Provisional Measures ordered by the International Court of Justice; 

  • Acting to repeal discriminatory measures;

  • Working to restore citizenship to the Rohingya, lift humanitarian access, and lift restrictions on freedom of movement.


Key themes

Addressing root causes of conflict, including gender inequality

In order to fully prevent sexual violence both in conflict and non-conflict settings, it is vital to address the root causes of this violence, including underlying structural inequalities, discrimination, and patriarchal norms. Although sexual violence in conflict settings requires specific and unique responses, feminists continually emphasize that no country in the world is free of sexual violence and gender inequality, and that similar patriarchal structures and norms enable such violence to persist throughout the world. Connecting sexual violence with root causes remains a weak point in the Council, where focus tends to be oriented on protection and services for crimes after the fact, and this open debate remained no different. A handful of states (Indonesia, Tunisia, Vietnam) urged committment to addrressing SVIC and GBV crimes by dealing with its root causes of gender inequality and discrimination. In her response to member states, SRSG Pramila Patten called on the Council to tackle the root causes of gender inequality and militarization, and called for the conversion of political economies of war into political economies of peacebuilding. 


Holistic approach - women’s meaningful participation and prevention of sexual violence 

One theme highlighted in the concept note was the need for holistic approaches, including the links between women’s meaningful participation and the prevention of sexual violence. This was an issue we highlighted in the context of the DRC in our article last month for the MONUSCO mandate renewal, because local feminist groups in the DRC are not seeing their priorities addressed by MONUSCO, including on protection of civilians and prevention and response to SGBV. In her statement, Nadia Carine Therese Fornel-Poutou, the CSO briefer from the Central African Republic, provided demands for the Security Council including supporting local civil society in empowering and reintegrating survivors, and consulting civil society on improving and ensuring access to UN mechanisms for prevention of violence. Several states also brought up the issue of women’s participation in different dimensions of peace and security processes and the prevention of violence, including Belgium, France, Indonesia, South Africa, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Vietnam. However, more exploration of the role civil society can play in preventing and responding to sexual violence was needed in the discussion, particularly the role of local women-led civil society groups.


Survivor-centred approaches

It is critical that the needs and priorities of survivors of sexual violence are centred in any response to sexual violence. The need for survivor-centred approaches, as outlined in SCR 2467, was highlighted in the concept note for the discussion as a top priority for discussion. 

Nearly all 19 speakers at this open debate spoke up on the survivor-centred approach. Leading the way, Khin Ohmar reminded everyone that survivors of violence at the hands of the Myanmar’s military require justice. Moreover, barriers compounding the lack of these services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence particularly for marginalized ethnic and religious communities must be addressed. SRSG Patten reminded the Council that justice must be done, accountability, as a critical pillar of prevention, must be at the forefront of action, and the needs of survivors, including their right to physical integrity and bodily autonomy, must be centred. 

The importance for survivors to be participants in initiatives, decision-making, and other approaches was a highlight of numerous statements. The United Kingdom called for funding initiatives to “empower” survivors and support in their recovery.  

Surprisingly COVID-19 was not as prominent in the discussion as it has been in many other discussions. Germany, this month’s Council president, guided the assembled representatives with COVID-19 as the backdrop: Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas reminded us that survivors are facing a dire situation with restriscted access to medical services and a underreporitng of sexual violence and DV/GBV but with commitments made in UNSCR 2467, the international community has committed to protecting and empowering survivors of SVIC and to placing them at the heart of our action.

Possibly inspired by the briefing of Khin Ohmar on the situation of ethnic and religious groups marginalised and violated by the Myanmar military, South Africa requested reporting on more than 19 situations covered in the recent report of UNSG on conflict-related sexual violence, namely on situations in Palestine and Western Sahara, where human rights violations are prevalent and South Africa has long supported the struggle of self-determination.


Speakers, including the civil society briefers, brought up the importance of accountability, particularly given the widespread impunity for sexual violence.

There was a strong emphasis in the discussion, including in the CSO briefer statements and the statement from SRSG Patten, on ending the culture of impunity for sexual violence and ensuring that there is accountability for these violations of human rights. The situations in Iraq, Syria, and Myanmar were specifically highlighted, where there has been an utter lack of accountability. As a means for standing up rights of survivors and contribution to protection and prevention, sexual violence as a criteria for sanctions regimes were brought up in numerous statements, while a handle lauded the role of Women Protection Advisors in peace operations and the UNSC Informal Expert Group (IEG) as a platform for immense value for monitoring state and non-state compliance. 

Support for and protection of WHRDs 

The crucial issue of support for women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and peacebuilders was included in the event concept note and guiding questions for the discussion. 

However, this issue was not prominently discussed among the states in attendance. Estonia exhibited concern for WHRDs and political activists who have been silenced around peace processes, while the Dominincan Republic recognised the intrepid nature of activists, and the work of civil society and WHRDs in talking about the crimes of SVIC. The reality is that sexual violence is a hallmark of dehumanisation perpetrated by individuals, groups, and even state insitutions against human beings. Women human rights defenders and other human rights defenders, political dissenters and environmental activists, LGBTQI people, ethnic and religious marginalised people, and so many others have endured this brutal tactic of violence meant to further the cause of the perpetrator through an attempt to rob the victim/survivor of their agency and humanity. Furthermore, women human rights defenders are regularly targeted before, during, and after conflicts by state and non-state actors. Reprisals against WHRDs for their work include criminalization and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly, and speech. Michel Forst, the previous Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, has called the violence against WHRDs as “misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by prominent political leaders, as well as the normalising of violence against women and gender non-conforming people”. There is a global pushback against women as human rights bearers, greater risk of financial and physical safety for women’s organizations and women leaders, and ever-shrinking space for civil society. 


Other themes and key gaps

One key gap, as in most discussions on women, peace and security, was disarmament and the gendered impacts of weapons flows in fueling and exacerbating conflict and sexual and gender-based violence. SRSG Patten highlighted in her briefing that sexual violence in conflict occurs within a broader context including militarization and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which trigger new patterns of sexual violence. The Dominican Republic also brought up in its statement that the Council should not lose sight of the gendered impacts of arms, and highlighted the need for gender perspectives in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts. However, this vital issue was absent from the statements of most Council members, many of whom are some of the world’s largest exporters of weapons as well as countries that possess nuclear weapons.

An issue increasingly discussed in the Council is the interlinkage between peace, security, and development, although this issue is discussed in different ways. Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals were raised by China, Niger, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the context of addressing root causes. St. Vincent and the Grenadines raised that sexual violence in conflict is produced and maintained in a context of structural and systemic power asymmetries including underdevelopment and inequalities, and called for gender justice as part of their statement.

The question of funding for implementation of the agenda is always an important one. A number of states raised the question of funding, however, the focus on funding could have been stronger given the wide gap between the needs and the less than 1% of humanitarian aid provided to support survivors. 

20 years into the Women, Peace and Security agenda, the issue of sexual violence in conflict remains a crucial and urgent one that requires attention. It is vital for member states to remember, however, that sexual violence in conflict does not occur in a vacuum, and that addressing it, as well as all sexual violence, requires deeper work to address patriarchy, inequalities, war, and all systems that perpetuate violence and dehumanisation.


Note: This analysis covers the statements that were delivered verbally in the open debate VTC meeting, and does not include written statements.


Concept Note: 2020 High-level Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence - Turning commitments into compliance