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Rape as a Weapon of War? It’s Still in Business


Security Council meets on women, peace and security: June 24, 2013
The actress Angelina Jolie spoke as a special envoy for the United Nations refugee agency on June 24, 2013, at a Security Council debate on sexual violence in conflicts. The Guatemalan delegation, left, included the foreign minister, Fernando Carrera Castro, foreground. RICK BAJORNAS/UN

The newest United Nations Security Council resolution that continues to build a stronger framework to prevent and end sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations sends a strong signal that such offenses will be punished as war crimes under international law.

The resolution, agreed by a unanimous vote after difficult negotiations, passed on June 24 with many very important guests present at the Security Council session, including William Hague, the British foreign minister and a global leader on the issue, and Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the UN’s refugee agency. Reaffirming that rape remains an active weapon of war, long after the Geneva Conventions banned it in 1949, the resolution’s adoption also signifies that ending rapes in combat zones is growing more central to the work of the UN.

Security Council Resolution 2106 recognizes the “centrality of ending impunity for the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and encourages states to strengthen accountability efforts,” a statement from the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an advocacy group, said.

At the same time, the UN is making headway in addressing generalized sexual violence against women; a report in March by a special investigator for the Human Rights Council concluded that not only do nations need to be held responsible for ensuring accountability for combating rape and other sexual attacks on their own turf but they are also liable for similar actions by “nonstate actors” in their country too.

Calling sexual violence in conflict a “vile crime,” Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and more than 60 national delegates spoke at the Security Council after the June vote. Jolie took the Security Council to task, saying the council is responsible for ending sexual violence against women in conflicts as much as national governments are to blame. The resolution is the sixth to address international women, peace and security matters, starting with Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, and the fourth to be focused on conflict-related sexual violence.

Although the new resolution, written by the United States, takes its cues from the others, which have failed to reduce violence against women and children in conflicts, it included original aspects that have left advocates for women’s rights encouraged. It stresses the need for sexual-violence crimes to be excluded from amnesty provisions in peace negotiations; it asserts the need for using more UN gender advisers in peacekeeping operations; and, most valuable, it provides that victims of rape must have access to “nondiscriminatory comprehensive health services.”

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“Although the word ‘abortion’ was not used, the ‘nondiscriminatory health services’ provision is an enormous breakthrough in the fight to end the deadly denial of abortion for female victims impregnated by war rape,” Janet Benshoof, the president of the Global Justice Center, a New York-based nonprofit group that offers legal advice to democratic developing countries, said in a statement.

The language on nondiscriminatory medical care, including provisions by nations involved in humanitarian services in conflict zones, was first recommended by the UN secretary-general in a 2013 report on sexual violence in conflict. It called for safe abortion services to be part of care to victims of war rape.

The reference to reproductive health services is the first time such language has been embedded in a legally binding document from the Security Council. Yet the clause will undoubtedly be held up for interpretation, even though Nordic countries, Britain, France and other nations back it.

Najat Vallaud Bekacem, France’s minister of women’s rights, said in her speech to the Security Council on June 24: “Teenagers and women risk pregnancies that are often premature and never desired, so we must draw all the necessary lessons from this reality. Why are the sexual and reproductive rights of victims of sexual violence still in dispute? Restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services is an attack on a woman’s right to control her own body.”

At a press briefing later that day, however, when asked by a reporter if the resolution implied the right to abortion, she said “not necessarily.” Moreover, the United States, a huge provider of humanitarian aid worldwide, is legally restricted from giving such help if it involves abortion to girls and women raped in armed conflict.

The resolution was also applauded by supporters of the International Criminal Court and war tribunals for the oblique but evident reference noting the court’s progress in prosecuting rape as a war crime. Hague’s national initiative to end rape in wars is complementing the court’s work by investigating such crimes in Syria, for example, and documenting information for later potential use in international criminal trials.

The Coalition for the International Criminal Court said the resolution affirms that the court “plays a key role in the fight against impunity for sexual and gender-based crimes.” The court, it added, has brought charges of such crimes in almost all the situations before it.

The resolution heard criticism from groups that questioned its purpose, since it repeats so much content from earlier resolutions. Operation 1325, a nonprofit group in Sweden, deplored the fact that the resolutions on women, peace and security are for the most part not carried out. The group also pointed out that no accountability or enforcement mechanisms are featured in the resolution.

Furthermore, the resolution, which was debated heatedly behind closed doors, hinged on a particular syntax: “conflict-related sexual violence” versus “sexual violence in armed conflict and post-conflict situations,” said the Security Council Report, an independent group that monitors the council. The resolution’s ultimate use of the longer phrasing “indicates reporting should be only on situations where security is a concern,” the report said — arguably not in conflict zones that pose no international threat.

Although the resolution reiterates the longstanding goal to include women in all levels of post-conflict recovery and peace-building work, these aims remain nearly elusive. Of the 14 peace processes under way in 2011, only four included a woman delegate, says the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. 


Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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