WASHINGTON, D.C. — The weaponization of sexual violence by Syrian government forces, as part of a campaign to punish opposition communities, was stunningly documented in a recent report by investigators for the United Nations. Women and girls have been subjected to rape, gang rape and genital mutilation, perpetrated by government forces and associated militias. Often, the families of the victims were forced to watch, or the women would be further humiliated by being raped in public and forced to walk naked in the streets.
This report follows many others on the use of sexual violence in war in Libya, Myanmar, Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Such weaponization follows the historical pattern of the use of violence and widespread rapes to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing to humiliate, dominate and instill fear in communities and to forcibly displace civilians to redraw ethnic boundaries or control areas rich in natural resources.
Sexual violence in conflict may be getting more attention in the news media and in international settings like the UN in recent years, but it still goes unpunished in a court of law, for the most part. Yet in 2008, through Resolution 1820, the Security Council deemed that when sexual violence is employed as a weapon of war, it is a threat to international peace and security. This groundbreaking qualification opened the door to using the UN Charter’s Chapter VII coercive measures in tackling the threat and, notably, using sanctions to target individuals ordering, tolerating or engaging in sexual violence as a weapon of war.
In the last decade, the Security Council has explicitly referenced sexual violence as a basis for sanctions designation in five sanctions regimes. This trend is worth exploring. The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security conducted the first-ever review of sexual violence across sanctions regimes.
Our research addresses several major questions: how is the Security Council using sanctions to confront conflict-related sexual violence, what are the main obstacles to doing so and what is needed to increase the effectiveness of such measures?
We investigated eight sanctions regimes in countries characterized by continuing armed conflict and massive human-rights violations, including the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war: Central African Republic, the Congo, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen.
While there was diversity in experience, several key findings and patterns emerged. Most important, we found that the use of sanctions to address sexual violence is inconsistent, both across the different regimes and within regimes. We also found that sanctions were underused compared with the prevalence of sexual violence on the ground. This inconsistency is specifically manifested in the following findings:
- First, despite very similar patterns of conflict and of sexual violence, the approach of the Security Council varies enormously across country situations. This is notably illustrated by the opposite approaches the Council takes toward Sudan and Central African Republic: sexual violence is completely disregarded in the former country but benefits from a specific focus in the latter. Moreover, despite strong evidence of the widespread use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, the inclusion of sexual violence in the designation criteria is sometimes delayed for years (as in Congo or Somalia), or even completely left out (as in Libya and Sudan).
- Second, even when sexual violence is established as a designation criteria, the threat of sanctions rarely translates into action. Either it takes years before an individual is listed for designation, and/or the listings do not match the high rates of sexual violence happening on the ground and the number of identified individuals by UN experts or the number of International Criminal Court indictments. The lack of designations in proportion to the frequency of sexual violence crimes that are being documented demonstrates a profound reluctance by the Security Council to target individuals with sanctions, particularly government officials — especially when the basis for those sanctions is sexual violence.
- Third, the potential of sanctions to prevent or punish individuals for the crime of sexual violence is undermined by the lack of unity within the Council. Endless debates before adopting or imposing sanctions undermine the credibility of the threat of sexual violence, as if the more it is discussed, the fewer the chances that actions will be taken. Too few and too late listings deprive the sanctions measures of their potential for deterrence, and their signaling effect is directly diminished by the political dissent that keeps the Council from acting.
Several factors, often intertwined, explain the problems and inconsistences in the Council’s use of sanctions to stop and prevent conflict-related sexual violence directly. These include:
- Political considerations within the Council often spoil or paralyze the design and use of targeted sanctions. Syria and Myanmar are two tragic examples of how national political agendas — in these cases, by Russia and China, respectively — can prevent even a simple threat of coercive sanctions.
- Dissent by powerful nations can lead to impotent regimes with weak designations: Russia, China and various other elected members (in the past, such as India and Pakistan) have often demonstrated a reluctance to use sanctions against governments that are battling rebel movements. (The other permanent members, Britain, France and the United States, also tend to block designations on the parties they support or for other considerations.)
- It is also well known that UN member states have different attitudes toward human rights and the women, peace and security agenda of the UN, embedded in Resolution 1325. The different attitudes and interpretations of international human-rights laws translate into a wide variety of views on whether sexual violence is a priority for the Council and UN member nations overall.
- The Council may also give greater weight to competing objectives, such as supporting mediation, instead.
Nevertheless, our investigation detected a reason for hope that sanctions have been used more effectively, especially in recent designs of such regimes. Whereas in the past, the Council would refer only to a generic criterion of “human rights violations” or take years to explicitly mention sexual violence, new sanctions resolutions since 2015 have incorporated sexual violence from the outset in the regimes of Central African Republic, Mali and South Sudan.
In the Central African Republic, the focus on sexual violence was made a stand-alone criterion for the first time ever. The evolution of sanctions regimes is not only welcome but also warrants tracking to see whether the trend will last.
Rampant, horrific sexual violence is not an inevitable part of conflict, and sanctions could be a valuable tool to end the scourge by sanctioning key individuals. The Council’s actions to end to gross violations of human rights could be turned around from being a chronicle of failed attempts and missed opportunities to a record of success.
The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security report makes several recommendations on how the Council needs to fulfill its potential on this important front and how other UN actors can help: primarily, the Council should systematically incorporate sexual violence as an independent criterion, use the same language across the regimes and press for targeting individuals based on the model of command responsibility when there is a deadlock in the Council’s sanctions committees. Security Council panels of experts should be systematically handed a mandate and the resources they need to investigate conflict-related sexual violence.
UN reports should keep pressuring the Council by regularly recommending sanctions against important individuals and provide evaluations on the specific coercive impact sanctions make on sexual violence on the ground.
What’s at stake is not only the maintenance of international peace and security, but also basic human decency and the credibility of UN values. Our new study informs and advances this critical agenda. The time to act is now.