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The UN’s Emphasis on Prevention Could Use Lessons From the Case of Guinea


Women searching for relatives amid the Sept. 28, 2009 massacre in Conakry, Guinea. The crimes that occurred during the attack, by state officials, included mass rapes of women. The author questions how the UN’s strong focus on “prevention” to thwart conflicts can also feature preventing sexual violence in such settings. 

Historically neglected, gender-based violence is now becoming broadly recognized as a legitimate and urgent agenda item among the United Nations member nations, notably in the UN’s most powerful forum, the Security Council. But the future of the agenda is uncertain, as priorities remain unclear and inadequate methods for preventing sexual violence against women keep us from understanding its causes.

If UN Secretary-General António Guterres intends to reform the UN this year, the case of Guinea, in West Africa, could inspire deep reflection about how to move past the language of prevention into specific actions to end sexual atrocities against women, especially as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is June 19.

Earlier this year, the report of the UN Secretary-General on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace recognized the centrality of women for building peace, security and development. It stresses the importance of “enabling women’s leadership and participation in conflict prevention and ensuring the sustainability of women’s grass-roots peacebuilding. Women’s participation improves prevention efforts and overall security, especially on issues such as the prevention of violent extremism.”

The report, however, does not tell how the secretary-general will harmonize the “sustaining peace” agenda with his future plans for atrocity prevention. As Guterres said to the General Assembly session on the Responsibility to Protect last September, he is committed to “improving the capacity and coordination of the United Nations in atrocity prevention.”

On June 25, Guterres’s forthcoming report on R2P, as the doctrine is called, will be discussed in the General Assembly, representing a golden chance for debating how sexual violence can actually bridge the gap between the two goals of preventing conflicts and atrocities at once. Otherwise, we will be left with contradictory and competing policies.

Mass rape in Conakry

On Sept. 28, 2009, the Guinean Defense and Security Forces attacked its own population during a large pro-democratic protest in a stadium in Conakry, the capital. The massacre led to at least 157 people murdered and more than 1,200 injured. Most striking was the mass rape of more than 100 women and girls by the Guinean forces under the presence of their superiors, right in broad daylight.

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The case is considered unique among other recent instances of atrocity crimes, given that government people committed the violence. This is the conclusion of a study done by Cristina Stefan, a professor of international relations at the University of Leeds, which integrates the Atrocity Prevention Research Project. Its results were presented at Columbia University on March 26.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called for creating an international commission of inquiry into the Conakry massacre; its report found that crimes against humanity occurred during the attack and it called on the International Criminal Court to open a preliminary investigation. But the court cannot execute the investigation while the country is doing its own probe.

In 2010 and 2011, Guinea was also the first country to request to be placed on the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s agenda. Once admitted, the Commission’s Peacebuilding Support Office arm centered its activities on youth and female employment, security-sector reform and promoting reconciliation and national unity.

By 2016, with the help of a UN team of experts and the UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict at the time, Zainab Hawa Bangura, a national panel of judges heard more than 450 testimonies, including at least 200 victims and witnesses of sexual violence. After eight years, the panel brought charges against high-ranking members of the security forces, but no one has been convicted so far, and concerns about the start of the trials are increasing.

Despite the efforts by the UN, there is no consensus on whether all this work can prevent the recurrence of mass sexual violence in Guinea. Prevention is difficult to measure and even harder to sell, particularly for those people who are more interested in responding to a conflict with peacekeepers rather than preventing the problem with peace raisers.

While no model has been capable of successfully cracking prevention, we must improve the existing ones.

Paths to prevention

In 2014, the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes was an important advance for assessing risk factors of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, but only two (items 7.9 and 10.4) of the 155 risk factors listed in the document mention violence against women. The current debates on atrocity prevention could revise the framework, particularly regarding the risks for women and girls in stressed environments.

Additionally, the recent UN-World Bank report, “Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict,” is another place to start. It recognizes “women’s meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and security is critical to effectiveness, including in peace processes, where it has been shown to have a direct impact on the sustainability of agreements reached.”

Yet, the report fails to cover cases where governments perpetrate human rights violations against their citizens.

Moreover, UN Security Council resolutions passed almost two decades ago mandating the involvement of women in peacekeeping and peace-building — starting with the monumental passage of Resolution 1325 and later resolutions all dealing with gender violence and women’s inclusion in decision-making processes — have put the topic on the map in the Council. For many advocates of these resolutions, however, progress in meeting the mandates has been disappointing.

Finally, any effort to rethink prevention of violence against women should consider if and how it has been addressed by the Sustainable Development Goals and its Statistical Annex and how to improve them.

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Gustavo Macedo is a professor of international relations and a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo. He was previously a visiting scholar at Columbia Global Policy Initiative at Columbia University. He was also the editor of the report “Making Atrocity Prevention Effective,” presented to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, in 2018.

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