UN Sanctions for Sexual Violence in Libya Approved, but Russia Resisted

Migrants in the Abu Salim detention center, in southern Tripoli, holding about 1,200 people and run by the Libyan interior ministry. Of such centers, it is considered one of the better managed in the country.

A decision by the United Nations Security Council to add sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence should have gone smoothly. The proposal, led by the Netherlands and  Sweden, was meant to deter such violence in conflict zones and other hot spots. Weeks earlier, diplomats turned out in hordes to mark the 18th anniversary of a landmark resolution requiring an equal role for women in peacemaking and global security.

The resolution on sanctions passed on Nov. 5, but the results were not unanimous: 13 yes and two abstentions, from China and Russia. (Update: Similarly, the Council approved on Nov. 14 the inclusion of gender-based violence in the UN sanctions criteria in Somalia, with Russian objections.)

In most respects, renewing Resolution 2441 on Libya was a perfunctory exercise for the Council. It extends until 2020 the mandate of the panel of experts who oversee the UN sanctions against export of Libyan oil by anyone other than the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. The resolution also reaffirmed the travel ban and assets freeze laid out in a 2011 resolution, which applies to activities threatening peace in the country or undermining its political transition.

Peace couldn’t be more of a fantasy in Libya right now, a place riven with infighting by armed militias as well as a profitable migration route for people desperate to reach Europe, exploited with stunning cruelty.

In renewing the panel’s role, the Council added that actions threatening Libya’s peace may include but are not limited to “planning, directing or committing acts involving sexual and gender-based violence.” It advised the panel to develop expertise in this area as well.

“Focusing on persons responsible for sexual violence is a very positive step,” Stephen Rapp, a distinguished fellow with The Hague Institute for Global Justice, said in a phone call from Accra, Ghana. “It is significant that the Libya resolution puts the same emphasis on sanctioning these perpetrators as it does on those who are spoilers of peace processes. This is quite right, because sexual violence is so devastating to individuals, families and communities, and makes the restoration of peace much for difficult.”

It was encouraging, Rapp added, “to see that the resolution received 13 yes votes at a time when there is so much pushback against human rights and accountability.”

Including explicit language on sanctions for sexual violence in a Security Council resolution could alleviate the horrific plight of people transiting through or jailed in Libya, where the International Organization for Migration counted 690,351 migrants as of April 2018. The United States agreed to the resolution, but the diplomat’s speech avoided reference to sexual violence. France and many other Council members championed the new criteria.

Anatolio Ndong Mba, the ambassador from Equatorial Guinea, said, “The atrocious effects of crime in Libya warrant the imposition of sanctions to sexual violence, among others, expressing hope that the measures will help to pacify the country.”

Russia’s objection stood out: Vassily Nebenzia, the ambassador, argued that the new, separate category on the criteria will “distract the experts from their direct obligations.” He suggested that focusing on sexual violence is the purview of the Human Rights Council, ignoring that rape and other sexual assaults in conflicts are considered a war crime under international law.

The Russian mission to the UN wrote on its Twitter page that day: “We could not support the draft #UNSCR on sanctions regime against #Libya by the #UK. The authors included without reason a provision that reinforces sexual and gender-based violence as an individual designation criteria.”

A nongovernmental group, Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict, responded to the tweet, writing: “In UNSC vote to approve resolution on Libya, @RussiaUN accuses some Council members of attempting to gain “domestic capital” through the policy of pushing gender-based violence as a stand alone criteria into the sanctions committees.”

Melanne Verveer, the director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, which has surveyed the use of UN sanctions in conflicts, said of the new resolution, “There is nothing to lose and much to gain.”

The panel of experts’ recent report on Libya details a country riddled with fierce competition over oil and human-smuggling networks as well as bursts of terrorists’ attacks. The report described “predatory behavior” by armed groups posing a “direct threat to the political transition in Libya.”

The armed groups are also responsible for targeted persecutions and serious human-rights violations in Libya, which is still recovering from the NATO-led invasion in 2011 to oust the country’s leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi. Most of the armed groups engaging in “predatory behavior,” the report said, are affiliated with the Government of National Accord or the Libyan National Army.

Other UN reports on Libya say that migrants and refugees are especially vulnerable to arbitrary detention and to torture, including sexual violence. Women and girls are being detained, with many of them held in prisons without female guards, heightening chances for sexual abuse. Women have been strip-searched by or in front of male guards, with some subjected to cavity searches.

Yet the Russian ambassador’s abstention in the vote signals that his country is not adamantly opposed to including sanctions criteria for sexual violence, but that Russia still resists embedding human-rights protections in Security Council resolutions. China’s abstention also suggested flexibility, but its abstention was not explained. The country has also been trying to stop human-rights clauses from being included in resolutions in the Council and other UN bodies, more so than Russia.

The Council’s negotiations over the text, one diplomat said, were “pretty tough.” From the start, the Russian delegation resisted the language on gender-based violence. Nevertheless, supporters put the draft resolution in blue — the version to be voted on — gambling that Russia would not veto it to avoid rejecting all the other elements in it.

Similar criteria have been embedded in UN sanctions for such countries as South Sudan and the Central African Republic. As with other sanctions violations, the burden of proof is high: investigators — from a country or a nongovernmental organizations, say — must provide enough evidence proving guilt to the UN panel of experts for it to recommend sanctioning an individual.

Rapp, who from 2009 to 2015 was the US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, explained: “Of course, it can be challenging to develop the evidence of responsibility for sexual violence, and this is why it is important that the resolution mandates that experts be included in the process who know what is necessary to prove such cases.

“International tribunals have established the legal framework for holding even high-level individuals responsible for sexual violence. If the panel of experts seeks the assistance of experienced investigators and prosecutors, it does not need to be difficult to develop evidence sufficient to meet the standards for sanctions listing.”

Despite international work to end sexual violence in war, it remains an effective weapon — and cheap one, too, compared with using military hardware. Sexual violence in conflicts may be getting more attention by the public and the media, but it still goes mostly unpunished by a court of law. The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security conducted the first-ever review of sexual violence across UN sanctions regimes.  It found that using sanctions to prevent or stop sexual violence is inconsistent and underused.

Russia’s abstention on Nov. 5 was no surprise. At the Oct. 25 meeting in the Security Council marking the anniversary of Resolution 1325 (known as Women, Peace and Security), Gennady Kuzmin, the Russian deputy ambassador to the UN, said, in part, “I would like to note that as part of its consideration . . . on women and peace and security, the Security Council should focus specifically on issues directly related to establishing and maintaining international peace and security.

“In our view, attempts to exploit these issues — in order to advance the cause in the Council of human rights and gender issues traditionally covered by other bodies of our Organization such as the General Assembly, the Peacebuilding Commission, the Human Rights Council and the Commission on the Status of Women — are damaging and unfounded.”

Kuzmin noted, however, that Russia is “ready to continue constructive dialogue on the subject,” to which Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, seated to his left in the Council that day, smiled.

This article was updated. 

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