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Will the US Stand With Victims of Rape in War?


In a refugee camp in South Sudan, people escape the fighting in the country’s civil war, including rampant rape by militias and national armed forces. Members of the UN Security Council are drafting a resolution to strengthen such victims’ rights, but the United States is refusing language on sexual and reproductive health services. GEOFF PUGH

The annual debate on sexual violence in conflict is about to take place in the United Nations Security Council. As the UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, has said, this event — on Tuesday, April 23 — presents a critical opportunity to assess progress in the last 10 years, since the mandate to end sexual violence in conflict and uplift survivors was established by the Security Council.

Unfortunately, it is all too clear that we may be regressing in crucial respects on the mandate’s goal. Credible sources indicate that the United States, as a permanent member of the Council, has threatened to veto the German-led draft resolution emanating from the debate if it includes any references to sexual and reproductive health, particularly this proposed wording: “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care such as access to emergency contraception, safe termination of pregnancy and HIV prevention and treatment.”

It appears that the fallback language the Germans are counterproposing in negotiations this weekend, to ward off a US veto, will be drawn from a previous Security Council resolution. That says, in part, that it “urges United Nations entities and donors to provide non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence. . . .”

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Yet the US will not support a resolution with that wording either, say sources.

The US is also trying to ban language in the Council resolution regarding the International Criminal Court’s role in prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict.

Support for the German resolution in the Council is strong, particularly among the French, Belgians and South Africans. They hope that the resolution with the original reference to “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care” will be voted on despite the threat of an American veto. They may also compromise on the alternative version. China and Russia, two other permanent members, have also drafted their own resolution on sexual violence in conflict.

That resolution, sources say, makes no mention of sexual and reproductive health care for victims of sexual violence but instead focuses heavily on prevention of such abuses and national prosecution of such crimes.

Yet it “recognizes” that “women and girls who become pregnant as a result of sexual violence in conflict, including those who become mothers, may have different and additional needs.” These victims should be classified as terrorist victims, it says, making them eligible for “health care” and other services.

The possible services that the US would be vetoing in the German-led resolution are listed in the recommendations of the report from the UN secretary-general on conflict-related sexual violence published in March. Specifically, Secretary-General António Guterres recommends strengthening services for the survivors of sexual violence by ensuring comprehensive sexual and reproductive care. That would include access to emergency contraception, safe termination of pregnancy and HIV prevention.

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The possibility that the US could veto the resolution is all the more shocking when you consider the contexts described in the report — widespread and systematic gang rapes of Rohingya women and girls in Burma; institutionalized sexual slavery of Yazidi and other minority communities by ISIS in Syria and Iraq; and the rape of young girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan by state armed forces and militia groups alike.

Guterres stresses that pregnancies are a devastating reality that accompany these heinous crimes, making it all the more urgent to ensure sexual and reproductive health services.

If the US vetos the resolution on the basis of denying victims of sexual violence their sexual and reproductive health care, it will violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a party. The UN Human Rights Committee has noted in the context of Article 7 of the covenant, which prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the importance of giving women who have been raped access to emergency contraception and safe abortion.

Any country denying abortion to women who have become pregnant after rape would be subjecting them to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. By forcing victims of rape to carry the pregnancy caused by their sexual abuse, the US will also be directly contributing to more suffering of countless victims of such violence.

The importance of providing sexual and reproductive health care for victims of rape cannot be overemphasized. Every year, nearly 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions. Additionally, many victims of rape try to kill themselves when they are denied reproductive care. The burden of a pregnancy resulting from rape is taking the lives of women around the world. And the position of the US will reveal whether the Trump administration prefers that women die from suicide and unsafe abortions rather than provide access to reproductive and sexual health care.

As a young woman and as an American citizen, I am ashamed that my country would undermine the sexual and reproductive health care needs of women who have been subjected to sexual violence.

In 2019, girls and women like Lucia from Argentina are still forced to keep life-threatening pregnancies due to rape. Lucia was only 11 years old when she was impregnated by a 65-year old man who was living in her household. Despite attempting to take her own life many times, Lucia was still denied access to a safe abortion and was forced to give birth at age 11.

On April 23, the US will decide whether our country will stand by survivors like Lucia or whether the Trump administration — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — will turn a blind eye toward the suffering of victims of rape.

This op-ed was updated to include new information regarding the status of the UN Security Council draft resolution on sexual violence in conflict. 

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Noor Sheikh is a student in the Roosevelt House Human Rights Program at Hunter College, in New York, which is working with the Mukwege Foundation to create a global reparations fund for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. She will be graduating in May with a degree in psychology and human rights from the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter.

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