Security Council delegates demand justice for perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict, urge creation of sanctions designation criterion.
'Make Accountability Inevitable', Special Representative Insists as Nobel Laureate, Civil Society Defenders Denounce Years of Abject Failure
With conflicts proliferating and the world's social fabric increasingly under strain, the use of sexual violence as a tool of power and dominance is also on the rise, experts warned the Security Council today, as delegates from around the world considered the current status of "war's oldest, most silenced and least-condemned crime".
During the open debate, the 15-member Council — alongside dozens of representatives from the broader United Nations membership — considered the latest annual report of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence (document S/2022/272). Focusing on issues of accountability, prevention and deterrence, they shared national experiences and explored recent developments in international law, including judgments recently handed down against perpetrators in cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction. They also heard passionate testimony from experts, survivors and civil society activists, who briefed the Council at the meeting's outset.
Pramila Patten, Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, began by asking what the Council's 10 resolutions on women, peace and security — including five squarely focused on sexual violence in conflict — mean right now for a woman in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar or Ethiopia's Tigray region. Noting that their promise is one of prevention, she said the Council's efforts to refocus on that goal are particularly relevant in today's "dark and difficult times". Conflicts are proliferating, with a concurrent rise in attacks on women leaders and misogynistic hate speech.
Noting the horrors unfolding in Ukraine — even as other crises escalate behind the scenes — she described the harrowing personal testimonies of victims as a "call to action". The Secretary-General's report details stories of gang rapes in Ethiopia, rapes and killings in the Central African Republic, sexual violence among Myanmar refugees and instances of forced marriage, targeted political attacks and torture from Colombia and Somalia to Yemen and Afghanistan. Pointing out that the number of verified cases of such crimes increased significantly from 2020 to 2021, she said survivors are silenced by trauma, shame, despair and the paucity of available services, adding: "Survivors cannot be expected to denounce what the State itself denies."
Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Goodwill Ambassador, agreed that today's debate is taking place at a moment of global instability, shaped by pandemic, war and a climate crisis. "In times like these, issues that affect women and girls — such as conflict-related sexual violence — tend to be pushed aside, as though they are somehow secondary to the 'real' issues," she said. She described sexual violence as a war tactic as old as human history itself, recalling that when Da'esh began targeting the Yazidi community in 2014, thousands were massacred and thousands more women and girls were sold into sexual slavery. (Da'esh is the name used by the United Nations to designate Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in line with General Assembly resolution 75/291.)
While investigations of those crimes continue, and a German court recently convicted a former Syrian general of war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, she raised concerns that rather than moral outrage "we need action". In the case of crimes against the Yazidis, the world should put Da'esh on trial for genocide and sexual violence and send the matter to the International Criminal Court. She warned against any further delay of justice and demanded more government support for victims, who are too often left alone to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Meanwhile, Mariana Karkoutly, Co-Founder of the civil Syrian society group Huquqyat, said government forces and armed groups murder, torture and use sexual and gender-based violence against civilians as a matter of policy. "Yet, despite discussing Syria for more than a decade, this Council has failed to take actions to hold perpetrators accountable," she said, noting that its members have vetoed resolutions and shielded Syria's regime from accountability. By targeting women, perpetrators know they are targeting their families and communities as a whole, she said, emphasizing that domestic accountability will remain impossible as long as the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad remains in power.
Also briefing the Council was Hilina Berhanu, a civil society representative from Ethiopia, who recounted testimonies and described injuries seen first-hand in that country's conflict-affected Tigray region. There, rape has been wielded systematically as a tactic of war, used to terrorize communities, framed as a means of reprisal and even leveraged as a bonding tool for members of allied military forces. She expressed concern that amid an Internet and telecommunications blackout, the trauma being experienced by communities across Tigray remains unknown. Against that backdrop, she urged the Council and the African Union to rethink the prevailing view that investigating conflict-related sexual violence could somehow derail progress made by Ethiopia's Government.
More than 70 delegates took the floor in the debate that followed. Many outlined national initiatives aimed at enhancing women's empowerment and supporting victims of gender-based violence, as well as international assistance delivered to victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Several speakers voiced opinions on particular conflict situations — with some naming Government regimes as perpetrators — while others focused on crimes committed by non-State armed groups, stressing that those often remain more difficult to investigate and prosecute. Numerous representatives also raised the matter of including sexual violence as a criterion in Security Council sanctions regimes, a contentious issue among members.
Norway's representative said the Secretary-General's report "puts into stark relief how we continue to fall short" in effectively addressing crimes of sexual violence in conflict. "We are still discussing what a 'comprehensive, human-rights based and survivor-centred approach' means", rather than putting forward ideas for action. To that end, she listed three areas that will promote accountability and prevention, including building the capacity of law enforcement, security and military personnel; investing in access to coordinated health care, legal services and information; and placing the needs of survivors at the centre of all efforts.
The representative of Kenya was among those sounding alarm over too few international efforts to ensure accountability for sexual violence committed by terrorist groups. Urging the Council to list all those responsible — including their chains of command — for sanctions, he said Member States must also escalate prosecution for gender-based violence and enhance efforts to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. While the Council's series of resolutions has helped to raise the cost of what has long been perceived as the "cheapest weapon of war", that bar should be even higher, he stressed, calling for a separate listing criterion for sexual violence crimes in relevant sanctions regimes.
Echoing that point was Canada's delegate, who spoke on behalf of the Group of Friends of Women, Peace and Security. Expressing profound concern over the persistent and widespread use of sexual violence with impunity by State and non-State actors in many conflicts, he urged Member States to invest in tackling the root causes of such abuse. Prevention starts with a commitment to gender equality, the empowerment of women and girls in diverse situations and conditions, the protection and promotion of human rights, and women's full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership at all levels of decision-making, he said.
Marta Lucía Ramírez, Vice-President and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Colombia, said one need not be a victim of sexual violence to feel a moral obligation to speak out against such an atrocious crime. "Nobody can claim the right to use the body of any human being as a chessboard in war," she stressed, adding that sexual violence against women in conflict is often the fruit of broader gender inequality. Underlining the importance of women's economic empowerment, she warned that both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian Federation's war against Ukraine may undo progress in that domain.
The representative of the Russian Federation, noting that the Council has heard unsubstantiated and baseless allegations about his country's military personnel carrying out duties in Ukraine, said those troops have been subject to stringent rules. Amid the war unleashed by Ukraine and its Western patrons, real incidents by Ukrainian radicals — dating back to 2014 — have been concealed, including the denial of medical assistance to detainees and the threat of sexual violence or death. Warning that crimes committed under Ukraine's Government must not be passed over in silence, he cited a skyrocketing "bacchanalia of murder and humiliation", with recent incidents of rape and torture in Donetsk and Mariupol.
As for bolstering the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, Indonesia's representative called on the Council to consider the link between the presence of female peacekeepers and the number of sexual violence offences registered. There are four peacekeeping missions with a specific mandate to address sexual violence in countries with conflicts, yet female representation remains low. Stopping sexual violence is "the first step to fulfil our commitment to save lives," he said.
Chairing the meeting as President of the Council for April was Tariq Ahmad, the United Kingdom Prime Minister's Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, who also spoke in his national capacity.
Also speaking were the representatives of the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, Brazil, China, Albania, Ireland, France, Mexico, Ghana, Gabon, Jordan, Malta, Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Slovenia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, Luxembourg, Estonia, Morocco, Greece, Switzerland, Turkey, Croatia, Poland, Portugal, Iran, Lebanon, Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy, Liechtenstein, Germany, Denmark, Czech Republic, Maldives, Ecuador, Malaysia, Spain, Slovakia, Iraq, Georgia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Latvia, Austria, Nepal, Ukraine, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Sweden (also on behalf of the LGBTI Core Group), Republic of Korea, Algeria, Guatemala and Nigeria.
The representative of the European Union also participated in its capacity as observer, as did the representative of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Observer for the Holy See.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and was suspended at 1:31 p.m. It resumed at 3:04 p.m. and ended at 7:48 p.m.