Sexual Violence Shreds ‘Very Fabric That Binds Communities Together’, Special Representative Tells Security Council, Stressing Survivor-Centred Approach
Sexual violence is used as a war tactic and a political tool to dehumanize, destabilize and forcibly displace populations across the globe, the United Nations expert on the issue told the Security Council in a 17 July videoconference meeting*, pressing countries to adopt a survivor-centred approach that ensures victims will not be forgotten.
“This is a crime that shreds the very fabric that binds communities together, leaving social cohesion and safety nets threadbare,” said Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Describing wartime sexual violence as a biological weapon, a psychological weapon and an expression of male dominance over women, she stressed that this abuse “sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace”.
Updating the Council on the Secretary-General’s report (document S/2020/487), which documents almost 3,000 verified cases over the course of a year, she said 89 per cent of these incidents target women and girls. It emphasizes the imperative of a survivor-centred approach, as articulated by the Council in resolution 2467 (2019), which requires tailored solutions to build resilience, restore voice and choice to survivors, and address the diverse experiences of all those affected.
“War does not speak with just one voice,” she explained. There are countless stories shrouded in silence and left off the historical record. Therefore, diverse life experiences must inform policy, operational and funding decisions. “If these decisions are not gender-based in their design, they will be gender-biased and exclusionary in their effect,” she assured.
Highlighting examples from the report, which covers 19 countries — including the Central African Republic, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina — she drew attention to the problem of underreporting, which is often linked with fear of stigmatization and reprisals, lack of access to the justice system and harmful social norms around honour, shame and victim-blaming.
She also highlighted the problem of non-compliance. “We know that sexual violence is characterized by staggering rates of impunity and recidivism,” she said, cautioning that there is rarely linear progress from commitment to effective action against it. Sexual violence is linked to broader risks of renewed hostilities, violent extremism, militarization, the flow of small arms and light weapons, and the collapse of rule of law. “It is time to usher in a new era of enhanced monitoring and enforcement, bringing all tools to bear.”
She called for decisive action to empower survivors and those at risk through greater resourcing and service-provision. Acting on reports and information is also important for bringing parties into compliance with international norms. Better accountability would serve as a “critical pillar of prevention and deterrence”, ensuring that, when parties fail to comply with their commitments, they are duly held to account.
While prevention is the best response, she said the Council has struggled to measure — or even define — progress on this pillar of the women, peace and security agenda. “We must keep these crimes and their perpetrators in the spotlight of international scrutiny,” she insisted.
Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on sexual violence in conflict, broadly agreed. “Entrenched discrimination in society and the gendered impact of sexual violence demands that actions are taken for survivors.”
She acknowledged that resolution 2467 (2019) was the first to place survivors and their needs at the centre of all action. But, words are promises. “What counts, is if those promises are kept”, she said. Having met child survivors everywhere, she said there is no country, rich or poor, that should not take a hard look at its own laws, agencies, immediate reporting, treatment of survivors and social attitudes.
She drew particular attention to the plight of Yazidi women and children in Iraq, who were abducted, enslaved and tortured by the thousands by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) terrorists in 2014. Many children were murdered. Nearly 2,000 returned and now suffer from post-traumatic stress — many from having witnessed the murder of their relatives and the rape of their mothers.
Yet, there are “very few” services available for Yazidi child survivors and children born of rape, she said. According to a new Amnesty International report, psychosocial services for Yazidi children fall “far short” of meeting their long‑term specialist needs. “I have heard this replicated in every conflict setting that I have visited for nearly 20 years with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),” Ms. Jolie said, stressing that the lack of services stems from the international community’s failure to offer funding or political will.
Stressing that sexual and gender-based violence is the most chronically underfunded sector of United Nations humanitarian appeals, receiving less than 1 per cent of assistance, she pressed the Council to “think of how many lives could be saved if we simply doubled that percentage”.
She described today’s world as one where child survivors live with stigma and fear of retaliation at the hands of powerful perpetrators. More often than not, including in Syria and Myanmar, not a single perpetrator of alleged systematic conflict-related sexual violence was held to account. “These are all choices,” she said, pressing countries to “do the hard work” of supporting survivors, changing laws and attitudes, and bringing perpetrators to account.
Speaking to that point, Khin Ohmar, Founder and Chair of Progressive Voice on behalf of NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, said that, as an advocate for gender equality and peace in Myanmar for more than 30 years, she has met the survivors of unspeakable crimes committed by the country’s military against ethnic and religious communities. “I stand here today in solidarity with my sisters and brothers still waiting for justice,” she declared.
Horrific accounts of Rohingya women during the 2016 and 2017 “clearance operations” remain shocking and unique in their ferocity, she said. They also represent a pattern of gender-based violence by the military against Kachin, Shan, Ta’ang and Rakhine communities. One of the first pieces of documentation was produced nearly 20 years ago by the Shan Women’s Action Network, which detailed incidents against 625 Shan women and girls — 61 per cent of them gang-rapes and 25 per cent resulting in death.
Noting that findings by Kachin, Karen and Ta’ang women’s organizations, as well as by the Women’s League of Burma — an umbrella organization of 13 ethnic women’s groups — corroborate many of these conclusions, she said the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar itself found that “sexual violence was a hallmark of the Tatmadaw’s military operations”, with rape used as “part of a deliberate, well‑planned strategy to intimidate, terrorize and punish a civilian population”.
Recalling that the military announced as recently as June, clearance operations against the ethnic Rakhine and the Arakan Army in western Myanmar, she said that, unless the international community acts now, these human rights abuses will continue. The confiscation of land, along with patriarchal land-owning practices, Government development plans and the encroachment of business interests, mean that women’s dispossession risks becoming permanent.
She pressed the Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or to create an ad hoc international tribunal to fully investigate crimes suffered by the Rohingya and other ethnic communities — beyond the Court’s current limited investigation. It must work to ensure that Myanmar complies with the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice, and that actions are more broadly taken to repeal discriminatory laws, restore citizenship to the Rohingya and lift restrictions on free movement and humanitarian access.
“It is vital that the United Nations sees this moment as a key turning point,” she said. The Karen, Kachin, Rohingya, Rakhine and others have all faced great suffering at the hands of the Tatmadaw. “Who is next?”
Describing the situation in the Central African Republic, Nadia Carine Fornel Poutou, Executive President of the Association of Central African Women Lawyers, recounted the experience a 17-year-old young female in Bangui, who survived an attack by four members of the Séléka group in 2013. “They were tall and dressed in military garb, their faces veiled by black cloth,” she said, recalling how one of the soldiers ripped off clothes of the young woman’s sister and pushed her to the ground. As the young woman watched in tears, the leader said they should do the same to her, and despite her screams, they did not stop. She was taken to the hospital in Bimbo, where she was told she was pregnant but that the child had died in her belly.
Against that backdrop, she said there were a total 13,028 cases of gender‑based violence cases in 2019, managed and recorded by organizations in the Central African Republic; 12,249 of them involved women. Noting that men are likely underrepresented, as they are even more stigmatized when they fall victim to these crimes, she said such abuse is rooted in prevailing gender and sociocultural norms. Often, armed groups target people based on their ethnic or religious background, or because their area of residence is supposedly populated by rival militias. In some cases, the security forces deployed to protect civilians — both national and international — commit atrocities.
She urged the Council to ensure that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) protects civilians against violations of international humanitarian law. It should help strengthen the Central African Republic’s armed forces and internal security forces and support civil society groups — notably by consulting them on ways to improve access to United Nations prevention mechanisms. Finally, the Council must support development of the judiciary by strengthening the Joint Rapid Intervention and Repression Unit, which fights sexual and gender-based violence.
In the ensuing dialogue, Heiko Maas, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany and Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity to stress that sexual and gender-based violence in conflicts has been destroying lives and communities for years — “with no vaccine in sight”. Rape, forced prostitution and sexual slavery continue to be used as weapons around the globe, with underreporting of such crimes even more alarming. Underscoring the need for survivors to receive medical and judicial assistance, he noted Germany’s involvement with the Denis Mukwege Foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to defend survivors’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. In addition, women must play a central role in peacebuilding, he said, more broadly stressing that sanctions must play a bigger role in ending sexual violence, and that the two United Nations listings brought forward since 2019 can only be a first step. Finally, perpetrators must be brought to justice and he expressed support for “creative solutions”, such as the mobile courts in South Sudan that try rapists around the country, and a court in Koblenz, Germany, which recently opened the world’s first trial against two former officials of Syria’s regime — on charges of torture and sexual assault.
Naledi Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said ending sexual violence against women in conflict and post-conflict situations should remain a priority. More must be done to acknowledge women’s resilience and self-empowerment, as well as their meaningful role as change agents. Emphasizing the link between sexual violence and gender inequality, she said the onus is on Member States to keep seeking ways to implement Council resolutions on the topic. She reiterated the Secretary‑General’s call that addressing gender-based violence must be included in COVID-19 responses. Ensuring accountability against perpetrators — notably by prohibiting States listed for violations from participating in United Nations peace operations — should be implemented consistently across all country situations. She requested the Secretary-General to report on the 19 situations contained in his report, as violations in Palestine and Western Sahara should not escape the Council’s scrutiny. “Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression,” she said, quoting Nelson Mandela on the eve of International Mandela Day.
Philippe Goffin, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence of Belgium, said the survivors of sexual violence are not a homogenous group. They all need tailor‑made solutions, justice, access to health care, psychosocial support, reparations and economic support to reintegrate into society. Measures are needed to prevent violations, better recognize early warning signs — such as discrimination, hate speech and incitement to violence — and improve evidence‑gathering. The level of compliance with Council resolutions remains too low, with no more than one State actor removed from the list annexed to the annual report since its inception. Documenting crimes is an essential step. While the presence of women protection advisers has contributed to increasing the quantity and quality of information, not one perpetrator has been targeted by sanctions for acts of sexual violence, he said, stressing that the Council can act directly in this regard. Sexual violence will only stop if its causes are addressed, he assured.
Elback Zeinabou, Minister for Women Advancement and Child Protection of Niger, said insecurity in the tri-border area and the Lake Chad Basin has been exacerbated by the presence of armed terrorist groups, the flow of small arms, the lack of economic opportunities, community tensions and the exclusion of young girls and boys from decision-making. Citing an unprecedented surge in violence against women and girls, particularly in Diffa and Tillabéri, she recalled the abduction of girls from the Polytechnic School of Chibock and Daptchi in Nigeria and the lesser known but equally painful abduction of the women of N’galewa in Niger. In the first quarter of 2020, 144 people were kidnapped in 54 incidents — including 48 women and 29 children in Diffa. She called on Member States to support the reintegration of victims of sexual violence related to armed conflict — with a survivor-centred approach. For its part, Niger has set up Centres for the Prevention, Promotion and Protection of Children, which support behaviour change and addresses victims’ needs. She recommended that Member States establish or strengthen legal and judicial assistance, beyond the health, psychological, social and economic dimensions, pointing to Niger’s National Agency for Legal and Judicial Assistance as an example.
France’s representative said access to justice and basic health care for victims, including sexual and reproductive health services, are major challenges, stressing: “We regret the politicization of these issues to the detriment of women and girls.” He condemned the use of sexual violence as a war tactic, adding that ending impunity is the best deterrent, with perpetrators systematically prosecuted and sentenced. Preventing sexual violence requires tackling gender inequalities, including by ensuring women’s participation in all levels of decision-making and paying attention to their economic and social emancipation. He also drew attention to France’s €6.2 million contribution to the Mukwege/Murad Global Fund and €5 million to a project that empowers women by improving access to sexual and reproductive health services, and which tackles sexual violence in the Wadi Fira region in Chad.
China’s representative strongly condemned sexual violence, urging all countries to work together to build a peaceful world and address the causes of conflict. The Council should promote peaceful dispute settlement through dialogue, mediation and negotiation, and ensure full, timely implementation of its resolutions. A holistic approach is needed to address sexual violence in conflict. “We need to intensify efforts on gender equality,” he said, as such violence is often linked with renewed hostilities and a collapse of the rule of law. Solutions must consider economic, political, counter-terrorism, security and humanitarian aspects, he said, advocating respect for national sovereignty, jurisdiction and the principle of non-interference into internal affairs, as the countries concerned bear the primary responsibility.
The Russian Federation’s delegate said sexual violence is a “dirty, inalienable part of an armed conflict”. It might be naïve for the international community to count on sniping at one crime during armed conflict. Ending war crimes goes along with resolving armed conflict itself. The primary responsibility in protecting civilians in their territory is borne by Governments, he said, stressing that fighting impunity and ensuring accountability are the parameters of a sovereign State. With an increasing number of attacks by terrorist groups — including their use of sexual violence as a war tactic — intensified efforts are needed to address the threat of terrorism. To avoid politicization, any information submitted for the Council’s attention must be verified, he said, emphasizing that it is crucial to clearly distinguish between sexual violence as a war crime and sexual violence as a criminal wrongdoing. The Council must remain within its mandate of maintaining peace and security and should not honour attempts to expand the interpretation of the relevant scope pertaining to armed conflict and post-conflict situations that has been agreed and laid down in Council resolutions, he insisted.
Estonia’s representative expressed strong support for the Council’s mechanisms on sexual violence in conflict, including field-based monitoring, reporting by the Secretary-General and the Special Representative, and work of the Informal Experts Group. Emphasizing the need for adequate funding for women protection advisers, he welcomed the inclusion of sexual violence as a designation criterion for the Council sanctions committees, also expressing Estonia’s continued support for the team of experts that cooperate with national institutions to address impunity and support victims. He also underlined the role of international accountability mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court. “We cannot address sexual violence without ensuring gender equality,” he said. “The disempowerment of women and girls increases their risk of violence, but also leads to negative coping measures and restricts their access to assistance and justice.” He expressed dismay over the Council’s difficulties in recognizing and addressing sexual violence in specific contexts, despite its clear condemnation of such crimes.
Indonesia’s representative said that strengthening the reach and capacity of national authorities is vital to ensuring access to justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators. The stigma of being a victim often prevents people from coming forward and seeking justice. Therefore, treating those who have experienced such abuse as survivors, rather than simply as victims, will help national authorities better address this issue. There is no option but to ensure that survivors receive economic support, health care and legal assistance. Including women in peacekeeping missions also may encourage victims to feel more secure, as female peacekeepers are well-positioned to “win the hearts and minds” of affected communities. Noting that 159 women peacekeepers from Indonesia are currently working in various missions, he said Indonesia hosted a webinar in early July on “The Role of Women Negotiators and Mediators in the Maintenance of Regional Peace and Security” as a pathway to establishing a network in South-East Asia.
Viet Nam’s delegate said victims of sexual violence must be provided with essential recovery services, including health care, psychological support, vocational training, employment opportunities, legal aid and socioeconomic reintegration. These measures should be taken together with efforts to advance gender equality as women are “the backbone of communities”. Women’s equal representation and full involvement in decision-making is a prerequisite to conflict prevention and addressing sexual violence in conflict. The international community should strengthen cooperation, with countries and regions sharing experiences to allow for more consistent and effective implementation of the women, peace and security agenda. Calling for a collective response to implement existing normative frameworks for gender equality and women’s empowerment, he underscored the need to pay more attention to these issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also participating in the meeting were senior officials and representatives of the United Kingdom, Dominican Republic, United States, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.