• Opinion
  • June 27, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 0

Standing for women’s rights in war zones just got harder

Opinion: War is rife with sexual violence — closing our eyes won't change that

This article was written by Kirthi Jayakumar, author and founder of the Red Elephant Foundation, an Indian women’s rights NGO. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.


The UN SecurityCouncil recently adopted Resolution 2467 after a month of deliberations and negotiations. The resolution aims to combat sexual violence in conflict and offer legal and other support to survivors.

However, the journey of the resolution from what it was to its current form involved many difficult negotiations and arguments particularly between the United States and other Security Council members.

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In its hardline stance against particular provisions and word choices in the resolution, the United States has reasserted the poor view it has taken on women’s rights under the Trump regime: as not only has the government sought to assert control over women’s bodies through its national policies, but through this resolution, has also sought to do so with respect to women world over.

Advances postponed

Drawing from prior resolutions that address the Women, Peace, and Security agenda under the Security Council, such as Resolutions 1325, 1820, and 2106, the text of 2467 aims at augmenting legal redress against sexual violence in conflict, by focusing specifically on survivor needs, enabling access to justice, and expanding on the provision of reparations.

However, the resolution explicitly does not mention the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” even once.

Although prior resolutions have addressed sexual and reproductive health and have explicitly mentioned the phrase, it was knocked out of the document altogether at the pressurising insistence of the US delegation. The negotiations, led by a German diplomat, Andreas Glossner, met with great opposition from the US delegation — replete with a threat of a veto if the resolution referred to women’s rights “that way.”

Armed conflicts create an atmosphere of impunity that virulently encourages and enables sexual violence

Be that as it may, the resolution firmly affirms the content of earlier resolutions that specifically address sexual violence in conflict, the sexual and reproductive health rights of women in conflict, as well as the engagement of women as combatants and in the peace process, invariably giving a fillip to resolutions like 2106 which specifically refer to women’s rights using the terminology that the US delegation was uncomfortable with.

During the negotiations, several members of the Security Council such as South Africa, the Dominican Republic, Belgium, Britain, and France stood up to the US pressure to weaken global commitments to women in conflict zones.

Countries threatened to abandon the text, tried to put pressure on Germany and called the US out for its unfair demands, but ultimately, a watered-down version of the resolution emerged so as not to throw the very resolution out altogether. In the end, 12 countries including the US voted yes, and Russia and China abstained.

To put it shortly, the US simply refused to accept proposals that would aim at establishing a formal mechanism in the UN Security Council to track sexual violence in conflict.

A worrisome trend

It is unfathomable how a resolution striving to address sexual violence in conflict could function without a mention of the key phrase of “sexual and reproductive health rights.”

Rape and sexual violence is used in conflict as a strategic weapon that is very easy and cheap to inflict on civilians. These methods are aimed at hurting the enemy by breaking their social order, which this heinous violence on the sexual and reproductive health of women is an effective way of accomplishing.

Violent and armed conflict present severely dangerous consequences for all gender identities — including men, who are also vulnerable to sexual violence.

However, as a continuation of the global social dynamics of patriarchy and gender-based discrimination, armed conflicts create an atmosphere of impunity that virulently encourages and enables sexual violence. This is what makes rape an “effective” weapon of war.

Interpretations of the existing legal framework as relied on by international courts and tribunals have made clear that rape and sexual violence are forms of war crimes, torture, and can even contribute to genocide campaigns.

Shaky ground

What is particularly disconcerting is the complete indifference from the US, when its leaders are faced with the consequences of their choices.

In the run up to the deliberations, there were guest speakers who presented graphic accounts of sexual violence in conflict, including the likes of Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, aside from Amal Clooney. Even as the US delegation casually suggested that they put survivors at the heart of their work, their limiting, patriarchal stance was all they had to offer. 

That the US successfully imposed itself in the wording of a document that addresses women’s rights world over and managed to force a regressive idea onto a globally applicable document is alarming.

It suggests a tendency that is likely only to continue: one that is progressively eliminating the rights of women, one phrase at a time.

That other nations could do nothing more than to give in after a point is representative of the structural violence inherent in the UN system as it stands: the threat of a veto was really all that stood between the 15-member body and dropping the resolution altogether. — Kirthi Jayakumar

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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