Beyond Words and Resolutions: An EU-U.S. Agenda to Combat Sexual Violence in Conflict
Beyond Words and Resolutions: An EU-U.S. Agenda to Combat Sexual Violence in Conflict
Op-Ed / Global 11 minutes

Beyond Words and Resolutions: An EU-U.S. Agenda to Combat Sexual Violence in Conflict

In identifying areas for cooperation between the European Union and the United States in the pursuit of mutual security and global advancement, the discussion normally focuses on so-called “hard issues” of nuclear disarmament, global power politics, and transatlantic defence strategies.  But we must remember that the cause of human security is equally advanced by cooperation on issues affecting the everyday lives of people caught up in the web of violence.  In this regard, I would like to propose a new commitment by the EU and U.S. to protect women in the context of armed conflict and empower them to play a role in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

In their first meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and High Representative Catherine Ashton should agree to launch a joint effort to combat sexual violence against women in conflict, catalyzing a global coalition to put real teeth, real money, and real political will into this fight. 

On the agenda should be tangible steps to turn high-sounding UN resolutions and noble statements of intent into actions that halt the epidemic of rape now permeating conflict situations and that empower women to play their rightful and necessary role in their societies.  As discussed below, a joint commitment should include projects that:

  • Bring women to the table as peace negotiations are conducted and peace agreements are implemented;
  • Prioritize reproductive health care, girls’ education and micro-enterprise in post-conflict reconstruction assistance;
  • Empower the soon-to-be-established women’s office at the United Nations;
  • Support the expansion of women’s civil society organizations in post-conflict countries;
  • Require time-bound goals, backed by accountability and enforcement mechanisms, for all new resolutions and projects;
  • End once and for all  the endemic occurrence of rape in the context of camps for refugees and internally displaced persons; and 
  • Tie assistance for security sector reform programs to effective training in human rights and gender issues.

Forming Common Cause

There is ample precedent for this effort.  In early 2008, the prospects for passing a new UN Security Council resolution to address the growing problem of sexual violence against women in conflict seemed bleak. Yes, the world was awakening to the expanding use of rape as a weapon of war, and the tragic implications for hundreds of thousands of women and girls in conflict situations and even post-conflict societies. Yes, the global conscience was being pricked by the production of films such as The Greatest Silence, the testimony of such heroes as Dr. Denis Mukwege from the Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo, and the graphic images of young girls with acid thrown in their faces in Afghanistan for daring to return to school. Yes, there was a growing awareness not only of the personal costs of violence against women, but of the tremendous collective costs such violence imposes on the global community in failing to achieve our goals of building peace, pursuing development, and reconstructing post-conflict societies.

But translating this awareness into action at the world’s most powerful security forum faced some formidable barriers, not the least of which was the aversion of the Council to addressing “soft” or “thematic” issues.  On such issues – as opposed to what are considered more concrete and country-specific “threats to international peace and security” – many Council members are averse to pointing fingers at each other and their friends and allies around the world.  To overcome this aversion, a coalition of like-minded ambassadors and government – led by the United Kingdom and the United States and including key members of the developing world – took action. Aided by the alphabetical proximity of their names – which meant that they would serve consecutive terms as president of the Council – the UK and U.S. had two months to lay the groundwork through a series of consciousness-raising events, including meetings with activists and victims, and international conferences. 
They worked with sympathetic UN missions and civil society activists to prepare a resolution that would require the Secretary-General to mobilize UN and global resources to effect change.  By the time Security Council resolution 1820 was introduced in June 2008, the momentum was irresistible, and it passed unanimously. 
Separate Tracks; A Mutual Agenda

The passage of this resolution was one of a number of landmark events for advocates of global attention to this issue. At the United Nations, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict brought together the enhanced work of a dozen separate agencies under the banner, “Stop Rape Now.”  Two subsequent Security Council resolution, 1888 and 1889, were passed in September 2009 to create a special representative for eliminating violence against women, mandate new measures of accountability for action, create structures to name and shame countries and non-state actors not protecting women against sexual violence, authorise the use of UN sanctions in such cases, and define sexual violence itself as a threat to international peace and security.  The UN General Assembly moved to create a new under-secretary-general for women’s affairs, which has the potential to end the disarray that has bedevilled the efforts of the various UN gender-promotion agencies, if key steps are taken to ensure its effectiveness and relevance.

Within the U.S. government as well, creation of the State Department’s Office for Global Women’s Affairs under the formidable Ambassador Melanne Verveer has brought new focus and direction to these issues, as have enhanced programs within USAID and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted sexual violence during her recent visit to Africa, and reaffirmed the centrality of this issue to the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives globally.  Senator John Kerry has sponsored and gained new support for the International Violence Against Women Act, legislation that outlines a comprehensive set of measures to empower and fund U.S. and UN agencies to meet the challenge.  A former sponsor, Joseph Biden, is in a new position to push for its enactment.

Within the European Union, similar steps have been taken.  An impressive policy document, the “Comprehensive Approach for the Implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1820,” now guides EU efforts in this arena.  It includes provisions for building political will, training, exchange of information on best practices, cooperation with international actors, and monitoring and evaluation.  The EU is to articulate soon an action plan of gender equality and women’s empowerment, complementing the country-specific action plans under UN Security Council Resolution 1325 adopted by nine EU member states.  The forthcoming Spanish Presidency has made issues of women’s protection and empowerment one of its top priorities.  The EU has reached out to civil society groups in this effort, including the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office, with which it is sponsoring a project to develop tangible indicators for the EU as it seeks to address issues of women, peace and security. 

Seven Steps to Make Change Matter

But a nagging question haunts all these efforts.  Can we show that all these actions have prevented a single woman from being raped in eastern Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia, or other conflict zones around the world?  The success of our efforts will not be measured by the resolutions we pass, the reports we issue, the publicity we generate, or even the money we spend.  It will come in protecting the lives of women on the ground, empowering them play their rightful and vital role in peace processes and post-conflict governments and economies, preventing armed thugs from abusing them in conditions of displacement, holding government security forces and warlords alike accountable for abuses, preventing traffickers from turning women and girls into commodities, building strong civil society networks for women, and ending the stigma of victimisation that confronts women leaders.

This is where EU-U.S. leadership could make a world of difference. This should not be an exclusive, Western-driven or paternalistic partnership.  Efforts to combat sexual violence must include and be guided in large part by the countries and the victims affected by such violence, under the rubric: “Nothing about us without us.”

But we should also acknowledge that the world’s most powerful political and economic blocs have a special capacity and responsibility to catalyse these efforts.  Seven specific actions should be prioritised.

First, the European Union and United States should commit to bring women to the table as peace negotiations are carried out and peace agreements are implemented. Around the world, talented women peace builders face discrimination in legal, cultural and traditional practices, and threats of violence that make even the most courageous women think twice before stepping forward.  Only one in 14 participants in peace negotiations since 1992 has been a woman. Recent accords on Indonesia, Nepal, Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, Philippines and Central African Republic have not had a single woman signatory, mediator, or negotiator.  Of 300 peace agreements negotiated since 1989, just 18 of them contain even a passing reference to sexual violence.  Peace accords on Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia – where such violence was a dominant feature of the fighting – are silent on this issue. 

The EU and U.S. should insist that the mandate for every UN peacekeeping mission includes as a priority the protection of women and the safeguarding of women peace builders, including through the provision of personal security, training, and stipends. They should demand that negotiations led by the UN include a critical mass of qualified women on all sides – starting at 20 per cent – even if it takes quotas to do so. 

Second, as leading donors, the EU and U.S. should insist that post-conflict recovery packages prioritise issues of importance to women, including reproductive health care and girls’ education.  In emergency funding to support 23 post-conflict situations since 2006, only 3 per cent of the projects included specific funding for women and girls – this despite our knowledge that girls’ education, for example, is one of the best investments in promoting stable societies and improving socio-economic standards in these countries. They should promote steps for women to attain livelihood security, such as ownership of land, micro-enterprise and skills training.  All post-conflict recovery plans should be subjected to gender-impact analysis, and specify the funds dedicated to women’s needs.

Third, the EU and U.S. should empower the new office of the UN under-secretary general for Women’s Affairs to make a real difference.  The creation of this office was a Faustian bargain: advocates abandoned for five years their dream of a single agency with global reach and a billion dollars in dedicated funding, a so-called "UNICEF for Women"; in exchange, the UN General Assembly agreed to create a single high-level office to oversee the often competing contributions of UNIFEM, the Special Adviser for Gender Issues, the Division for the Advancement of Women, and other entities, and to raise the profile of women’s issues at the UN Secretariat in New York and in UN missions abroad.  The EU and U.S. must provide generous voluntary contributions and political support needed for this individual to be a forceful advocate throughout the UN system and beyond.

Fourth, the EU and U.S. should expand assistance for women’s associations around the world – and especially from conflict-related countries. Such civil society organisations are often the first victims of the polarisation that accompanies internal armed conflicts. Women must have the voice and institutional strength to influence global decisions that impact their lives.  They should identify women’s organizations as local implementing partners for projects.  Contracts for these groups – including in distribution of humanitarian assistance, dispute resolution and election monitoring – can be of even greater support than programs directed specifically at institutional strengthening, especially if accompanied by mentoring programs.  
Fifth, using their five seats on the Security Council, the EU and U.S. must demand that the UN adopt time-bound goals backed by monitoring, accountability provisions and enforcement mechanisms for reducing violence against women, ensuring women’s participation of women in peace processes, providing reconstruction resources to projects of interest to women, and the like.  There must be rewards for achieving these objectives and sanctions for failing to do so.  This should be enhanced by a permanent Security Council working group on sexual violence; a watch-list of countries and non-state actors of concern to be named and shamed into improving their records; periodic reports by the Secretary-General to the Security Council on these issues; and the enshrined principle that sanctions can be adopted on governments and non-state actors that abuse or fail to protect for women.  Similar measures should be prioritized at regional organizations, including the African Union, the Organization of American States, and ASEAN. 

Sixth, the EU and U.S. should join together to protect the most vulnerable of women in conflict: those displaced from their homes and seeking refuge in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons.  A priority should be to prevent the rape of women and girls during the collection of firewood.  The global body for humanitarian agencies, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, recently adopted guidance on the provision of cooking fuel in humanitarian settings with simple and easily implemented suggestions based in large part on recommendations from the Women’s Refugee Commission.  All that is missing are the resources. The EU and U.S. should mobilise donors to ensure funding to implement these provisions fully, starting with the high-risk regions of Sudan, Chad, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the huge Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Finally, as the leading drivers of security sector reform in post-conflict situations, the EU and U.S. should ensure that their support for the rebuilding and reform of armies, police, and other security forces includes real and effective training in gender issues for all personnel and requires the incorporation of women into those forces, in particular so that local women who have been abused will come forward with their accusations of sexual abuse. The EU and U.S. should commit to providing teams of women military observers to peacekeeping mission and ceasefire monitoring teams. The presence of women in these missions and teams has been proven to encourage reporting of sexual violence and much greater attention to monitoring the problem.

Acting in Enlightened Self-Interest

Again, the leadership of the European Union and the United States on this agenda is intended to catalyse rather than supplant the ownership of other countries and agencies. Further, such leadership is not proposed simply as a matter of fairness or humanitarian instincts.  Too frequently, the argument goes that women should be in the forefront of these processes because women are the main victims of conflict, because they make up more than half the population, because they have rights under international law, or because they are inherently more peaceful and collaborative than men.  All these may be valid arguments, but an equal motivation is the simple fact that peacekeeping and peacebuilding processes are more likely to bring a permanent end to war, to enjoy full support from civil society, and to rebuild healthy societies and economies if there is full participation of women.

If the European Union and the United States do not have an interest in protecting and empowering women in conflict countries, who does?  If they do not take the leadership in this arena, who will?

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