Combating Sexual Violence in Conflict: Using Facts from the Ground
Combating Sexual Violence in Conflict: Using Facts from the Ground
COP: A Special Series
COP: A Special Series
Speech / Global

Combating Sexual Violence in Conflict: Using Facts from the Ground

Speech by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group, to United Nations Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict in Geneva, 17 December 2008.

Colleagues: I am honored to have the opportunity to address this meeting convened by the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict on the role of facts from the ground in advocacy and implementation of measures to prevent sexual violence in conflict. Drawing together 13 UN entities, UN Action serves as a vital coordinating mechanism to ensure country level action, advocacy for public awareness and political will, and creation of a knowledge hub on sexual violence in conflict. This meeting, drawing together practitioners with experience and expertise in collection of data from the ground, is a key part of this effort.

The most important use of data on the patterns and prevalence of sexual violence in conflict relates to the development of specific programs and policies to prevent such violence and assist its victims. Many key insights can be derived from identifying the profile of perpetrators, for example. If most rapes are carried out by government security forces, then there is a clear need for expanded programs of security sector reform, prosecution of individual soldiers/police and their commanders, expansion of the numbers of women in security forces, and new training in protection of civilians

If the data show broad unreported numbers of rapes, there should be emphasis on steps to facilitate women’s access to the justice system, to look at social mores that may condone such behavior and to conduct civic education programs to make individuals aware of their rights. To the extent that sexual violence is occurring primarily in the context of camps for refugees or internally displaced persons, new structures such as firewood patrols, physical reorganization of sites, and community policing should be considered.

A Threshold of Credibility

At the same time, facts from the ground have a vital role to play in advocacy. To build an awareness of the problem and create the political will among senior officials within governments, international organizations, and civil society to address it, a combination of factors must come together to prick the collective conscience. While the actual numbers of rapes and sexual assaults have little meaning when taken out of context, data are essential to creating a sense that the phenomenon is widespread, that the current efforts to combat it are insufficient, and that enough is known about the situation to allow for effective action. It is essential to meet what I called a threshold of credibility.

The efforts of activists in civil society, the United Nations and country missions of UN Security Council members during the first half of 2008 to draft and adopt a resolution on sexual violence in conflict are instructive. The so-called "poster child" of this effort was the tragic situation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Dramatization through personal accounts of sexual assaults was vital. Visits to international capitals by victims of rapes and those who treat them – including the courageous Denis Mukwege, who directs the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which treats rape victims from the region – had a major impact.

The fifteen ambassadors to the Security Council, all men, were lobbied by their spouses and other advocates. For example, they were made to watch films such as The Greatest Silence by director Lisa Jackson, which galvanized their support. Efforts by UN Action Against Sexual Violence, including the hosting of a conference on UN peacekeepers’ role in prevention of sexual violence at Wilton Park, helped ensure that key policy-makers were personally invested in this effort. Support from a small group of like-minded UN missions, led by Ambassadors Zalmay Khalilzad (US) and John Sawers (UK), backed respectively by staff members Laurie Phipps and Phil Staltonstall, was essential. Pressure also came from US Representative William Delahunt, who is in charge of Congressional oversight for the US activities at the United Nations and held hearings on the effect of conflict on women – at which I was pleased to testify – in advance of the Security Council debate

In this process, it was important to go beyond testimonials and to cite some statistics. At this point, however, it was enough to have a few numbers to meet the threshold of credibility. It was sufficient to be able to say with total confidence that there were 27,000 reported cases of rape in the South Kivu province of the DRC, or so some 70 every day.  

Implementing UNSC Resolution 1820

The result was UNSC Resolution 1820, a ground-breaking resolution that mandates action by the UN Secretariat, member states, and others to combat sexual violence in conflict. However, it is important to note that the members of the Security Council were by no means satisfied that they had a clear picture of the phenomenon. Indeed, Resolution 1820 called for an "analysis of prevalence and trends, benchmarks for measuring progress, and plans for a lasting solution to the dearth of reliable sexual violence data." It was as if the Council was saying to the practitioners, "You’ve convinced us that this is a serious problem, but it seems that you don’t know enough about what’s going on or how to address it."

Such a statement should be taken as a challenge to assemble the data needed to do the job. The data will be essential to maintaining the necessary political will to implement the resolution. This is essential for two reasons. First, Resolution 1820 is not an easy resolution to implement. To paraphrase a saying from American politics, "You pass a Security Council resolution in poetry; but you implement it in prose." This resolution demands at least 20 disparate actions to be taken by a wide range of actors, including the UN Secretary-General, the Security Council itself, parties to conflict, troop and police contributing countries, the UN Peacebuilding Commission, international financial institutions, and regional and sub-regional organizations.

Second, Resolution 1820 has inadequate mechanisms for implementation and accountability. Contrasted with UNSC resolution 1612 on children and armed conflict, for example, there are no lists of parties in violation, no working group of the Security Council, no requirement for concrete time-bound actions plans to halt the practice, no clear focal point with a dedicated budget, and few compliance mechanisms. It is hoped that the mandated report of the Secretary General, which the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is diligently preparing, will address these failings, and that UN Action Against Sexual Violence can increasingly serve as the focal point for these coordination efforts.

A Cautionary Tale from 1325

These are not idle or theoretical concerns, but vital issues that can determine the success or failure of the UN effort to combat sexual violence. A cautionary tale on UNSC Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security is relevant. In summer 2002, State Department Undersecretary for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and I were deeply concerned that there had been insufficient follow-up on in the 18 months since the passage of Resolution 1325. We put together a detailed program for the United States to use its Security Council presidency in August 2002 to give a needed push to its implementation. After initially agreeing to this proposal, then-UN Ambassador John Negroponte changed his mind and said no. This was a short-sighted decision that betrayed what some believe is his insensitivity to human rights issues, but his explanation was instructive. He said that he feared that the debate in the Council would be "unstructured and all over the map", since advocates could not provide statistical data to document the success or failure in implementing specific provisions.

A lack of credible data will bedevil advocacy efforts as well. For example, in pressing for UN action to halt the latest round of violence in eastern DRC in November, a Congolese women’s declaration at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development could refer only to "thousands of raped women and girls," with no greater specificity. Similarly, an otherwise powerful letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security could say only that the 66 women treated for rape in Kanyabayonga in North Kivu "represent only a fraction of the crimes of sexual violence being committed throughout the region."

In conclusion, additional authoritative data from the ground are essential in to meeting the "threshold of credibility" needed to build political will, providing measurement tools to assess new and on-going efforts at prevention, developing specific provisions and programs to maximize our efforts, and ensuring that the critical mass of officials from international organizations, governments and civil society that came together to adopt Resolution 1820 will remain together in the face of shrinking resources that will require tough trade-offs.

We are facing an era of reduced budgets and increasing difficulties in finding peacekeeping forces, for example. Are we going to decline the offer of forces if they have not had training in prevention of sexual violence or the supplying country has a dubious past history on this issue? Are we prepared to adopt sanctions on officials of shaky post-conflict governments that fail to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence within their security forces? Are we prepared to reject impunity for such perpetrators in peace agreements, even if they are shown to be individual acts not part of a pattern of war crimes or crimes against humanity?

The answers to these questions will be largely based on the documentation we can provide from the ground. This is a heavy burden of responsibility, but one we must meet. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Special Coverage / Global

COP: A Special Series

In the run-up to COP27, Crisis Group experts contribute their views on how climate change shapes the conflicts and crises they work on.

The climate crisis is here – and, more and more, it fuels deadly conflict. 

Around the globe, millions already experience record heat waves, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. The impacts of climate change are already transforming ecosystems, increasing food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition, while disrupting livelihoods and spurring migration. The relationship between climate change and deadly conflict is complex and context-specific, but it is undeniable that climate change is a threat multiplier that contributes to violence by exacerbating political, social and economic tensions. Half of the most climate-fragile countries also face violence and, as the world warms, climatic distress plays an increasingly central role in many of today’s conflicts.

World leaders must act now to protect the people most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

As global leaders prepare for COP27 in November, Crisis Group is working to bring climate security into the climate change conversation. It is not possible to have effective climate adaptation, one of the main focuses of the conference, without understanding the specific ways in which climate stressors exacerbate conflict risks. Support for the most vulnerable to avoid unnecessary suffering needs to be rooted in a deep understanding of conflict dynamics and risks in a country. It is impossible to treat climate fragility and conflict on two separate tracks.  

This series of Crisis Group publications looks at why climate change debates remain incomplete, as they often fail to examine the links between climate stress and violent conflict.

For more work on this subject, please see our global issue page Climate Change and Conflict.

VIDEO | Lord (Mark) Malloch-Brown talks about climate finance shortcomings

Crisis Group co-founder Lord (Mark) Malloch-Brown talks about the shortcomings of global climate financing efforts and explains how conflict-affected countries are the most impacted by this conundrum.

Published 18 November 2022. Available here.

VIDEO | Susana Malcorra talks about climate finance and its challenges

Crisis Group's co-chair Susana Malcorra talks about how conflict-affected countries receive less support to deal with the impacts of climate change and why this is problematic.

Published 15 November 2022. Available here.

TWITTER SPACE | Tackling the Impact of Climate Change on Conflict and Security

Why do countries who suffer from both the impacts of climate change and violent conflict receive less funding than war-free states?

World leaders should address this imbalance at COP27 and ensure that countries reeling from the consequences of this deadly combination receive their fare share of funding.

In this Twitter Space Nazanine Moshiri, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Climate and Security in Africa, Andrew Ciacci, Crisis Group’s Researcher for Climate Environment and Conflict, and Giorgio Gualberti, Climate and Environmental Finance for the OECD, talk about the link between climate change and conflict for COP27.

Published 9 November 2022. Available here.

VIDEO | Climate and Conflict at COP27

Ahead of COP27, which starts on November 6 2022, Nazanine Moshiri, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Climate & Security in Africa, speaks about the need to acknowledge the role climate plays in conflict dynamics and the need to ensure climate financing mechanisms are conflict sensitive.

Published 5 November 2022. Available here.

VIDEO | Climate Change and Violent Conflict in Somalia

In this video, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Climate & Security in Africa, Nazanine Moshiri, and our Senior Analyst for Eastern Africa, Omar Mahmood, speak about the complex relationship between climate change and violent conflict in Somalia, and how important it is to be aware of this and address it at COP27.

Published 3 November 2022. Available here.

VISUAL EXPLAINER | Giving Countries in Conflict Their Fair Share of Climate Finance

The twenty-seventh annual UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) is scheduled to kick off 6 November in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, and “climate financing” is high on the agenda.

At the last COP, reducing future greenhouse gas emissions took centre stage. But in 2022, Egypt is determined to focus on drumming up greater financial support for states struggling with the effects of climate change. Donors will be pressed to follow through with commitments to help climate-affected states tackle challenges such as endangered livelihoods, growing displacement, and sharpened competition for land and water. 

As the discussions unfold, conference participants should keep in mind that many of the states suffering most from climate-related effects – which tend to be located in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South – are also in the throes of conflict. Against this backdrop, COP27 participants should work both to unlock long-promised funding and to ensure that conflict-affected states, which have been under-financed to date, receive their fair share. Working in such places will require funders to do the difficult work of finding ways to mitigate the risks these settings pose. 

Published 1 November 2022. Available here.

VISUAL EXPLAINER | Floods, Displacement and Violence in South Sudan

Stresses brought about by climate change – including record-breaking droughts, floods and heat extremes – are an important driver of internal displacement in the Global South. The impact that displacement in turn has on conflict dynamics is amplified in fragile states, where political instability and poor governance undermine climate resilience, impede humanitarian support and pave the way for communal friction.

A prime example is South Sudan, reeling from its recent civil war, where four consecutive years of historic flooding have exacerbated food and livelihood insecurity. Rising waters have sent pastoralists fleeing south, where their presence has increased tensions and contributed to violence in the Equatoria region.

Published 27 October 2022. Available here.

PODCAST | Getting Climate Security in Africa on the Agenda for COP27

On this episode of The Horn, Alan Boswell hosts a roundtable with Nazanine Moshiri, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for climate and security in Africa, Robert Muthami, climate change policy expert at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Kenya, and Hafsa Maalim, an associate senior researcher with SIPRI, on how African leadership can shape the agenda of this year’s COP27. They discuss the ways in which African leaders and civil society actors take action to mitigate the impact of climate change on the continent and how the international community, particularly the Global North, can help them tackle these challenges. They also address the importance of placing climate-induced security risks higher on the agenda in the COP27 negotiations and highlight the ways in which climate change can potentially drive and shape conflict in African countries.

Published 26 October 2022. Available here.

EVENT | How can Climate Risk Management be Strengthened in Conflict Zones?

Climate change’s destabilising impact is increasingly visible across the globe, with more frequent and severe weather events and temperature extremes contributing to insecurity and conflict. While climate change’s relationship with conflict is complex, areas experiencing instability, poor governance, and poverty tend to be more vulnerable to both climate change and deadly violence; half of the most climate fragile countries also experience conflict. In order to effectively address this volatile mix, climate policy and financing must take account of conflict dynamics. This panel investigates how to do so in terms of both climate change’s relationship to conflict and the challenges that climate insecurity poses to humanitarian relief.

The event took place 20 October 2022. The recording is available here.

VIDEO | Hot Spot: Drought and Conflict in Laikipia, Kenya

Climate change, politics and resource competition are colliding again in a deadly combination on Kenya’s fertile Laikipia plateau. When previous rainy seasons failed, in 2011 and 2017, herders from Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions took their cattle to lush Laikipia, sometimes leading to violent clashes among rival herder communities or between herders, on one hand, and farmers and ranchers on the other. But the violence in 2022 has been particularly pitched. In counties like Laikipia and Baringo, armed clashes have led to at least 95 deaths since September last year.

Crisis Group visited the Laikipia region recently. We talked with herders and farmers about the devastating drought, the loss of cattle, the violence in the area and intercommunal tensions.

Published 7 October 2022. Also available here.

VIDEO | There is very little time left to save lives in Somalia

Displaced people in Dollow, a town situated on the border with Ethiopia, told Crisis Group that the drought has decimated livestock and the drought destroyed the farming capacity of entire villages.

Almost three million animals have died and food prices have soared even higher following the crisis in Ukraine. Conflict is also driving many Somalis to this area, as people flee fighting between Al-Shabaab and security forces. Today, the worst possible outcome is here, as many agencies predict a famine in several of Somalia’s districts. There is a small window of opportunity to try to prevent famine. Humanitarian organisations require immediate and safe access to all people in need, and more funding to tackle the crisis.

Published 22 September 2022. Also available here.

TESTIMONY | Climate Change and Human Rights

In a 28 July hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Crisis Group’s Future of Conflict Program Director Robert Blecher spoke about climate change and conflict.

Published 28 July 2022. Available here.

VIDEO | Climate and Politics Drive Tensions in the Run Up to the Kenyan Elections

Climate stressors in Kenya are causing tensions between herders and farmers, a situation that could be further exacerbated in the run up to another potentially contentious election on 9 August. In this video Crisis Group's senior analyst for Climate & Security in Africa, Nazanine Moshiri, reports from Laikipia County in Kenya. She examines the situation, what’s at stake, and emphasises the link between climate and conflict.

Published 3 August 2022. Available here.

PHOTO ESSAY | Drought, Violence and Politics: Inside Laikipia’s Cattle War

A historic drought in Kenya is coinciding with a hotly contested election. Nerves in central and northern Kenya are fraying, as climate stresses intensify intercommunal conflict and amplify electoral tensions.

Published 20 July 2022. Available here.

TWITTER SPACE | What did the G7 Summit Achieve on Ukraine and Climate Security?

In this Twitter Space, Crisis Group colleagues have a conversation about the G7 summit and how two priority issues – climate change and the war in Ukraine – were handled during the meeting.

Published 29 June 2022. Available here.

VIDEO | The link between climate change and conflict is dangerously overlooked

In this video, Crisis Group President & CEO Comfort Ero speaks about why the link between climate change and conflict must receive more attention. In the lead up to COP27 it is important to remember that without addressing this link, we will continue to see livelihoods threatened, aggravation in conflict-affected countries, widespread competition for scarce resources and an inability for conflict-affected countries to deal with these crises going forward.

Published 23 June 2022. Available here.

SPECIAL BRIEFING | 7 Priorities for the G7: Managing the Global Fallout of Russia’s War on Ukraine

Two subjects will likely preoccupy the G7 heads of state when they meet starting 26 June: the war in Ukraine and the related spikes in commodity prices worldwide. The leaders need to show that they will address the economic woes as well as other crises.

Published 22 June 2022. Available here.

PODCAST | Climate, Conflict and the Implications of Russia’s War on Ukraine

In this episode of War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Champa Patel about the complex relationship between climate and conflict ahead of a G7 summit that has set “climate neutrality” as one of its core goals – despite concerns that the green transition will take a backseat amid the Ukraine war.

Published 21 June 2022. Available here.


In the lead-up to COP26, held in Glasgow in October/November 2021, Crisis Group experts contributed their views below on why the climate change conversation remains dangerously incomplete without examining the increasing impact of climatic distress on conflict.

VIDEO | Climate Change and Conflict

The relationship between climate change and deadly conflict is complex and context-specific. Climate change affects every aspect of life, damaging food systems, displacing millions, and shaping the future of conflict. 

It is undeniable that climate change is a threat multiplier that is already increasing food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition, while disrupting livelihoods and spurring migration. In turn, deadly conflict and political instability are contributing to climate change.

As this introductory video lays out, Crisis Group’s work on climate change and conflict relies on field-based research and analysis to provide insights into how policymakers might best influence and respond to these complex changes to mitigate conflict risks. Find our work on climate and the future of conflict here.

Published 17 November 2021. Available here.

ONLINE EVENT | Global Warning: How Climate Change Drives Risks of Conflict

This event brings together Crisis Group analysts, EU officials and member states, as well as experts from civil society, in a participatory roundtable discussion. They provide insights on how policymakers might best influence and respond to these complex climate changes to mitigate conflict risks.

Online event 16 November 2021. Recording available here.

VIDEO | A Broken Canopy: Deforestation and Conflict in Colombia

In Colombia, deforestation is inextricably linked to conflict. The peace deal between the government and the FARC guerrillas included promises to safeguard the country’s jungles. 

But when the FARC laid down their weapons at the end of 2014, other armed groups moved into the vacuum, accelerating forest loss in nature reserves by encouraging cattle ranching, coca farming and other unregulated businesses. Meanwhile, victims of the war, displaced from their land, also contribute to the cutting of forests as they seek new means of survival.

For this video, Bram Ebus, Crisis Group consultant for the Andes, travelled to deforestation hotspots to investigate.

Published 11 November 2021. Available here.

Q&A | Getting Conflict into the Global Climate Conversation

World leaders are meeting in Glasgow to talk about what to do to ameliorate the mounting climate crisis. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ulrich Eberle and Andrew Ciacci explain why these discussions cannot neglect questions of war and peace.

Published 5 November 2021. Available here.

For more work on this subject, please see our global issue page Climate Change and Conflict.

OP-ED | Stopping the Violence Devouring Colombia's Forests

In this Op-ed for Newsweek, Crisis Group consultant, Bram Ebus outlines that in Colombia, where both the perpetrators and victims of conflict drive the razing of forests, it is impossible to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation without addressing the root causes of violence.

Published 4 November 2021. Available here.

REPORT | A Broken Canopy: Deforestation and Conflict in Colombia

Colombia’s vast forest is fast receding, partly because guerrillas and criminals are clearing land for farming, ranching and other pursuits. These unregulated activities are causing both dire environmental harm and deadly conflict. Bogotá should take urgent steps to halt the damage.

Published 4 November 2021. Available here.

SPECIAL COVERAGE | Summary of Co-Chairs’ Conclusions

On 14 September 2021 Crisis Group, Africa Confidential and the Royal African Society co-hosted the Climate, Conflict and Demography in Africa conference. In this summary, its co-chairs highlight five messages to help one of the hardest-hit and most neglected continents in the fight against climate change.

Published 21 October 2021. Available here.

Q&A | Can the UN Security Council Agree on a Climate Security Resolution?

UN Security Council members are negotiating over a draft resolution on climate security, which, if it passes, will be the first of its kind. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ashish Pradhan, Ulrich Eberle and Richard Gowan explain what is at stake in the talks.

Published 20 October 2021. Available here.

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