Combating Sexual Violence in Conflict: Using Facts from the Ground
Combating Sexual Violence in Conflict: Using Facts from the Ground
Hold Your Fire! (Season 4)
Hold Your Fire! (Season 4)
Speech / Global 7 minutes

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."

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