Sexual violence is clearly prohibited in peacetime and wartime, both by international human rights law and the lex specialis international humanitarian law. Despite these prohibitions, sexual violence remains prevalent in many modern conflicts. Furthermore, it continues to be used intentionally by government forces and militias as a weapon in order to achieve military or political objectives. As seen in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and the DCR, sexual violence is used effectively to terrorize, forcibly displace, ethnically cleanse, and control civilian populations seen as the “enemy”- at the cost of women and girls.
In 2008 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a groundbreaking resolution (1820) that threatened the use of targeted sanctions against individuals ordering, tolerating or engaging in sexual violence as a weapon of war. Sanctions, foreseen in article 41 of the UN Charter, are one of two coercive powers that the Security Council holds under Chapter VII. Through the threat of coercive measures, the UNSC thus affirmed its ability and willingness to place meaningful restraints on sexual violence in conflict.
This was a groundbreaking and welcomed move. Designation criteria relying on international human rights and humanitarian norms have the potential to reinforce legal frameworks on prevention and accountability. Indeed, targeting political and military commanders with sanctions can create an incentive to stop deliberately ordering or implicitly tolerating sexual violence committed by their soldiers. Sanctions can compel commanders to change behavior and exercise better control over troops.
But ten years after the UNSC first threatened sanctions, where are we in practice? This question drove Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security to investigate whether the Security Council actually translated its threat of sanctions into concrete action.
We studied 8 sanctions regimes in countries characterized by continuing armed conflict and massive human-rights violations, including the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war: Central African Republic, the Congo, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. Our report finds that sanctions have great potential, but are largely underutilized and implemented ineffectively.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of sexual violence in sanctions regimes is not consistent, nor is it timely. Some sanctions regimes do not once mention sexual violence as part of the designation criteria – despite evidence of widespread use (such as in Sudan). Some regimes include references to sexual violence, but only decades after the first violations were reported (such as in Somalia). Moreover, follow-up of the threat of sanctions with concrete designations of individuals is often neither timely nor reflective of the main perpetrators. Failure to act on the threat of sanctions actually gives perpetrators permission and incentive for brutality, because it gives them confidence that no meaningful rebuke will follow.
The Security Council is a political body, and thus these inconsistencies across and within sanctions regimes are mostly explained by political factors and dissent. Despite the factual links between weaponized sexual violence and international security, some Member States remain in favor of stricter interpretation of what should be considered a threat to international peace and security under Article 39 of the Charter. States like Russia and China are often reluctant to expand sanctions regimes to include sexual violence, or to target individuals on that basis. Although this traditional debate on what belongs to the Council’s preview is understandable, it should not justify inaction towards sexual violence in armed conflict.
In situations of armed conflict, whether international or non-international, the Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocols, international courts’ decisions and the Rome Statute are clear on what is or is not prohibited in the conduct of hostilities. Designation criteria in sanctions regimes actually mirror these norms, which have already been agreed upon as universal. By relying on an existing international legal framework the Council is not creating new norms but rather contributing to the creation of an additional enforcement mechanism. The Council is merely taking upon the obligation to “respect and ensure respect” for IHL, which is an obligation States initially agreed upon.
Our report makes several recommendations for how the Security Council can more effectively incorporate sexual violence into sanctions regimes in order to change the behavior of those responsible for its use as a weapon of war.
Last month, the International Criminal Court appeals chamber acquitted Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo of all charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity-including rape-committed in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. Bemba’s release highlights the limitations of the ICC and the need to utilize other tools to prevent the weaponization of sexual violence in conflict. Our call to action could not be more important.