U.N. Sanctions Can Help Stop Rape in War

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. Continue reading