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Rape: Weapon of war

Is rape really a matter for the United Nations? The Security Council has answered that question with a resounding yes by voting unanimously for a resolution describing rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security. But perhaps the more important question is: Will the resolution give teeth to efforts to stem sexual violence against women in conflict situations?

A rape victim and witness to a murder testifies in Dili, Timor Leste: Ending impunity - © UN Photo/Martine PerretIn the resolution, passed 19 June, the Security Council noted that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” The resolution demanded the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians.”

While women’s rights groups and others working to end sexual violence are under no illusions that the resolution is a panacea, most agree that it is a much-needed step in the right direction. They believe that by noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide,” the resolution will strike a blow at the culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence in conflict zones and allows rapists to walk without fear of punishment.

Indeed, the resolution stresses the need for “the exclusion of sexual violence crimes from amnesty provisions in the context of conflict resolution processes,” calls upon member states to comply with their obligations to prosecute those responsible for such crimes, and emphasizes “the importance of ending impunity for such acts.”

Ultimately, however, the effectiveness of UN Resolution 1820 (2008) in reducing sexual violence and bringing its perpetrators to book will have to be gauged in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—arguably the epicentre of sexual violence against women today—as well as Liberia and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Local health centres in the DRC’s South Kivu province estimate that 40 women are raped in the region every day. In Liberia, which is slowly recovering after a 13-year civil war, a government survey in 10 counties in 2005-2006 showed that 92 per cent of the 1,600 women interviewed had experienced sexual violence, including rape. These numbers probably err on the low side because women fear the retaliation and social ignominy that reporting a rape could bring. In Darfur, says the NGO Human Rights Watch, women and girls live under the constant threat of rape by Sudanese Government soldiers, members of the Government-backed Janjaweed militia, rebels and ex-rebels.

Warring groups use rape as a weapon because it destroys communities totally, says Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo. “You destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men.” Adds Cammaert: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”

Rape has been a dishonourable camp follower of war for as long as armies have marched into battle. In the 20th century, perceptions of rape in war have moved from something that is inevitable when men are deprived of female companionship for prolonged periods to an actual tactic in conflict. The lasting psychological harm that rape inflicts on its victims has also been recognized: Rape is always torture, says Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic, who has written extensively about war crimes in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and whose latest book is on the war crimes trials in The Hague, says the Security Council resolution is historic. “Finally, sexual violence is recognized as a weapon, and can be punished,” she says, adding: “We know now, as we knew even before the passage of this resolution, that rape is a kind of slow murder.”