War’s Ultimate Secret Weapon Terrorism, torture, bombing – the most horrific acts are openly decried in times of war. Yet one particularly pervasive atrocity has been shrouded in a conspiracy of silence. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it ‘evil in its purest form’ on her recent high profile Africa visit.
This is the military tactic of mass rape.
Absent from ceasefire agreements, not subject to disarmament programmes, and rarely mentioned at the peace-table, it is a war tactic that lingers long after the guns fall silent. Its legacy has shattered civilian lives and livelihoods, shredding the social fabric and devastating prospects for durable peace. In this decade alone, its toll has been staggering: claiming over 200,000 victims since conflict erupted in Eastern Congo. Yet you will not find these victims on official lists of the ‘war wounded’. Unlike landmine or shrapnel injuries, its scars are invisible. In the arsenal of any armed group, this is the only weapon of mass destruction for which societies blame the victims, rather than the attackers. And though it is a war crime, it more often leads perpetrators to the corridors of power than to the cells of a prison.
Mass impunity has kept rape off the historical record and under the security radar. Women and girls have been treated as second-class victims of a second-class crime. Sexual violence has accordingly been side-lined by the world’s most powerful security stakeholders as the private, inevitable or opportunistic excesses of a few renegade soldiers. This myth plays directly into the hands of those who wield rape as a weapon of choice, being low-cost, high-impact and less scrutinized than murder or mass graves.
I have met sexual violence survivors in contexts like Darfur, Liberia and the Congo. Quietly and in private, women and girls have told me their harrowing stories. Two sisters, aged 14 and 15, described how they had been sexually assaulted by armed men near their village in Eastern Congo. For these girls, who live in the midst of their tormentors, at the epicenter of a rape crisis, justice delayed is more than justice denied – it is terror continued. They are not alone. When war shatters social norms and institutions, sexual predation proliferates.
However, recent developments offer some hope that the international community is ready to address and combat this most vile of crimes. Last June, the UN Security Council approved resolution 1820, which recognised for the first time that sexual violence can be a threat to international security and an impediment to peace.
On 30 September, Clinton is set to chair a Security Council session. I have been informed the Security Council will consider adopting a resolution significantly expanding the protection from conflict-related sexual violence. This will advance implementation of resolution 1820.
A powerful illustration of this renewed resolve is the Council’s recent decision to expand the so-called ‘list of shame’ on violations against children in armed conflict to encompass perpetrators of ‘rape and other grave sexual abuse’. The list currently names and shames groups that recruit child soldiers. Being ‘de-listed’ has proven a powerful incentive for behavioral change. It should have a similar effect on those who commit sexual abuse, providing information that can be acted upon by Sanctions Committees or international courts. Exposing persistent violators puts the burden of sexual violence back where it belongs – with the perpetrators.
Indeed, security sector reform must remove rapists from the military and police and make these institutions accessible and responsive to women. Failure to feed, house and pay soldiers, who are often placed under the command of notorious human rights abusers, is an implicit invitation to use their weapons to prey upon civilians. Moreover, States whose diplomatic and financial support underwrites peace agreements should demand the inclusion of women, the exclusion of sexual violence from amnesty provisions, and the establishment of a vetting mechanism to prevent perpetrators from being absorbed into positions of power.
But to disarm this weapon, we must first dismantle the socio-cultural taboos that prevent us from addressing it frankly. Many women and girls have told me that the life-long silence and stigma they face is worse than the act of rape itself.
For the girls I have met in war-zones around the world, ‘1820’ may be just another number and the Security Council may seem impossibly remote. Yet their plight is central to both. The challenge is translating progress at the policy level into progress at the level of a village in Eastern Congo, a displacement camp in Darfur, or the hinterlands of Liberia. More and better information is needed to combat impunity and inform programmatic responses. This implies a serious responsibility for the UN system, requiring unity of purpose and joining of forces.
To this end, the inter-agency network, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, unites 12 UN organizations to amplify and harmonize efforts. Sexual violence affects every facet of a survivor’s life and requires a multi-faceted response, bridging political, security, humanitarian and development actors. This broadens the constituency beyond ‘gender experts’ to spur military strategists, police and peacekeepers to take responsibility for ending this scourge.
Understanding that sexual violence is not inevitable affirms that prevention is possible. The Security Council has put would-be perpetrators on notice that the world is watching. Such scrutiny is the surest way to divest commanders and warlords of their last ‘secret’ weapon.
By Hilde F. Johnson
Co-Chair of UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict