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RIGHTS: Security Council Revisits Rape as Tool of War

Nergui Manalsuren

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 20 2008 (IPS) - Eight years after the U.N. Security Council passed a landmark resolution dealing with gender, peace and security, women and girls are still routinely victimised in conflict zones around the world, often in the most brutal and horrific ways.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses the Security Council on women and peace, Jun. 19, 2008. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses the Security Council on women and peace, Jun. 19, 2008. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

"Rape is a crime that can never be condoned, yet women and girls in conflict situations around the world have been subjected to widespread and deliberate acts of sexual violence," said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who chaired an open debate Thursday in the Security Council on "Women, Peace, and Security".

The U.S., which holds the Council's rotating presidency this month, chose to bring attention to the issue of sexual violence against women in conflict in the thematic debate that was attended by government and high-level U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

He noted that the problem is not confined to areas where there is active fighting. "Sexual violence poses a grave threat to women's security in fragile post-conflict countries, and undermines efforts to cement peace," Ban said. "The breakdown of law and order makes women all the more vulnerable to attacks, and leaves them with virtually no recourse to justice."

Ban promised to appoint a special U.N. envoy tasked entirely with advocating for an end to violence against women.

Security Council Resolution 1325, passed on Oct. 31, 2000, stressed the equal involvement of women in peace processes, and in fact at all decision-making levels, and "the urgent need to mainstream a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations".

It also emphasised "the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes including those relating to sexual violence against women and girls."

However, for thousands of civilians, these words have been simply that – words.

Rice cited instances of Burmese soldiers who regularly raped women and girls as young as eight years old, as well as the crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, where humanitarian groups and U.N. officials report that rape is being widely used as a weapon of war.

She also addressed recent charges of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in several countries and by staff at the U.N. mission in Liberia.

"As an international community, we have a special responsibility to punish perpetrators of sexual violence who are representatives of international organisations," Rice said.

With some critics charging that the U.N. is not moving swiftly to hold perpetrators accountable, Rice said that there is "encouraging news" that "steps have been taken to address the issue".

"One of the perpetrators is serving a sentence in his country and several other cases remain under investigation. This situation should serve as a model for all countries contributing troops to U.N. operations," she said.

In its latest resolution, passed unanimously at the end of the day, the Security Council acknowledged that women and girls are frequently targeted during conflicts "as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group."

It urged that sexual violence crimes be excluded from amnesties reached at the end of conflicts, and called on member states to strengthen their judicial and health care systems to better assist victims.

Members of the Security Council and other member states also stressed the importance of troop contributing countries' providing proper ethics and sensitivity training, and disciplining and holding their own troops accountable.

A number of speakers emphasised the crucial role women play in peacekeeping operations in the day-long debate, and said that the number of women should be increased not only in peacekeeping operations, but also at all levels of government and within the U.N. system itself.

Rice pointed out that "in the 60 years of U.N. peacekeeping, only seven women had held the post of special representative to the secretary-general."

In response, Ban said that he was eager to deploy more women worldwide, not just as police, military and civilian personnel but also at the highest levels of mission leadership.

"Send me your female troops, your police, your civilian personnel, and your senior diplomats and I will ensure that they are all considered; that qualified candidates are rostered; and that the maximum number are deployed to the field as quickly as humanly possible," said Ban.

He also urged troop-contributing countries to do more in providing pre-deployment training to prevent and respond to sexual violence, stressing that he wants to ensure that "the U.N.'s own personnel are part of the solution – not the problem."

He called for greater leadership at the national level to build comprehensive strategies, and said the U.N. would support national authorities and civil society in this effort.

"At the same time, we have to view this problem in the broader context of women's empowerment. That means revising not only laws dealing with violence but also those that affect women's rights with respect to other issues, like property, inheritance or divorce," Ban said.

The new resolution called for tougher accountability measures by governments, and requested that Ban prepare an action plan to collect information on the use of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict and then report periodically to the Council.

It also called on the U.N. "to continue and strengthen efforts to implement the policy of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse in U.N. peacekeeping operations."

"Let me be clear: the United Nations and I personally are profoundly committed to a zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation or abuse by our won personnel," the secretary-general said.

"When we receive credible allegations, we ensure that they are looked into fully," he added, saying he will strengthen the current code so that not only individuals will be held accountable, but also their supervisors.

The resolution was passed unanimously by all 15 members of the Council, although one of the permanent members, China, noted that sexual violence "shouldn't be treated as a stand alone issue, nor should attention be given to its symptoms only."

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