Sexual violence in armed conflict and why it remains an issue

Essay 2019 14 Pages

Sociology - War and Peace, Military



Sexual violence in armed conflict and why it remains an issue


In 2018 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad who both seek to end the wartime rape. The former is a gynecologist in the DRC and the latter is an Iraqi activist who had been enslaved and sexually abused by IS terrorists. They were awarded the prize "for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict“ (NobelPrize.org, 2018). Both of them emphasized that leaders who tolerate it, need to be sanctioned economically and politically to protect women. But who can make such rules? Naturally, the international community, namely the United Nations (UN) come to mind, which does have an agenda on women, peace and security. Wartime rape and sexual assault of women has been a part of waring for a very long time and although, the issue has been on the radar of international politics at least since the Nuremberg trials after the second world war, the Nobel Prize committee still determines a need to draw attention to it. Consequently, there seems to be a gap between the issue and the actions taken, in time as well as in effectiveness. This essay aim’s to shed light on the „why“ behind said ineffectiveness.

The following piece is divided into 5 parts. First, I will give an overview of the problem, and provide a few definitions of terms as well as explain how rape is used as a weapon of and strategy in war. The next section explains how the UN and its institutions are handling the issue in international law and initiatives. I will then continue to analyze how and why these measures are relatively ineffective, following this I acknowledge some theoretical issues before giving my own recommendations on solving this problem and ending on a conclusion.

Wartime violence against women

Despite international efforts rape during conflict remains an issue. To talk about it, is necessary to define „rape“ in the context of war because multiple definitions exist, some criminological and some social. The most relevant definition for this paper is the definition given by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Here rape constitutes „a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive.“ (Human Rights Watch, 2003)

The focus lies on the forcefulness of the perpetrator and with this definition, all acts can be considered rape that are of a sexual nature and happen through force. Another important aspect of rape is violence, be it physical or psychological which is why in this essay, the terms „sexual violence“ and „rape“ are often used interchangeable as the actual act of penetration is not crucial to inflict trauma.

There are several distinctions between interpersonal criminal rape and wartime rape. Victims of wartime rape are often raped on serval occasions by numerous perpetrators that are previously unknown to the victim whereas interpersonal criminal rape is often committed by people close to the victim like spouses, family members or friends. The biggest similarity between the two groups of rapists is that they are mostly male. The motives for both are diverse and can vary on a case to case basis, although there are some unique to wartime rape like vilifying entire people or humiliation of an enemy.

The most significant difference is however, quantitative. Frequency and duration of attacks, number of perpetrators and number of incidents per capita are higher in wartime rape were interpersonal criminal rape tends to happen in comparatively isolated instances (ten Bensel and Sampel, 2010).

Rape as a weapon of war and war strategy

Most theories consider rape a social and cultural phenomenon rather than a biologically one. The international community considered wartime rape a weapon of war, that is strategically used against the civilian population. The UNO security council issued the resolution 1820 on the topic of rape as a weapon of war (un.org.,2018). This resolution will be discussed in further detail later in this essay.

Especially the Bosnian war has been taken a closer look at by woman’s rights activists, historians and political science researchers because it lends itself to be a case study where wartime mass rape was employed by an army to „ethnically cleanse“ a people.The Serbian army sought to eliminate the Bosnian, Muslim population. During this war, ‚rape camps‘ were establish where women were systematically and repeatedly raped, often with the purpose of forcefully impregnating them as a mean of genocide.

Mass rapes were a weapon and a strategy of war to achieve various goals, such as ethnic cleansing, conquering territory and political gain. The perpetrators were not single, marauding soldiers but rather executing a coordinated attack under orders, using rape as a weapon of war, on the female gender and Bosnian race, targeting women’s bodies and reproducing abilities. An estimate of 20.000 Bosnian woman were raped by Serbian soldiers between 1992 and 1995. (Salzmann, 1998)

Official estimates put the number of rape victims during the Rwandan genocide at 15.700 but like it is with topics of sensitive nature, there are most likely more who did not admit being raped or as it sometimes is the case with wartime rape, were killed after. Another aspect of rape during war is legislative immunity for members of the armed and security forces that might get abused and prohibit prosecution of the rapists. This often affects the officers and higher ranking individuals, leading to them setting an example and a conduct of behavior that their soldiers follow, without being ordered to (United Nation Security Council, 2017). When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State she called wartime rape a „tactic of war“ 2009 more or less summing up the scientific and political consense that had built up. (Kirby, 2012). The devastating effects that these kind of rapes have cannot be overstated. Besides the obvious physical and mental injuries that survivors sustain, there are consequences for the communities as well. Rape in any society is associated with shame and stigma, that often goes beyond the survivor herself and affects children conceived through rape, spouses and other family members, thus destroying communities and networks that could otherwise help the victims. Stigma and social isolation can often be observed throughout multiple generations. Therefore rape is tactic of war singularly aimed at the civilian population and it is as effective as it is cruel. (ten Bensel and Sample, 2014, United Nation Security Council, 2017)

Wartime rape in international law

The fourth Geneva convention was the first international agreement that officially included regulations regarding rape. Article 27 states that „Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.“ (legislation.gov.uk, 2018)

However, rape did not constitute a „grave breach“ according to the Geneva convention which meant that states which signed the convention did not have to bring the responsible parties to justice to fulfill the requirements of the agreement. In this context the tribunals after the second world war came to be, namely the International Nuremberg Military Tribunals for war criminals and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly referred to as the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, where main war criminals of world-war-two were charged and sentenced. During this war, more than 2 Million, mostly german women, were raped however those trials did not treat rape as a war crime. (Kuwert et. al. 2010).

Sexual violence against women is part of almost all armed conflicts and wars, a normalized side effect due to which it was not deemed a war crime for most of history. With the establishment of the UN tribunals in the 1990s the awareness for this topic changed. The trigger for these tribunals were the Yugoslavian wars, more specifically the Bosnian war, and the genocide in Rwanda. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (IYTY) came about 1993 due to a security council resolution from the 22, February the same year. Its significance lies in the fact that it was the first international criminal court that interpreted rape as a form of torture and thus a crime against humanity. (Harders and Roß, 2002, 175 ff.).

The following year the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established on basis of the security council resolution on the 8th of November 1994. It was the first tribunal that convicted a perpetrator for sexual violence.

Measures taken by the international community

The UN’s most important and possibly most effective institution regarding this matter is the Security Council, that over the last years has taken measures in form of security council resolutions however the most influential ones would not have come into being without the IYTY and the ICTR . They strongly influenced how the UN security council handles sexual violence, on who’s agenda are many violent/armed conflicts.

A very important was when the council adopted the aforementioned resolution 1820 in June of 2008 according to which sexual violence may be the bases for measures taken by the security council. This means that the security council acknowledges that when sexual violence is intentionally used or commissioned as a strategy of war against civilians or as part of an extended, systematic attack on the civilian population, it can considerably intensify armed conflicts. Therefore it endangers the re-establishment of international peace and international security so the security council is ready to take appropriate steps to address said sexual violence, because preventing and responding to sexual violence is needed to maintain peace (undocs.org, 2018).

Additionally resolution 1820 affirms that rape and other kinds of sexual violence can be war crimes as well as a crimes against humanity or even genocide. With this, the security council not only confirms the jurisprudence of the tribunals following the wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda but creates a new foundation on which sexual violent offenses according to the Rome Statue Art. 13 can be brought in front of the International Criminal Court. (Shepherd, 2011).

Following resolution 1820, in 2009 the security council unanimously adopted resolution 1325 which demands more involvement of women in the peacemaking and keeping process, the consideration of gender-specific issued during peacemaking processes and ore protection from gender specific, sexual violence. Other resolutions regarding women, peace and security were adopted over time, such as resolution 1888 but discussing them all in detail is beyond the scope of this essay.



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Title: Sexual violence in armed conflict and why it remains an issue