Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
This Wednesday (15 April), Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura will brief the Security Council ahead of its annual open debate on the Secretary-General’s annual report on conflict-related sexual violence (S/2015/203). Hamsatu Allamin, a civil society representative from Nigeria, will also address the Council on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. No outcome will be adopted.
Many member states found the report comprehensive in stressing several concerns, most prominently that 2014 was marked by harrowing accounts of sexual violence in the context of violent extremism, with particular focus on Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). It details how terrorist groups use sexual violence to achieve tactical objectives, dispelling the notion that sexual violence is just an incidental by-product of conflict. Sexual violence by extremist groups terrorise communities into compliance, displaces populations from strategic areas and generates revenue through trafficking, slave trade and ransoms.
During the debate, some Council members are likely to urge the UN system and member states to develop and implement a gender-sensitive humanitarian response to the needs of displaced women and girls. As noted in the Secretary-General’s report, sexual violence drives displacement, and there is an increased vulnerability of displaced or refugee women and girls to sexual exploitation, such as human trafficking, early marriage and forced marriage. In this context, members may also want to hear from Bangura again in the near future after she completes her visiting mission to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey to gain a better understanding of the needs of the displaced Syrian and Iraqi populations who are affected by sexual violence.
Another issue that is covered in the Secretary-General’s report that may be raised in the debate is how conflict-related sexual violence occurs in situations where there is also systemic gender-based discrimination, such as the exclusion of women from political life, economic marginalisation and discriminatory systems of both formal and informal law. As noted in the Secretary-General’s report, survivors of sexual violence often face double victimisation through accusations of “honour” or “morality” crimes, through reporting to unresponsive or predatory security officials or through forced marriage to the perpetrator as a form of traditional settlement.
Council members will likely concentrate on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Their tactics are also described in the two new country situations—Iraq and Nigeria—that have been added to the conflict-related sexual violence report this year. (Syria has been included in this annual thematic report since 2012.) The report stresses that ISIS has used sexual violence as part of its strategy of spreading terror and places Boko Haram’s 14 April 2014 abduction of hundreds of school girls in the context of the group’s history of perpetrating acts of sexual violence, forced marriage, enslavement and the “sale” of kidnapped women and girls. Council members expect that a key issue on Wednesday will be how to deal with such extremist groups which do not operate in just one country, are difficult to approach and are unlikely to respond to the usual forms of pressure. Also likely to be raised in the discussion of sexual violence as a tactic of terrorism is that counter-insurgency efforts do not exacerbate the vulnerabilities that women and girls face, such as in Boko Haram-affected areas, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.
Other issues that may be addressed in the debate include incidents of government culpability for sexual violence such as in detention facilities in Iraq and by the armed forces in Myanmar. Additionally, some governments discussed in the report are a primary driver of conflict in their own territory and are responsible for massive levels of sexual violence, such as in Syria and Darfur.
Also likely to be referenced in the debate is the allegation of mass rape of some 200 girls and women in Tabit in North Darfur by the Sudan Armed Forces in late October 2014. Some Council members have expressed concern that this issue was not more forcefully addressed in the report. UNAMID tried to reach the area several times; however, government authorities granted access on only one occasion after a delay of several days. Sudanese armed forces and military intelligence were present during the UNAMID interviews, apparently creating an environment of intimidation that led to a reticence by the victims to report their experiences to UN staff. Based on these limited encounters, the UN could not verify the allegations.
The annex to the current report, which lists parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for rape and other forms of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict on the Council’s agenda, is also likely to be discussed. An addition to the 2015 annex is state and non-state actors in Somalia. Several terrorist groups—also listed by Security Council sanctions regimes—were added as well: ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, Al-Nusra Front in Syria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram. In relation to Boko Haram, Nigeria is mentioned in the body of the report but not in the annex. This is likely due to sensitivities that Nigeria—also a current elected Security Council member—should not be construed as an issue on the Council’s agenda.
Finally, there may also be discussion on the targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (actual or perceived) by armed groups in Iraq and in the context of checkpoint stops and detention in Syria. These issues are highlighted in the report for the first time.
With no outcome being negotiated, the dynamic among Council members has been relatively quiet, with most being supportive, or at least neutral, on this thematic issue. Currently there is considerable momentum building toward the global study and high-level review of resolution 1325—expected to be finalised in October. Many Council members will be interested in whether any concrete recommendations emerge from the open debate to feed into that review process.