What's In Blue

Conflict-related Sexual Violence: Annual Open Debate

Tomorrow (23 April), the Security Council will convene for its annual open debate on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), which this year is titled “Preventing conflict-related sexual violence through demilitarization and gender-responsive arms control”. The meeting will be chaired by Maltese Deputy Prime Minister Christopher Fearne. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Danai Gurira are the expected briefers. A civil society representative is also expected to brief.

Council members that have signed on to the Shared Commitments on WPS—Ecuador, France, Guyana, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Switzerland, the UK, and the US—are expected to read a joint statement ahead of the meeting.

A concept note circulated by Malta ahead of tomorrow’s meeting says that the aim of the open debate is to identify ways to harmonise strategies to advance the women, peace and security (WPS) and the disarmament agendas to better prevent and respond to CRSV. In particular, the concept note says that the open debate seeks to find “opportunities for cross-leveraging arms control and disarmament treaties, instruments and frameworks” to more effectively prevent CRSV, and to increase women’s leadership and influence “in formulating policy and decision-making in this field”.

Citing estimates from the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) indicating that between 70 to 90 percent of CRSV incidents involve weapons and firearms, the concept note stresses that weapons proliferation has a negative impact on women and girls’ “security, mobility, education and economic opportunities” in post-conflict environments and “enables attacks on human rights defenders and peacebuilders”. It says that the ownership and use of weapons “are closely related to harmful gender norms and attitudes that can exacerbate gender-based discrimination” and argues that “[a]ddressing the gendered root causes of violence and militarization is essential for advancing gender-responsive arms control and disarmament, and for reducing the proliferation of weapons that facilitate conflict-related sexual violence”.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Patten is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s latest annual report on CRSV, which was issued on 4 April. The report provides information on patterns of CRSV during the period from January to December 2023 and documents more than 3,500 UN-verified cases of CRSV, the vast majority of which (96 percent) affected women and girls. The report covers 15 conflict settings (Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR), Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Israel and State of Palestine, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen); three post-conflict settings (Western Balkans, Nepal, and Sri Lanka); and three situations of concern (Ethiopia, Haiti, and Nigeria). The highest number of cases verified by the UN in 2023 (795) was recorded in Ethiopia; of these cases, 454 incidents took place in 2022.

As mandated by resolution 1960, which was adopted in 2010, the annual report includes an annex listing parties that are “credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape or other forms of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict” on the Council’s agenda. The annex lists 58 parties, including several new listings of non-state actors in the CAR, DRC, and Haiti.

Tomorrow Patten is expected to highlight emerging concerns and patterns connected to CRSV. She may note, as does the annual report, that weapons proliferation has contributed to creating “an environment conducive to the perpetration of sexual violence with impunity” and that sexual violence has played a significant role in the political economy of war, with trafficking and kidnapping “enabling armed groups to generate revenue”. She may also stress that in 2023 “sexual violence continued to be used as a means of political violence to intimidate and punish opponents” and women human rights defenders.

Among other issues, Patten may draw attention to the heightened levels of CRSV faced by displaced, refugee and migrant women and girls, and to food insecurity as a factor exacerbating the risk of CRSV. She may also refer to the withdrawal of UN peace operations in Mali and Sudan—as well as the drawdown of the peace operation in the DRC—and stress the importance of building capacity to monitor, prevent and address CRSV in these and other contexts.

Tomorrow, Council members are expected to condemn all forms of CRSV and underscore the need for redress and accountability. Many members are expected to stress the importance of adopting a survivor-centred approach in responses to CRSV, with several members likely to highlight the need for guaranteeing sexual and reproductive care and rights for CRSV survivors.

In line with the focus of the open debate, several Council members may refer to the proliferation of weapons as a factor exacerbating the risk of CRSV. Some participants may reference disarmament and arms control instruments—such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) or the UN Programme of Action to Prevent and Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects—as important prevention tools. (The ATT requires state parties to carry out an assessment of the potential risks of exporting arms, including whether the arms could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, prior to authorising the export of arms.  In making this assessment, it also requires states to take into account the risk of the arms “being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children”.)

Participants are likely to underscore the importance of women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation—including in disarmament and arms control decision-making processes—and several members may condemn attacks and reprisals against women civil society representatives and human rights defenders. Members may express their support for an enhanced use of mechanisms available to the Security Council, such as its sanctions regimes, and may call for compliance with arms embargos imposed by the Council. Some members are also likely to highlight national and international initiatives on disarmament and on preventing and eradicating CRSV.

Some participants are expected to express concern about developments in specific country situations, such as Sudan, where in 2023 the UN documented 118 CRSV cases. According to the Secretary-General’s annual report, “[m]en in uniforms of the Rapid Support Forces were implicated in most cases”, with the Sudanese Armed Forces also implicated. In Sudan, the UN also received “credible information regarding the abductions of over 160 women and girls held in captivity, including reports of women and girls being raped and kept in slave-like conditions”. The annual report notes that in “almost all of these cases, Rapid Support Forces elements or affiliated militia were implicated”.

Some Council members are also likely to refer to the situation in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. On 11 March, the Security Council held a meeting on CRSV under “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” agenda item. France, the UK, and the US, joined by Ecuador and Slovenia, called for the meeting following a request by Israel. The meeting followed a mission by Patten to Israel to verify information on CRSV during the 7 October 2023 Hamas-led attacks and the issuance on 4 March of a report presenting her findings. The Secretary-General’s annual report on CRSV reiterates the findings of Patten’s 4 March report, including that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that CRSV occurred “in multiple locations” during the 7 October attacks, and that the mission found “clear and convincing information” that some of the hostages that were taken into Gaza during the attacks have been subjected to various forms of CRSV. It also says that, in the West Bank, UN-verified information confirmed reports that arrests and detention of Palestinians by Israeli forces “were often accompanied by beatings, ill-treatment and humiliation, including acts of sexual assault”, and that, in Gaza, reports have emerged of “alleged mass detention of Palestinian women, men and children, compounded by multiple forms of sexual violence”.

Tomorrow, some may welcome positive steps such as the opening by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in Colombia of macro-case 11 on sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive violence and other gender-based crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity during the armed conflict in the country. Speaking at the 9 April Security Council meeting on Colombia, Executive Director of Colombia Diversa Marcela Sánchez said that the opening of the macro-case represents a step in the direction of “ending impunity and can be a beacon of hope for LGBTQ survivors of gender persecution around the world”. Other situations that may be mentioned tomorrow include Haiti, Ukraine, and South Sudan.

In line with its position in recent meetings, tomorrow Russia may say it opposes the term “CRSV”, arguing that it leads to an improper blurring of crimes of a sexual nature that occur in peacetime and during armed conflict, thereby unduly expanding the purview of the Council’s mandate. Most other Council members and civil society groups working on women’s rights reject this argument. Russia has also opposed Patten briefing in sanctions committee meetings and raised objections to her participation in Council meetings.

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