16 Days Campaign Theme series: Gender Violence as a Threat to International Security, by Soumita Basu

Soumita Basu

Sexual and Gender Based Violence
as a “Threat to International Peace and Security”

Concerns regarding “protection” of women at times of armed conflicts are not new. The Geneva Conventions and Protocols are an important case in point. However, as Judith Gardam and Hilary Charlesworth note, the emphasis in these documents is on honour, based on sexual attributes such as chastity and modesty of women, which determine their value from the perspective of men (in contrast, offences against men take into account their mind and bodily attributes).  The vocabulary of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) – in international policy frameworks – that has developed in the last decade or so represent a more evolved thinking, and reflect positions on sexual violence taken in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998) and the UN Security Council Resolution  (SCR) 1325 on Women and Peace and Security  (and its follow-up resolutions) (2000).

The Rome Statute codified, among others, sexual and gender violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity. SCR 1325, which introduces for the first time a gender perspective in the work of the Security Council, follows in the footsteps of the Rome Statute. Its protection mandate is placed within a policy context that has a multidimensional representation of women – as political actors, peacemakers and combatants as well as victims – thus, altering the understanding of women’s victimhood to an extent.

Since the passage of SCR 1325, the resolution has dominated the policy discourse on addressing SGBV vis-à-vis armed conflicts. Indeed, of all its provisions, including issues of women’s participation and conflict prevention, the protection mandate has emerged as a clear frontrunner. Three of the four follow-up resolutions on Women, Peace and Security – SCRs 1820, 1888 and 1960 – focus on SGBV, and were tabled at the Security Council by its most powerful member state, the United States. These have paved the way for the UN to strengthen its commitment on this issue, with the establishment of the post of Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2010, and initiation of efforts to tackle impunity for SGBV such as through “naming and shaming” lists of offenders.

The UN Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. In spite of the adoption of resolutions such as SCR 1325 and others on “protection of civilians in armed conflicts”, “children and armed conflicts” and “HIV/AIDS” since 1999, the understanding of peace and security that permeates Security Council proceedings is essentially narrow, i.e. primarily geared to manage (and not necessarily resolve) armed conflicts. With the introduction of gender into the Council’s purview through SCR 1325, SGBV has been recognized as a threat to international peace and security. This has a number of serious implications for the violence against women agenda. Not only has it been incorporated into the militaristic culture of the Security Council, but as Sara Meger, among others, has pointed out, focusing on sexual violence as a weapon of war – as the Council does – has imposed limitations as it does not take account of “various other forms of gender-based violence and violence against women that occurs both in the context of war, and in the so-called times of ‘peace’”. Even at such a high cost, has SGBV been seriously addressed through resolutions such as SCR 1325? The answer is no, or at least, not yet.

As Kathryn Bolkovac’s account of her experience as a human rights investigator associated with the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia demonstrates, there is little political will within the UN to combat gender based violence. Indeed, there have been allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers themselves, most recently reported from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. The rhetoric of “zero impunity” for offenders has not been translated into practice. Gender affairs units of the UN missions rarely have adequate resources or political reach to realize strategies that can address SGBV. And, peacekeepers who may be committed to protection, do not receive clearly drawn out mandates or effective training necessary for preventing or responding to such threats.

In spite of damning evidence against the effectiveness of the Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security, placing SGBV in the context of international peace and security (or indeed vice versa) is an important development. Even as the Council and the UN, with their institutional constraints, move forward – and sometimes backwards – on this agenda, SCR 1325 and its follow-up resolutions have become useful tools for gender advocates to call for and devise action against sexual and gender based violence.

Soumita Basu is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi.

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