UN experts tackle ‘conspiracy of silence’ over sexual violence in wartime

Leymah Gbowee, Executive Director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa Organization

24 June 2009 – Women’s rights activists, senior military figures and top United Nations officials met in New York this week to discuss what the world body’s former humanitarian chief Jan Egeland described as “one of the biggest conspiracies of silence in history” – the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

The talks focused particularly on the lack of female involvement in peace negotiations, and on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1820, passed last year, which for the first time acknowledged the use of sexual violence in conflict as a deliberate tactic of war.

According to the UN’s agency for women, UNIFEM, women comprise on average less than 10 per cent of peace negotiators and less than 2 per cent of mediators. Out of approximately 300 peace agreements reached in 45 conflicts since the end of the Cold War, only 10 peace processes even mentioned sexual violence.

Anne-Marie Goetz of UNIFEM told a news conference that among the key principles endorsed by participants in this week’s talks were that sexual violence should be addressed right from the start of the mediation process, and that crimes of sexual violence should be given the same priority as other international crimes.

“This kind of meeting backs up the quest for justice,” said Leymah Gbowee of the organization Women, Peace and Security Africa, who participated in the talks. “It emboldens mediators and gains greater respect for women’s groups, which the parties to peace talks can often ignore.” She added that resolution 1820 “changed the dynamic at the peace table and legitimized the status of women.”

Ms. Gbowee said the opportunity to brief the Security Council on the results of the conference would serve to create awareness of sexual violence as a weapon of war among Member States, who she said might be inclined to see rape during wartime as a social or a humanitarian problem rather than a military issue.

She added that the presence of senior military officers, including Major-General Patrick Cammaert, a former commander with the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), was particularly effective in raising awareness that sexual violence was often used as a deliberate and systematic military strategy.

Ms. Gbowee spoke forcefully of the barriers to women’s participation in mediation processes, including the fear that addressing sexual violence would prevent the smooth running of peace talks, since the negotiating parties might be seriously implicated.

Recalling her own role in leading the women’s peace movement that helped bring Liberia’s stalled peace process to a successful conclusion in 2003, she added: “I am proud of the role women played… but one of my greatest regrets is that we did not use this opportunity to raise our own issues and demand prosecution for perpetrators of sexual violence.”


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