Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I am pleased to participate in today’s event, hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, whose pathbreaking policy research and strategic advocacy demonstrate the importance of gender equality to conflict prevention and durable peace. I would like to thank Ambassador Verveer for her steadfast leadership and for convening this timely event. Today’s panel provides a critical platform to amplify the voices of civil society representatives from Myanmar and Ukraine, whose perspectives must guide our global search for solutions.
Since the year 2000, the United Nations Security Council has adopted ten resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security, five of which are dedicated to preventing and addressing conflict-related sexual violence. While the normative framework is robust, we are compelled to ask: What do these resolutions mean concretely on the ground right now for women in Ukraine, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia? The Council’s resolutions represent a commitment to bring all political, diplomatic, legal, and economic tools to bear to break the seemingly endless cycles of sexual violence, impunity, and revenge, and to save succeeding generations from this scourge. And yet, sexual violence continues to occur and recur with every new wave of warfare.
Today’s event takes place against the backdrop of multiple, cascading crises that undermine the rules-based international order. We know that when the international rule of law is undermined civilians, especially women and girls, bear the brunt of volatility and violence. We must reassure populations at risk that they are not forgotten, and that international law is not an empty promise.
We have seen over the past year and a half an epidemic of coups in settings affected by widespread or systematic sexual violence, such as Myanmar, the Sudan, Mali, and Guinea. In Myanmar, following the military takeover in February of last year, sexual violence has been documented against women protestors, political prisoners, and human rights defenders. Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August, women have been targeted for their work to address sexual violence, including women formerly active in the security sector. In Tigray, Ethiopia, women have been horrifically gang-raped at gunpoint.
The harrowing images and personal testimonies from women in Ukraine have shocked the conscience of the world. I have repeatedly expressed grave concern about the mounting allegations of sexual violence in Ukraine and called for swift and rigorous investigations to ensure accountability as a central aspect of deterrence, prevention, and non-repetition. Essential civilian infrastructure has been reduced to rubble and ruin, resulting in gender-based violence and reproductive health services being least available just when they are needed most. In the coming days, I will visit Ukraine as a matter of urgency to meet with the national authorities and civil society actors on the frontlines, as part of efforts to bolster the UN system response.
The international community has the tools at its disposal to dramatically increase the cost of wartime sexual violence for perpetrators, and would-be perpetrators. But these tools must be matched with the political will and political courage to use them. One such tool is targeted sanctions. The United Nations has fourteen sanctions regimes, eight of which now include conflict-related sexual violence as part of their designation criteria, either through a specific reference to sexual and gender-based violence, or as part of the broader rubric of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Since its inception in 2009, my mandate has had the opportunity to brief 5 of the 8 Sanctions Committees that include sexual violence in their designation criteria, namely the regimes for the Central African Republic, the DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, in order to make targeted recommendations.
To date, however, these recommendations have only been sporadically and unevenly applied. As a powerful UN Charter-based tool, sanctions offer significant, yet still largely untapped, potential to advance protection and compliance with international law. When imposed specifically for sexual violence, they send an unequivocal signal about the gravity of these historically hidden crimes. The imposition of sanctions solely for such acts is a relatively recent and welcome development. Sanctions can curb and constrain the illicit exploitation of natural resources that fund the operations of armed groups and spoilers to the peace in settings such as the Central African Republic, the DRC, and Somalia. Beyond limiting the influx of arms and ammunition or the financing of armed groups, today almost all regimes aim to uphold international humanitarian norms. A gender perspective must also inform the consideration of humanitarian carve-outs and exemptions, to ensure that sanctions are not applied as a “blunt instrument” that can complicate the delivery of humanitarian aid, or have adverse, unintended consequences for women.
The latest Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, compiled by my Office, lists 49 parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence in situations on the agenda of the Council. Over 70 per cent are persistent perpetrators, having appeared in the list for five or more consecutive years without taking remedial or corrective action. It is critical to cohere the practice of listing suspected perpetrators and the practice of imposing targeted and graduated measures by sanctions committees to improve compliance. Leveraging the credible threat of sanctions can change the calculus of parties to conflict that operate on the assumption that rape is “cost-free” or even profitable in the political economy of war, in which women and girls are trafficked, traded, and sold. In practice, very few of these entities are targeted by UN sanctions committees, and none are targeted specifically for sexual violence. This gap is regrettably mirrored in the practice of States in imposing unilateral sanctions.
The next generation of National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security should reflect the commitment to impose travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and other targeted measures in order to deter aggression and deny perpetrators the means of inflicting harm. We need to ensure policy coherence, so that States are not directly or indirectly funding and equipping the very violations they oppose.
In terms of promising practice, it is noteworthy that seven of the eight individuals listed pursuant to the 2206 sanctions regime on South Sudan have sexual violence included in their citation. In 2020, the 2140 Committee on Yemen sanctioned Sultan Zabin, director of the Sana’a-based criminal investigation department, for his role in a policy of intimidation and sexual violence against politically active women. In addition, last year, the 1970 Committee on Libya listed the de facto manager of the notorious Al Nasr detention center for abuses including sexual violence.
In several cases, the credible threat of sanctions has directly influenced the behavior of belligerents. For instance, the risk of sanctions was a factor that prompted the issuance of a command order by Dr. Riek Machar, commander of the SPLA-IO in South Sudan, calling for the release of abducted women and girls in Western Equatoria, who had been subjected to sexual violence. Likewise, in the DRC, the threat of sanctions has opened space to negotiate the release of abducted women and girls from armed groups. In cases where the leader of an armed group harbors political aspirations, the imposition of sanctions can undercut their political legitimacy. Sanctions and criminal accountability can yield significant results when they work in tandem. In the DRC, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka was accused of commanding forces responsible for 387 rapes in Walikale, North Kivu province, in 2010. When he attempted to use military force to support his run for parliament, sanctions were swiftly imposed, preventing him from assuming a formal role in Congolese political life. After years as a fugitive, Sheka was prosecuted for these crimes in 2020, and sentenced to life imprisonment by a Congolese military tribunal.
Yet these cases represent only a handful of examples, whereas every year thousands of UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence, employed as a tactic of war, torture, terror, political repression, and reprisal, are recorded in our annual report. It is therefore critical to strengthen the capacity of national institutions to protect their populations and uphold the rule of law. Where governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence, we must support the work of international courts and tribunals and encourage the use of universal and third State jurisdiction, as in the case of the former Syrian intelligence official, Anwar R., who was tried in Koblenz, Germany, for crimes of sexual violence committed in 2011 and 2012. By using the full repertoire of criminal penalties and economic sanctions, we can translate commitments into compliance, and resolutions into results. Prosecution is also a form of prevention and deterrence. Whereas impunity normalizes violence, visible and consistent accountability reinforces global norms.
Ladies and gentlemen, all tools must work in tandem to reverse the emboldening effects of impunity and reinforce the message that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding, or condoning it. Policymakers must match their promises with meaningful action to leverage behavioral change. Protection from sexual violence, even in the midst of war, is not merely an aspiration, it is a legal obligation. Sanctions are a critical component of wider political and diplomatic strategies to ensure that these obligations are respected, implemented, and enforced.