(Washington, DC, 3 November 2010)


Ending sexual violence: From recognition to action


Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen: Thank you very much for inviting me to this anniversary conference on 1325 and women and war. It is a great honour to be here, and I would like to especially thank the World Bank and the United States Institute of Peace for organizing this event.

[Historical phenomenon]

Sexual violence in conflict is, I am often told, unavoidable. That it should be considered collateral damage. That the phenomenon is nothing new. The latter is certainly true: Already Homer in the Iliad has described how Trojan women were treated as war prizes, the most famous of whom is Briseis, the princess of Lyrnessus, who was given to Achilles for having led the assault on that city during the Trojan War. Also the Bible, Numbers 31:15-18, contains a reference to virgins as prizes of war: “Moses said to them: ‘Have you let all the women live? […] Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have now known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.’” In more recent history, we have numerous examples of rape and sexual violence from the Thirty Years War, the U.S. Civil War, colonial wars in Africa, the Central European Counterrevolution in the 1920s, and the Second World War (both in Asia, Russia and Europe) including the post-conflict situation in the countries affected. And from our days, we know of horrible accounts of rape on an unprecedented scale in the Western Balkans, Rwanda, Timor Leste, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

All of this can certainly make rape and sexual violence seem unavoidable, as if it were something we would have to accept as part or consequence of any conflict. But we cannot and should not accept these false premises and empty assertions. Sexual violence in conflict is neither cultural nor sexual. It is criminal. No other human rights violation is routinely dismissed as inevitable.

[The changing nature of armed conflict]

The nature of armed conflict has changed dramatically in recent times. Whereas war traditionally could be described as being a fight over territory between two countries through the instruments of well-trained, disciplined armies facing each other on the battlefield, modern warfare is predominantly intrastate or domestic, waged by non-state actors and triggered by issues of identity, ethnicity, religion and competition for land or resources, particularly oil and mineral wealth. In the DRC, for example, control of the country’s minerals has fuelled the country’s conflicts by enriching armed groups – who have employed sexual violence as a tactic of war. One such mineral, coltan, is so widely used in mobile phones that it has been said that we are all carrying a piece of the Congo in our pockets. The changing nature of armed conflict has also led to a transformation in terms of who is mostly affected by the hostilities: During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, for example, civilian casualties were almost non-existent, while today more than 75 percent of those killed or wounded in wars are non-combatants.[1] In contemporary low-intensity wars, rebel groups – and government forces – often kill civilians and defy international law. It has been said that most civilians tend to die from war rather than in battle. And women have ended up on the front-line – not as soldiers but as victims.

[Cause and effect]

For each rape reported, it is likely that ten to 20 go unreported. Sexual violence in conflict has become the weapon of choice. The reason is as simple as it is wicked: Because it is cheap, silent and effective. One does not need bullets or bombs, only individuals with cruel intent. Acts of sexual violence do not only maim its victims mentally and physically, but they sow the seeds of destruction of an entire community: female survivors in some instances become pregnant, often get infected with sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV/Aids, can develop incontinence, and are regularly rejected by their own families. Traditionally, the risks for the architects behind the atrocities have been negligible. While the women walk in shame, the perpetrators walk free.


The challenges to overcome, on an individual level, the physical and psychological trauma of rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict should not be underestimated. In addition to the long-term psychological injuries that may include depression, anxiety disorders, flashbacks, difficulties in re-establishing intimate relationships, and fear, sexual violence is also an obstacle to sustainable peace for several reasons:

  • Long-term, sexual violence undermines social safety through the destruction of families and societies;
  • The fear of assaults is an impediment to women’s participation in economic activities and girls’ school attendance;
  • If impunity reigns, the faith in a country’s judicial system and its ability to protect its citizens is seriously undermined.

Women must be active participants during the peace process and its aftermath, and must take an equal role in shaping these decisions. Lack of a reconciliation process which includes women might jeopardize the long-term stability of a society after a conflict is over. No peace agreement engineered solely by men will ever be legitimate so long as wars affect the lives and livelihoods of women. No society emerging from the ashes of conflict can realize its full potential unless women and girls are free to realize theirs. Unfortunately this far from often happens; for many in positions of power women are only seen as victims rather than as agents of change. Despite women’s active engagement in informal efforts to build peace, they are often excluded from any formal peace-building efforts.

[What has been done?]

As an item on the global policy-making agenda, sexual violence in conflict has traditionally been absent – despite its horrible and very real existence on the ground. The UN Security Council (SC), which bears the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, established Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1325 ten years ago. This was the first resolution to recognize that war impacts women and men differently, and mandated that the UN itself and its MemberStates protect individuals from sexual violence in conflict.

It would, however, take almost another decade until the specific issue of sexual violence in conflict became the subject of its own SC Resolution, namely 1820, which recognized sexual violence as a ‘tactic of war’. It confirms that sexual violence in conflict is a matter of international peace and security, and therefore within the remit of the Security Council. Resolution 1820 demands nothing less than the ‘immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians’, and was a historic response to a horrific reality. Resolution 1888 from last year, finally, established the position I am the first to hold – to act as an advocate, coordinator and leader within the UN system to address the issue. It also requested that The United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict – a network of 13 UN entities – assist the SRSG in this task.

Legally speaking, the notion that sexual violence in conflict is a crime against international law has emerged only very recently, and has been established first and foremost through jurisprudence emanating from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). A strictly legal definition of rape and other forms of sexual violence continues to develop. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and any other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity are recognized both as crimes against humanity and as war crimes.

I recently returned from my second visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The eastern part of the DRC has been called ‘the rape capital of the world’ – for a reason: over 200,000 rapes have been reported since war began in the country more than a decade ago. And only a few months ago another 300-plus rapes were reported to have taken place in Walikale, in North-Kivu. A 70-year old woman who shared her story told me how she had tried – in vain – to convince the rapists to leave her alone, pointing out to the perpetrators that they could be her own grand-children.

We as the United Nations are often criticized for our shortcomings and mistakes. The Walikale incidents were no different. This has also been acknowledged. Rather than trying to present excuses, we need to look at explanations, and at what we can improve. I also think it is important that we start looking at what we already do well, and how these actions can be further strengthened. In response to the changing dynamics of conflict outlined above and in light of lessons learned, we have to be better at protecting civilians, especially the women. The UN’s peacekeeping troops have gathered best practices how to do this in ‘Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence – An Analytical Inventory of Peacekeeping Practice’, developed by the UN Action network and which I helped launch earlier this year. What the Inventory suggests, among other things, is:

  • the value of having community liaison officers who can build a relationship of trust with the community, including with women; ideally we need women as well as men to serve in these positions;
  • deploying foot patrols that actively engage with the population and are accessible/approachable;
  • ensuring peacekeepers on those patrols know how to recognize and react to reports of sexual violence;
  • establishing early warning/distress call systems;
  • signaling a night presence in areas at risk of attack;
  • using joint patrols which include peacekeepers, while acknowledging that the primary responsibility rests with the national and regional authorities.

States bear primary responsibility for protecting their citizens from violence. I see my role as helping to build the capacity of governments to meet their obligations. The United Nations and no number of peace keepers can ever substitute a state. Capacity-building means improving data collection, statistics, monitoring, evaluation, and better reporting mechanisms. The data, once available, must also be widely publicized in order to educate communities. Having the right monitoring and reporting in turn makes it safer and easier for women to report these crimes. In some countries, building capacity can have a more comprehensive reach and include overhauling their entire judicial system. This is no small challenge.

I have used several examples from Africa, but that is only because thus far my missions have been to Liberia and the DRC. Rape and other forms of sexual violence is not a specifically African problem, but one that unfortunately exists in many parts of the world. I have outlined to the Security Council that I want to focus my work on five to seven countries during my mandate. My team and I are currently considering including Colombia, Nepal and Timor Leste, and in a couple of weeks we will visit Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also important to point to something positive in all of this, for example to the fact that all conflict do not automatically bring sexual violence. In Sri Lanka, for instance, we have seen that rape is not part of a systematic pattern. Why is this, and what can we possibly learn from this and other regions, in order to spread the knowledge to those parts of the world where sexual violence in conflict still is a huge issue? That is something we have to take a closer look at.

I also believe that we have to impose tougher terms when providing assistance to countries. Donors, and different parts of the UN system, must be better coordinated. In the DRC, we have military and police officers who have received excellent training from a number of both donor and neighbouring countries, but the training is not necessarily harmonized. The result risks being an army and police force with a different understanding of how their job should be carried out.

Although the issue of women’s participation in efforts to prevent and address sexual violence as a threat to their security and impediment to peace still has a very long way to go, some achievements have been made in the last two decades: The Beijing Platform for Action, to which 189 countries are signatories, in 1995 agreed to strengthen the participation of women in national reconciliation and reconstruction and to investigate and punish those who perpetuate violence against women in armed conflict.

[The road ahead]

One of few glimpses of light and hope during that visit was provided by the apprehension of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ Mayele, one of the rebel commanders of the armed groups presumed to be responsible for the mass rapes in Walikale, the Mai Mai Cheka. This was followed, only a few days later, by the announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the arrest by French authorities of Callixte Mbarushimana, allegedly the Executive Secretary of the FDLR’s (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda) Steering Committee and as such the force behind a plan to intentionally create a human catastrophe through attacks against civilians. Why is this important? It is crucial, because it sends a strong message to these and other perpetrators of acts of sexual violence in conflict that we are aware of the atrocities they commit, and that justice will ultimately prevail. And this goes back to the goals I have set for my mandate.

This is how I want to use the mandate given to me by the Secretary-General and the Security Council:

My first point is ending impunity, i.e. ensuring that perpetrators do not remain at the helm of security institutions and that amnesty is not an option. If women continue to suffer sexual violence, it is not because the law is inadequate to protect them, but because it is inadequately enforced.

Secondly, women must be given a voice, power and influence: A ceasefire is not synonymous with peace for women if the shooting stops but rapes continue unchecked.

The third point is to mobilize political leadership: Resolutions 1325 and 1820 are tools in the hands of political leaders, and should be used as such. Also in terms of the illegal exploitation of so-called conflict minerals, which indirectly fuel sexual violence, the United States has shown great leadership by incorporating measures against this through the Financial Reform package passed last July. It is now high time for the EU and other countries to step up to the plate and follow suit.

Fourth is increasing recognition of rape as a tactic and consequence of conflict: Those who tolerate sexual terror should be notified that they do so in defiance of the Security Council, which holds the power to enact enforcement measures. The Council, for its part, should not underestimate the tools it has at its disposal and be ready to use them.

Finally, I will drive to ensure a better coordination of the entire UN system. I will use the United Nations fully, because this means having more resources, and utilizing the strengths of the individual entities for one common goal – stop rape now. Making certain that the UN system is attuned to early-warning indicators is very important. Crimes on this scale are no accident; often they are strategic, planned and therefore predictable – which we were painfully reminded of from the Walikale atrocities.

Women have no rights, if those who violate their rights go unpunished. I am still haunted by what I heard in the DRC – that women are still not safe, under their own roofs, in their own beds, when night falls. Our aim must be to uphold international law, so that women – even in war-torn corners of our world – can sleep safe and sound.

Far from being a niche issue, sexual violence is part of a larger pattern. Rule by sexual violence is used by political and military leaders to achieve political, military and economic ends. These crimes present a security crisis that demands a security response. To me, the ‘Analytical Inventory of Peacekeeping Practice’ is the start – not the end – of a process to identify what works in preventing sexual violence and improving women’s security. Much more must yet be done to promote actions that have real impact, as we move from recognition to action and from best intentions to best practice. The journey has only begun. Thank you very much.

[number of words: 2 723]