The Bureaucracy of Rape
The Bush Administration has made much of its June 19 triumph in the Security Council in getting unanimous backing for a resolution aimed at curtailing sexual violence against women caught up in conflict. This was no small feat, given the perennial reluctance of some Council members to accept that rape and other violent abuses of women and girls are matters of peace and security. (Ask the women of Darfur or the Democratic Republic of Congo about that.)
The utmost American effort went into lining up all fifteen votes for the resolution, apparently cinched by some high-level last-minute intervention by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the inevitable tinkering with words. Resolution 1820 was welcomed widely by human rights organizations, women's advocacy groups and some frontline UN agencies.
But how does this advance the cause of the world's most vulnerable women? What difference will it make?
This is the administration in Washington that has cut off aid--now totaling nearly $300 million over seven years, with the latest installment axed on June 27--to the United Nations Population Fund, which tries to help sexually violated women meet their most urgent and intimate needs, including safe abortions and "morning after" contraceptives. A woman in a besieged refugee camp is not terribly interested in lectures about abstinence, either.
Nearly eight years ago, the Security Council truly broke new ground with another resolution, the now-iconic Resolution 1325, which went straight for the abuses of women in conflict and its aftermath and also targeted the scandalous neglect of women's voices "at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions." Peacekeeping and peacebuilding would now take women into account, that resolution said. But the rape goes on, sometimes by peacekeepers as well as combatants. And getting places for women at negotiating tables is still an uphill struggle.
The new US-sponsored resolution does not establish the principle that tactical rape is a war crime, as some media reported. That has been accepted internationally the since the mid-1990s, says Rhonda Copelon of CUNY School of Law, who directs the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic. War crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkans have convicted men for rape. Sexual abuse is enshrined as a war crime in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Nor does the new resolution set out sanctions against governments or militias or any other parties to a conflict that employ systematic abuses of women, which can include impregnating "the other" to sully ethnicity or race, or torturing women and girls in front of their menfolk to inflict the worst humiliation, helplessness and grief. The new measure does, however, edge toward a readiness to "adopt appropriate steps to address widespread or systematic sexual violence." But only "where necessary," whatever that means.
Direct threats to offenders against half the human race, coupled with enforcement measures, would have been too much for the council to live with, though UNICEF says that violence against women and girls is perhaps the most pervasive of human rights violations. Instead, the resolution calls for another report by the Secretary General, due next June. The mandate for the report is peppered with words such as analysis, benchmarks and proposals. In the intervening year, countless women will die, and girls will become sex slaves to brutal armies and pick-up militias--the Burmese military and the warlords of Congo come to mind.
There were apparently four countries that took a lot of persuading to join the consensus for unanimity: China, Russia, Indonesia and Vietnam, the latter two holding rotating seats on the council. This is not to say that those governments in any way condone sexual violence as a tactic of warfare. At the UN things are always more complicated than that. There is a genuine concern in some nations that issues involving the treatment of civilian populations belong in the humanitarian agencies or in the Economic and Social Council, which could be a valid point if that body had any backbone or remaining clout. There is always the fear that somehow the Security Council may be moving toward poking its way into the affairs of any government it chooses. Today, Sudan; tomorrow, who? It was on this last point that a workable linguistic compromise seems to have finally been struck. When all is said and done, the scrutiny in the new report from the secretary general will be limited to situations already "on the agenda of the Council." No surprises.
If countries where horrific abuses take place reject as a breach of sovereignty all outside intervention, or even help, and refuse to save their own people from abuse and violent death, what hope can there be for victims? The circle is closed.
Moreover, there is an underlying, more corrosive reluctance among member nations of the UN to confront the issue of abuses against women generally. UN documents, mission statements, guidelines, how-not-to books and years of speeches have paid lip service to ending the routine abasement of women in many places, in peace as well as war. In the UN there are slogans about how "women's rights are human rights" and commitments to gender mainstreaming and statements about the empowerment of women as the key to ending poverty. Yet UN statistics on the lives of the majority of the world's women, particularly in Africa and South Asia, tell a different story--a story of absent rights, the denial of schooling, the lack of control over their own bodies. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is lining up a hoped-for 1 million signers of a petition against violence, to add to the archive of ringing declarations from international conferences and exhortations by UN officials. Governments are asked to make a public pledge: "Say no to violence against women."
Pledges? Why not just do something.
Barbara Crossette, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, was South Asia bureau chief from 1988 to 1991 and UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.
Copyright © 2008 The Nation