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.