26-Apr-22 Sanctions for Sexual Violence in War

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Reports from Ukraine in recent weeks evidence that, as in other conflicts around the world and through time, rape is being used as a tool of war. Traditionally, this issue has received minimal attention in the history books. Writing in 1995, Copelon (p.197) observes that:

When war is done, rape is comfortably filed away as a mere and inevitable “by-product,” a matter of poor discipline, the inevitable bad behaviour of soldiers revved up, needy, and briefly “out of control”.

In 2013, the G8 (an inter-governmental political forum of leading countries from 1997 until 2014) adopted in London the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI). In the Declaration, the signatories specifically sought to “challeng[e] the myths that sexual violence in armed conflict is a cultural phenomenon or an inevitable consequence of war or
a lesser crime” (PSVI, Para 1). In other words, it was recognised that rape in war is one of the most serious violations of human rights, that it is a deliberate act of terror, domination and punishment, and that it can be used systematically and on a widescale, including as a constitutive act to genocide. The PSVI calls for effective investigation and documentation of sexual violence in conflict so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.

However, a background paper to a United Nations debate on 13 April 2022 on Accountability as Prevention: Ending Cycles of Sexual Violence in Conflict, notes that, “there are multiple country contexts globally where these crimes are a daily occurrence, including Afghanistan, the DRC, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere”. Indeed, it was not until January 2022, that the first conviction for sexual violence during the Syrian War was secured, and this related to offences from 2011-2012. It is notable that the convicted Syrian colonel, Anwar Raslan, was convicted also of multiple murders and the torture of thousands of men and women at the Al-Khatib prison in Damascus. Cases prosecuting sexual violence alone are fewer but growing in number.

The Report of the United Nations Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (S/2022/272), published in April 2022, makes a number of recommendations for the UN Security Council and for member states, donors and intergovernmental organisations, to prevent, monitor and prosecute sexual violence in war. The report underlines the need for action to be survivor-centred, listening to what they need and want, rather than working up mechanisms and initiatives without consultation.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SGS-SVC), Pramila Patten, also calls for sexual violence to be incorporated as a stand-alone designation criterion for targeted sanctions. Indeed, in a speech yesterday to the Georgetown Institute of Women Peace and Security, Patten re-iterated that, while eight of the UN’s current fourteen regime sanctions make mention of sexual violence, “When imposed specifically for sexual violence, they send an unequivocal signal about the gravity of these historically hidden crimes”. Furthermore, she argues:

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.

Patten urges the UN and member states to have the political will and courage to take sexual violence seriously, ensuring also, for example, that rape allegations are not written away under amnesty agreements. Legal, psychological, health and reproductive support needs also to be put in place for rape victims. Too often in the context of war and destruction, the very services rape victims most need are inaccessible.

In her 2019/2020 Annual report, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird, argued that there had been in the previous year a ‘catastrophic decline’ in prosecutions for rape, such that we were, in the UK, effectively witnessing the ‘decriminalisation of rape’ (p.16).

There is then a local and global failure to address rape of women and girls, and of men and boys, in conflict and peace time. This failure means that rape is effectively decriminalised, or not criminalised meaningfully in the first place.

Patten finished her speech yesterday by reminding us that:

“Protection from sexual violence, even in the midst of war, is not merely an aspiration, it is a legal obligation.”


Copelon, R., 1995. Gendered War Crimes: Reconceptualising Rape in Time of War. In: J.S. Peters and A. Wolper, eds., 1995. Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. New York: Routledge. Ch.21.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2022.

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