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Category: Politics, International, Violence against Women

At the UN, Criminalizing Rape as a Weapon

| November 3, 2009

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Secretary Clinton at the UN

In the last week of October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines and sparked anger in travels to Israel and Pakistan. Her role some weeks earlier was less controversial yet critically important, as she led UN diplomats forward in an action that could ease the suffering of countless women and girls living in conflict zones around the world.

Last year, the United Nations classified the deliberate use of rape as a tactic of war and a major threat to international security. On September 30, 2009, the Security Council went one step further.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chaired the session as the Security Council unanimously adopted a U.S. sponsored resolution (S/Res/1888) that called for the appointment of a special envoy charged with coordinating the efforts to combat the use of rape as a weapon of war and assist governments in ending impunity for the perpetrators. Having met with women who survived rape and violence in her recent visit to the Congo, Clinton said in remarks to the council, “The dehumanizing nature of sexual violence doesn’t just harm a single individual or a single family or even a single village or a single group. It shreds the fabric that weaves us together as human beings.”

Violence against women and young girls in conflict zones is not a new phenomenon. In the Rwanda genocide of 1994, up to half a million women suffered sexual violence. Sixty thousand women were victimized during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and a further 60,000 plus in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001.

Today, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the calculated use of violence against women and girls claims an average of 36 women and girls a day. The numbers are staggering, and it is too easy for those of us far removed from the horrors to forget that these women are mothers, daughters and sisters who laugh and cry, rejoice and mourn just like the rest of us.

Resolution 1888 is a significant step towards meeting what the Security Council acknowledges as the UN’s special obligation to protect women and children who are “war’s most vulnerable and violated victims.” It is designed to create the legal framework, both nationally and internationally, to ensure that those responsible for war related sexual violence are prosecuted and punished.

Conflict zones are by definition politically unstable. If, as was the case in Guinea recently, those in political power are responsible for the atrocities, holding them responsible is complicated to say the least. This makes the legal framework outlined in the resolution even more critical.

Given these considerations, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon must appoint a special envoy with not only a comprehensive understanding of the challenges but also the courage of her or his convictions.

“It is time for all of us to assume our responsibility to go beyond condemning this behavior to taking concrete steps to end it, to make it socially unacceptable, to recognize it is not cultural, it is criminal,” Secretary Clinton told the council. “We must act now to end this crisis.”

The issues will not be resolved overnight. Progress will undoubtedly be measured incrementally over months, years or even decades. But the international community, starting with whomever is appointed as special envoy, must never lose sight of the ultimate objective.

We are not merely dealing with statistics and legalities. We are dealing in the reality of human lives—lives that are lost or traumatized by brutal violence. It is unacceptable that a large majority of the criminals who commit these acts escape unscathed. The women who suffer at their hands are left to survive through sheer force of will and human resilience.

If resolution 1888 is successfully implemented, it will open a door for these women. It will solidify their resolve and offer hope for a life that is free from fear and free from violence.

That’s a life that every single one of them deserves.

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