With a new administration in the United States, hopes abound for renewed commitment to multilateralism, not least in the United Nations Security Council. A more engaged US coupled with the United Kingdom’s presidency of the Council in February is an important opportunity to awaken a sense that the UN is seized with preventing sexual violence and ready to consolidate progress.
Both the US and UK are in a position to make a real difference. The UK is the lead country or penholder for women, peace and security (WPS) and established the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), and the US holds the pen for conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). While US President Joseph Biden has promised to take action in the UN Security Council and to increase international support for CRSV prevention and multilateralism, the US Defense Department is carrying out a high-level review of its sexual misconduct prevention and accountability programs. As members of the UN Security Council, they can work to integrate the prevention of CRSV into peacekeeping effectiveness and in efforts to protect civilians in conflict situations around the world.
Conflict-Related Sexual Violence is Preventable
Strategies to address sexualized violence in war have mainly focused on perpetrator accountability and survivor support, after violence has already occurred. Both are vital, however CRSV is preventable, and actions by UN political missions and peacekeeping support operations can mitigate these harms before they even happen. Our research in International Peacekeeping showed how CRSV could be prevented with systematic action.
Sexual violence manifests in different forms, targets, perpetrator groups, and frequency. Some armed actors engage in high levels of CRSV, employing sexual violence strategically in the service of ethnic cleansing, genocide, or sexual torture. Examples include state forces during Guatemala’s civil war, Bosnian Serb militias in the former Yugoslavia, Janjaweed militias in Sudan, Hutu forces in Rwanda, and the Myanmar military.
Some armed organizations target specific social groups with particular forms of sexual violence, as is the case of the Islamic State, which sexually enslaved Yazidi (but not Sunni Muslim) girls and women and engaged in forced and child marriage of Sunni Muslims (but not Yazidis).
Combatants may also commit high levels of CRSV without orders or authorization. Rape by American soldiers in the Vietnam War was frequent because it was tolerated by commanders and driven by peer social dynamics, i.e., rape was a practice.
But state and non-state armed forces are capable of changing behaviors in their own ranks. Some armed actors or organizations strive to stop their fighters from carrying out sexual harms and above all, wartime rape. They institute prohibitions, inculcate their fighters in training and education, and punish perpetrators consistently. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front engaged in little CRSV during El Salvador’s civil war (1980–1992), even as state forces committed widespread rape during massacres and sexually tortured political prisoners. Palipehutu-FNL (Palipehutu-Forces for National Liberation) had a reputation for restraint during Burundi’s civil war (1994–2008) in contrast to other armed organizations in Burundi. Both of these country contexts also demonstrate how armies and insurgents from the same social and cultural backgrounds do not necessarily exhibit the same tendencies for CRSV.
Engaging in CRSV is a choice, not an unavoidable wartime phenomenon. The UN is well-placed to pressure commanders to declare and enforce prohibitions against sexual violence. This may be especially effective when an armed organization has strong internal institutions that allow effective training, indoctrination, and punishment. Recent research suggests that organizations with high levels of internal control may be more responsive to the presence of peacekeeping personnel, and therefore more likely to show restraint. However, without a protection mandate, peacekeeping’s prevention role is limited and risks increasing rebel-perpetrated CRSV.
Formal and Informal indicators
We propose a combination of formal and informal indicators to analyze the operational environment and the internal institutions that can prevent (or contribute to) CRSV. These indicators emerged from our research on how to engage armed actors and organizations preemptively.
First, formal indicators about armed actors and organizations, their institutions and their capacities reveal the foundational pillars of prevention. Examples of formal indicators include codes of conduct; political education and training in its clarity, frequency and consistency; investigation processes and the quality of legal proceedings. The UN’s own operations and experts are aware of these types of indicators, and should be supported in collecting information systematically in relation to the listing (and delisting) of credibly suspected perpetrators under UN Security Council resolution 1960.
Second, prevention is also observable through informal indicators about armed actors and organizations and their willingness to engage in prevention. Simply having (or adopting from outside) a code of conduct is not enough. Informal indicators are those that illuminate how armed institutions operate every day: evidence of socialization processes, the status and role of sexual misconduct for combatants and leaders, empathy or denigration of survivors and civilians, and peer-to-peer processes that promote sexual cultures of consent (or not).
Notably, numerical CRSV prevalence and trends should be employed carefully and transparently—with presentation of the methods and sources behind the numbers. At the same time, other types of violence should not be forgotten. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) show that other forms of political violence—such as non-sexual attacks, abductions, and forced disappearances, as well as mob violence—may also disproportionately target women.
Finally, since peacekeepers face complex contexts of gendered security on the ground, they should avoid reliance on dominant narratives of women as only victims, or as targets solely because of their gender. Moreover, leaders should be aware that their own military cultures—including those of peacekeeping troops—can be affected by norms of misogynist masculinity. The UN Security Council should not underestimate the need for continued dialogue and education within its own operations.
Prevention Going Forward
Taken together, these insights point toward a group of prevention policies that need greater leadership support. The UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (OSRSG-SVC) and international and non-governmental organizations have developed methods for working with non-state armed groups. The Security Council’s own request for the UN secretary-general to establish monitoring, analysis, and reporting arrangements (MARA) has resulted in integrated, local operational information-gathering, as well as more comprehensive approaches in field missions. Peacekeeping now has more effective protection mandates. Women Protection Advisers are deployed to all major operations. These efforts merit an energized Council ready to engage new knowledge. The UN can improve its capacity for CRSV prevention by integrating what we now know about the choices made by armed actors and organizations to institute (or not) prohibitions. Consolidating the gains made in this research and applying them in policy will be key if the UN Security Council is to bring a total halt to conflict-related sexual violence. The leadership of the UK and the US is imperative in taking this important work forward.
Angela Muvumba Sellström is a senior researcher at the The Nordic Africa Institute (NAI). Louise Olsson is a senior researcher at The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Stephen Moncrief is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Elisabeth Jean Wood is the Crosby Professor of the Human Environment and a professor of political science at Yale University. Karin Johansson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Chiara Ruffa is an associate professor at the Swedish Defense University. Amelia Hoover Green is an associate professor at Drexel University. Ann-Kristin Sjöberg is the co-director of Fight for Humanity and Roudabeh Kishi is Research Director at The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).