The United Nations Security Council has established a long and fairly distinguished history of addressing the harms caused by sexual violence in war. By developing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda via a series of resolutions, the Security Council enabled a discourse acknowledging women’s experience of and contribution to war and peace. Central to that political work was the commitment by numerous states, including the United States, to highlighting the harm of sexual violence in war, the needs of survivors, and the validity of accountability for such harm.
But the United States, it now appears, has abandoned any meaningful commitment to victims and survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, sacrificed on the altar of appeasement to the current administration’s fervent support from domestic anti-abortion constituencies.
Regulatory and legal attention to sexual violence in situations of armed conflict is relatively new. The history of war and peacemaking affirms the great silences and difficulties over centuries in surfacing gender-related harms and experiences, including but not limited to sexual violence. In the past two decades, the scope and harm of sexual violence in conflict has been exposed and now is better understood, in part because the Security Council has articulated such harms explicitly.
Sexual violence as experienced in conflict can be individual and collective, and the harms that ensue are physical and moral, emotional and social, immediate and inter-generational. It includes rape, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced sexual prostitution, trafficking enslavement, and forced nudity.
Victims of conflict-related sexual violence are invariably the most marginalized during and after conflict, experiencing long-term and sustained stigma, rejection by families and communities, and enduring physical and mental harms. The vast majority of victims are civilians, though clearly women and male combatants during and after hostilities are also subject to sexual violence.
As well as naming these harms, the Security Council resolutions from Resolution 1325 onwards have articulated and affirmed the needs and rights-based entitlements of survivors of sexual violence. Restitution and reparations are understood as not only part of the acknowledgment of harm caused but also essential to directly remedying the harms of sexual violence.
Rehabilitation means making medical and psychological care completely available to survivors, and it is impossible to conceive of medical care without the inclusion of reproductive health services. Reproductive health includes but is not limited to abortion services for women who have experienced sexual violence.
In the aftermath of sexual violence, holding the view that women are required to carry to term children who are the result of violent sexual penetration, constitutes a secondary violation of the rights of women and further exacerbates their exclusion, stigmatization, and outsider status.
But, reproductive health is much more than abortion. It includes the right to fistula operations, the right to ongoing monitoring and choice in reproductive regulation (i.e. whether to have access to contraception in the aftermath of rape to prevent pregnancy), the right to health services that take account of reproductive and sexual health in the aftermath of sexual violence. All these essential health entitlements are at risk when reproductive health needs are not recognized for sexual violence survivors.
In a decisive setback to ensure adequate responses to victims of sexual violence, the Security Council passed Resolution 2467 yesterday by avoiding any direct references to the reproductive health of victims. The resolution is a shameful parody of meaningful international response to the reality, harm, and needs of survivors of sexual violence. It parades a set of platitudes by states, absent a commitment to one of the most essential and practical needs of victims.
It appears that strong earlier language proposed and drafted by Germany was rejected by the United States and watered down to keep the United States from exercising a veto power on the resolution. This compromise not only exposes the hostility of the United States to meeting the needs of sexual violence survivors, but also raises the broader question of other Security Council members enabling U.S. views by taking out language that expresses, supports, and advances the reproductive health needs of victims (with some notable exceptions).
A Security Council resolution on sexual violence that fails to recognize the totality of victims’ needs de facto weakens the claims of survivors to appropriate medical treatment and is an abject failure, setting back rather than advancing the needs of victims. In short, we would be better off not to have the resolution at all than accept language that further victimizes and disempowers victims of sexual violence in conflict.