Building up to today’s International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, the United Nations released a new “Handbook for UN Field Missions on Preventing and Responding to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.” It lays out the U.N.’s best practices and lessons learned on conflict-related sexual violence. Many aspects of the handbook are encouraging. Yet it perpetuates a persistent gap in the way the organization views such violations, a disconnect that will need to be addressed before the system can fully prevent and address such abuses.

In many ways, the U.N. demonstrates in the new manual an appreciation for the diverse forms of conflict-related sexual violence and advances long-held goals and principles by outlining explicit, concrete steps. Most importantly, the handbook advocates for an approach to addressing this type of violence that is focused on the survivor and that U.N. peacekeeping missions have historically struggled to implement.

On the other hand, the document ignores sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by U.N. peacekeepers, continuing to make a distinction between that and conflict-related sexual violence by other state and non-state forces. The manual also places too much emphasis on women’s protection advisors and mission leadership, which may not lead to systemic change. The guidance does not recommend substantive engagement with local populations in its prevention efforts, making it seems like a top-down strategy.. Taken together, these deficits threaten to undermine the progress that the U.N. has made in its policies intended to prevent this pervasive type of violence.

The handbook is the latest in a series of U.N. efforts to address and prevent conflict-related sexual violence. That work began with Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. Since 2000, the Security Council has addressed this type of violence explicitly in five other resolutions (1820, 1888 1960, 2106, 2467).

The U.N.’s efforts have produced some success: research shows when there are reports of conflict-related sexual violence, the U.N. is more likely to address the overall conflict, deploy peacekeeping operations, and ensure gender issues are considered in the mandates of those operations.

Despite these efforts, such sexual violence in conflict persists. In 2015, the most recent year for which we have data more than 30 percent of state forces involved in armed conflict were reported to have committed sexual violence in at least isolated instances. 

What It Gets Right 

The handbook’s greatest strength is its emphasis on a survivor-centered approach to prevention and response, which “requires United Nations Field Mission personnel to put victims/survivors at the centre of any intervention and to strive to minimize possibilities of harming victims/survivors inadvertently through their intervention or by not intervening.”

This approach, first enshrined in Resolution 2467 in 2019 as a means to more fully support survivors, guides how civilian, military, and police personnel in U.N. peace operations interview survivors, communicate with local authorities, and ensure reparations and continued support.

The manual reflects the consensus among scholars and practitioners that conflict-related sexual violence is not a homogeneous phenomenon. It explicitly recognizes the diverse reasons behind it, including to terrorize, to gain information, to generate revenue, to socialize combatants, to foster members’ loyalty to the group, or to control territory and resources. This recognition is key to preventing and addressing sexual violence because it enables U.N. missions to identify and address the underlying incentives and conditions.

The handbook emphasizes that conflict-related sexual violence is not an inevitable or a natural byproduct of conflict. This improved understanding is critical to challenging persistent myths and improving the pursuit of justice and accountability. Military commanders and combatants can only be prosecuted if everyone involved shares the understanding that such crimes are not inevitable. Perpetrators who make the conscious, sometimes strategic choice to commit, order, or condone sexual violence are culpable and need to be prosecuted.

Another useful feature of the handbook is a lengthy list of good practices, to aid in implementation. These include one-stop centers in Mali, where survivors can seek medical help and psycho-social support and which can help prevent re-traumatization while assuring maximum confidentiality. A regional action plan for addressing conflict-related sexual violence in South Kivu, DRC, likewise demonstrates how policy goals can be practically pursued.

Goals from earlier reports on these types of violations, such as ending impunity for perpetrators, are not simply repeated, but expanded upon with clear steps to implementation. In this case, recommendations for U.N. personnel include how to interact with local police and judicial systems to end impunity, a key step for ensuring justice.

What It Gets Wrong 

Yet, the handbook omits a key form of sexual violence in areas of violent conflict: sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel. A brief disclaimer acknowledges the omission, claiming sexual exploitation is not directly related to the conflict and originates from power differentials. To address misconduct, the U.N. pursues prevention, enforcement of U.N. standards of conduct, and remedial action. However, this tendency of the U.N. to separate these issues is problematic.

Framing sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers as a matter of conduct and discipline prevents policymakers from addressing the systemic issues of racism, colonial legacies, and gender dynamics that contribute to sexual violence in various forms.

Second, the handbook tends to rely on mission leadership or gender-specific roles to advance prevention and protection efforts. It is indeed important to get the support of leadership. However Women’s Protection Advisors have multiple roles that may be difficult to fully address, being tasked with advising senior leadership, providing guidance and coordination to all mission components on prevention and response, and engaging in dialogue with parties to the conflict.

Another risk of the advisor/gender unit approach is siloing the issue, and thereby impeding prevention efforts. If mission leadership is not invested in making these issues mainstream in their work and thinking, this approach tends to fail to address the systemic nature of the problem. For example, in 2015, the U.N. Secretary-General had to ask the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic for his resignation following repeated allegations of sexual exploitation.

Finally, despite a survivor-centered approach, the handbook says little about the importance of working with local communities. Studies have shown that gender inequalities embedded within local societies are an underlying cause of sexual violence related to conflict. As such, those carrying out prevention efforts must work with populations to effectively change structures that support such violations.

Local communities are also important sources of information. For example, a group of Indian blue helmets in the Democratic Republic of Congo passed through a village while members of a local militia were gang raping civilians. Because the blue helmets did not speak Swahili or French, and had had little contact with the villagers beforehand, no one was willing to inform them of what was happening. They moved on to the next village, unaware of the atrocities that they could have stopped.

Moving Forward

The U.N.’s new handbook on preventing conflict-related sexual violence gets a lot of things right. Its nuanced understanding of the violations and detailed action plans help to make major policy commitments more concrete.

We would recommend that future iterations include sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel as a form of conflict-related sexual violence, incorporate this more comprehensive understanding into the entire mission, and acknowledge the importance of working with local communities to prevent and respond to sexual violence. Improving the understanding of various interconnections — including the power structures that enable multiple forms of sexual violence and abuse – will ultimately bolster the effectiveness of prevention efforts and responses.

IMAGE: Iraqi Yazidi women at Lalish temple, the Yazidis’ most holy site, in a valley near Dohuk, 430 km (260 miles) northwest of the capital Baghdad, on June 24, 2018. Yazidis are followers of an ancient religion with more than half a million believers in northern Iraq. In 2014, IS kidnapped thousands of the sect’s women and girls as sex slaves. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)