Today, the United Nations Security Council holds its annual debate on Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV). The “debate” is generally well-staged and highly performative. This year, the meeting will be chaired by Malta, and the program is expected to focus on preventing CRSV through demilitarization and gender-responsive arms control.

The focus on demilitarization leverages gender mainstreaming into the planning and execution of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and addresses the different needs of female and male ex-combatants along with the needs of their dependents. Gender-responsive arms control is firmly linked to the transfer and control of weapons, particularly small arms and light weapons, tackling the underlying conditions that enable their access, circulation, and transfer, and the gendered pathways weapons procurement and management take. Both topics are timely and offer a welcome priority shift in an agenda that has increasingly appeared to be highjacked by some States selectively leveraging CRSV in certain conflicts, a profound failure to address the totality of CRSV in all conflicts equally, and an abject failure to heed the actual needs of victims of sexual violence.

This approach is making no inroads on the global prevention of sexual violence. Ultimately, any difference to the status quo can only be made by rebuilding trust in the commitment of States to the equality of all victims and a meaningful focus on preventing harms and remedying the effects of harm directly for victims. The Security Council can begin that rebuilding this week – if it has the will to start afresh and accept the failure of the current status quo for women.

Not so surprisingly, it turns out that the best way to prevent sexual violence in armed conflict is to prevent conflict. And, if armed conflict is ongoing, then resolving conflict inclusively and expediently will put pause to systemic human rights and humanitarian law violations including sexual violence. The premise that “peace protects” has a long history in the work of feminist transnational activism from the Paris Peace Conference of 1921 onwards but it has regrettably been mostly marginalized in State approaches to the Women, Peace and Security agenda (WPS). Harshly, it might be said that the WPS agenda has abjectly failed in its protection goal, namely the fallacy that giving women access to the Security Council and “security spaces” would end or limit the use of sexual and gender-based violence by combatants, or as two prominent scholars have aptly put it, the “protection racket” has not worked so well for women.

This year has been particularly harrowing for women in armed conflict. While some conflicts – specifically those in Ukraine and Israel – have given rise to some selective attention on penetrative sexual violence, the totality of gender-based violence experienced by men, women, girls, and boys across the spectrum of these conflicts, including obstetric harm, have been largely ignored. Regrettably, the invocation or willingness to highlight sexual violence has appeared strategic and utilitarian. It has failed to address the complexity and lived realities of gender-based violence on the ground. It has utterly failed the victims of violence mostly by commodifying them as useful to certain States and discarding them once the media spotlight has moved on.

In other conflicts and contexts, notably Sudan and Nigeria, conflict-related sexual violence has accelerated and deepened. The fact and scale of widespread and well-documented conflict-related sexual violence in these countries barely makes the international news, and sexual violence in countries like Mali, Iraq, and Syria is side-lined even when these countries make the Security Council agenda. It turns out that certain States care a lot about some victims of sexual violence but not at all about others. Far from being a universal agenda focused on the rights and equality of all women and girls, CRSV has become selective and partisan fodder for States who pick up and discard the political weaponization of sexual violence when it suits them and drop it when it does not.

The U.N. itself has not emerged unscathed from this abject politicization of sexual violence. In one conflict (Israel-Gaza), U.N. Women was essentially gaslit by U.S lawmakers and Israel on its failure to condemn a particular set of horrific acts of sexual violence. But, in no other context or no other conflict before or since – no matter how widespread or egregious the sexual violence against women – has the same call to a specific form of intervention been forced on U.N Women by member States. In fact, it is the daily work of U.N. Women in addressing the inequality experienced by women which might be one of the best bulwarks against the violence that plagues the conduct of hostilities globally. The consistent, underappreciated, and valuable work of U.N. Women has been to focus on country-specific trends and capacity building and work directly to support the victims of gender-based violence and to support States to concretely address their health, justice, and reparation needs. Victims of sexual violence across the globe understand the import of the selectivity directed at U.N. Women. Certain States will politically highlight some victims in some places, will call on U.N. entities to perform condemnation in a certain way in certain contexts, but this rule does not apply equally to all victims of sexual violence.

Most particularly, if nothing changes, it would appear that victims of sexual violence in the global south will rarely be deemed to deserve this form of raised rhetorical status. The violence to those women and girls essentially matters less to powerful and vocal States. Moreover, the abject politicization of the Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict following the visit of the Special Representative Pramila Patten to Israel has weakened its stature globally. The report of that visit, which fails to observe basic rules of adequate investigation and contains a deeply flawed methodology, undermines the rights of all victims of sexual violence across the globe, including those the office was purporting to serve when it undertook its mission to Israel earlier this year. This office may have to live with the long-term consequences of its political commodification and a lack of trust in its even-handedness and professionalism from civil society and experts alike.

How can a Security Council debate this week make a difference given this backdrop?  A debate on prevention, on arms, and on demilitarization is a good step towards righting an agenda that has lost the confidence of those it is meant to serve. The next step must be, consistent with the U.N.’s New Agenda for Peace, a fundamental reappraisal of what it would take to protect women from CRSV and a righting of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. This would mean addressing the root causes of gender inequality and violence against women in society, it would require the indispensable step of addressing the causes and production of armed conflict. If States can move past selectivity and muster the courage, we may see the first glimmers of what that approach could look like at the Security Council today.

IMAGE: The United Nations Headquarters, in New York city, on Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)