The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Rap(e)in(g) International Law

June 26, 2008

The Guardian reports a great triumph for women’s rights at the United Nations Security Council, which has recently passed a new resolution condemning sexual violence as a war crime and a component of genocide.

I’m thinking: how does this new resolution go beyond SCR 1325 of 2000, which called on governments not only to “respond to” but to actually “prevent” sexual violence? Since rape has already been recognized as a war crime since at least 1949, and since it is now also recognized, when perpetrated by an agent of the state, as torture (in the ICTY statute), as genocide (in the Akayesu ruling of the ICTR), and as a crime against humanity or genocide under certain circumstances (in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), what exactly does it mean for the UN Security Council to, again, be claiming this is so and for the media to report this as “news”?

One thing it may mean is that the Bush Administration is seizing upon a symbolic opportunity to appear to be championing women’s rights and international rule of law.
Those who have followed the development of gender jurispridence in the UN system ought to see through this, however. In fact, with its excessive focus on rape as genocide (which obscures the continuum of violence faced by women not just at the hands of enemy soldiers but indeed from their own men in wartime); in its emphasis on women, rather than rape victims of both sexes (yes, men are victims of sexual violence too – surely Abu Ghraib drove that home); and in its watered down language (UNSCR 1820 claims rape “can” be a war crime, whereas earlier documents state that it is) this resolution could even be a step backward.

A genuine step forward would not involve more pretty language after almost a decade of gaps in implementation. It would involve action.

What UNSCR 1820 does, however, is to securitize war rape. In other words, this resolution is not about promoting women’s rights. It is about governments recognizing – at least in theory – that systematic sexual violence undermines not just women’s rights but governments’ own security interests:

“Sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war in order to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security, affirms in this regard that effective steps to prevent and respond to such acts of sexual violence can significantly contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, and expresses its readiness, when considering situations on the agenda of the Council, to, where necessary, adopt appropriate steps to address widespread or systematic sexual violence.”

Whether this is apalling or heartening depends on your theoretical perspective.

Full text of the UNSCR 1820 can be found here.

A helpful recent overview on rape in international criminal law is here.

Additional resources on gender crimes in international criminal law and jurisprudence can be found at the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice website.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.