Click here to complete our Survey about Human Rights after Brexit

Sexual violence in conflict is a “tactic of war, torture and terror”

The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, has told the Security Council that sexual violence is “being used as a tactic of war, torture and terror, and a tool of political repression, to dehumanize, destabilize, and forcibly displace populations.”

The Special Representative was updating the Council on the Secretary-General’s June 2020 report, titled Conflict-related sexual violence, which documented nearly 3,000 UN-verified cases committed over the course of a single year, a substantial majority (89 percent) of these attacks targeted women and girls.

Ms. Patten highlighted sexual violence as a “crime that shreds the very fabric that binds communities together, leaving social cohesion and safety nets threadbare”, before stating:

“It is a biological weapon; a psychological weapon; an expression of male dominance over women, and of one group over another. Conflict-related sexual violence is a crime that sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace. These are interlocking issues: more gender equality means greater social stability, and the inverse is also true.”

The findings of the report emphasise the imperative of a survivor-centred approach, according to the Special Representative. Such an approach is in line with Council resolution 2467 (2019), which requires “tailored solutions that build resilience, restore voice and choice to survivors, and address the diverse experiences of all affected individuals.”.

Watch Pramila Patten’s address to the Security Council here:


The ‘Conflict-related sexual violence’ Report

The report spans 19 countries of concern. Each country section includes a targeted recommendation, intended to guide “peacekeeping mandate authorizations; country-specific deliberations; sanctions decisions; or the design of peace negotiations, ceasefire agreements, and transitional justice processes.”.

As an example, the report highlights how in Syria and Iraq many “civilians formerly held captive by ISIL in the Syrian Arab Republic, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence” still remain missing and in dire need of family reunification. In this case, the report’s recommendation states:

“I reiterate the importance of sexual violence prosecutions being conducted in line with international standards and note that ISIL affiliates should be prosecuted for these specific crimes. I urge the Government to ensure protection and assistance for children born of rape and their mothers.”

The International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR) has previously interviewed Syrian-Kurdish journalist Hisham Arafat on the issue of sexual violence in Syria. Mr. Arafat highlighted how sexual violence is being used by Turkish backed militias and Islamist group as a tactic or war and repression against Kurdish women. As of yet, these atrocities have been committed with impunity.

Watch IOHR’s Margherita Cargasacchi interview Hisham Arafat here:


The report also lists 54 parties “credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence”. Over 70 percent of “persistent perpetrators” have appeared on the list for five or more years.

For the first time, the report includes an assessment of compliance gaps, which notes a “prevailing disregard for international norms and obligations by parties to armed conflict”, as well as a succinct lack of meaningful commitments by persistent perpetrators to curb violations.

Ms. Patten is also keenly aware that:

“Every report about wartime rape also testifies to its underreporting. This is linked with fear of stigmatization and reprisals; lack of access to services and the justice system; and harmful social norms around honor, shame and victim-blame.”

“A new decade of decisive action”

The Special Representative told the Council that there needed to be “a new decade of decisive action”, split along three main lines.

The first key issue was empowering survivors (and those at risk) through additional resourcing and quality-service provision. This would “foster an enabling environment in which they can safely report violations and seek redress”.

Secondly, a renewed emphasis on compliance. The UN needed to do more to act on reports and information to bring perpetrating parties in line with international laws and norms.

Thirdly is the need to enhance accountability as a “critical pillar of prevention and deterrence, ensuring that when parties fail to comply with their commitments, they are duly held to account.”

Ms. Patten ultimately concluded that:

“Prevention is the best response. Yet we have struggled to measure – or even define – progress on the prevention pillar of this agenda. Compliance is a concrete example: sexual violence persists not because existing frameworks and obligations are inadequate, but because they are inadequately applied.”

Lack of funding harming progress

The debate also highlighted how sexual and gender-based violence is the most chronically under-funded sector of United Nations humanitarian appeals, receiving less than 1 percent of humanitarian assistance.

Speaking in front of the council, Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said:

“Think of how many lives could be saved if we simply doubled that percentage.”

Ms. Jolie particularly highlighted the plight of Yazidi women and children before describing how, more often than not, perpetrators of systematic conflict-related sexual violence have not been held to account.

The Special Envoy urged states to “do the hard work” of supporting survivors, changing laws and attitudes, and bringing perpetrators to account.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Enter your name and email address below to receive regular updates from us

Sign up to our Newsletter

Enter your name and email address below to receive regular updates from us