Addressing Wartime Sexual Violence at the United Nations Security Council

A mural at UN HQ by José Vela Zanetti, via Robin Stevens.

Detail from a José Vela Zanetti mural at the United Nations, New York (original image via Robin Stevens)

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council met to vote on a new resolution on wartime sexual violence (under the more general rubric of ‘women, peace and security’). Resolution 2106, as it now is, was passed unanimously, and so joins those other numerical signifiers in the chain of gender mainstreaming: 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1960. The session had been convened by William Hague (the UK holds the Security Council chair for June), and the presence of Angelina Jolie (or ‘Angelina Jolly’, as more than one state representative called her) brought obvious publicity advantages, although that in itself is not so surprising both given her close work with Hague on the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and her role as Special Envoy for the UN High Commission for Refugees.

UNSCR 2106 seems designed mainly as a political symbol that the Council “remains actively seized” of the importance of conflict-related sexual violence, and essentially extends a number of themes already in play (there’s a whole bunch of urges, calls for, recognizes, requests in the text). It seeks the expanded use of targeted sanctions against perpetrators and commanders involved in sexual violence and reiterates the connection of that thing called ‘gender’ to DDR, security sector and justice reforms. It repeats the ‘zero tolerance policy’ on sexual violence and abuse by UN forces, requests further reports on progress to the Council, and so on. There were some other points of note, partly in the mention of men and boys as victims, and partly in some puzzling recessive points such as the Resolution’s demand (its word) that women and children abducted into armed forces be released (given that they are especially vulnerable), with no concomitant mention of kidnapped men.

The resolution also called for sexual and gender-based violence training for all pre-deployment and ‘in-mission’ peacekeeper training, and it is here that perhaps the biggest substantive contribution lies. Numerous references were made in the debate to an expanded role for Women Protection Advisers. Like the discussion of targeted sanctions (mentioned first in UNSCR 1820) this is not brand new, since Women Protection Advisers were themselves an innovation of 1888, which upgraded them from existing gender and human rights advisers. The exact nature of the new role is as yet unclear, but it seems to involve an expansion of their mandate to apply to all UN deployments, since they are currently active in just eight peacekeeping missions (which is just over half).

A few other quick observations on the text and the debate.  Continue reading

Understanding Peacekeeper Sexual Violence

Why do soldiers rape? When footage of peacekeepers from MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, gang-raping an 18-year old boy surfaced earlier this month, that question resurfaced with it. Official declarations have predictably stressed how unfortunate it is that the actions of ‘a few’ should taint the efforts of ‘the many’, although 108 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were expelled from Haiti for sexual exploitation in 2007, and another Uruguayan soldier was recently discharged for sexual relations with a Haitian minor. Certainly, patterns of similar abuse are not restricted to the Haitian mission. One of the more disturbing points in my brief fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo was when an international human rights official told me, with an almost confessional seriousness, that they had feared more for their sexual integrity while travelling with UN peacekeepers than when interviewing Congolese soldiers.

When discussing rapacious African warriors, it is common to interpret sexual violence as part of a drive to accumulate resources or as the reflection of communal hatred in war. Peacekeeper sexual violence constitutes something of a control case in such debates, since it is much harder to link rape to these dynamics. There is no genocidal project for which peacekeepers are the foot soldiers, and they cannot really be said to be frustrated by poor pay and conditions. Certainly there have been links between sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers and a kind of trade, although in the opposite direction than usually posited. In the case of UN missions, it has been peacekeepers who have exchanged goods for sex with locals, rather than using rape as a means of accessing additional resources for themselves (although they have also been implicated in other criminal networks for financial gain). Peacekeeper practices of sexual abuse are thus closer to sex trafficking and prostitution on a continuum of gendered exploitation than to models of rape as a tool of terror to facilitate resource capture.

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

This is the third part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


The oblivion of commentators to these possible African objections has been less than helpful to understanding the actualized Western intervention itself; emergent African ideas on democracy and security; and the actual place of international morality in international affairs. Underlying the African apprehension to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa, on one hand, and self-identified representatives of the West, on the other, over the meaning of international community as well as the source, nature, and proper means of implementation of the collective will. The dispute over the meaning of international community and the collective will has been particularly salient in Africa because, as a political space, Africa has been more subject to military interventions than any other geopolitical space in the modern era. These interventions have reflected contemporaneous relations of power, permissible morality, and objects of desire: from proselytism to fortune-seeking, trade, extraction of raw material, and the strategic pursuit of hegemony. Indeed, it is hard to remember a time since the onset of the slave trade when there was no open conflict between the majority of its states and the West over some dimensions of global governance that implicated the notion of the commons or international community.

The postcolonial era has not brought about any change to this situation. Since the end of World War II and the institution of the United Nations system, the plurality of African political entities have confronted self-appointed representatives of the West over the ethos of UN procedures (involving transparency and open access to the channels of decision-making) and the mechanisms of dispute mediation (including the determination of the principles and applicability of humanitarian interventions in a number of cases). One need only recall the political, legal, and military confrontations between African states and former Western colonial powers over Apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West (which involved the legality and morality of colonial trusteeship); the French war on Algeria (which involved the legality and legitimacy of settler colonialism); the wars of decolonization in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (which involved the principles of majority rule through open elections which communists might win); the unilateral declaration of independence by the white minority in Southern Rhodesia (which involved the principle of white-minority rule in postcolonial Africa); and the legality and morality of apartheid (which involved the principle of self-determination and majority rule). The underlying antagonisms contaminated deliberations throughout the UN system (particularly General Assembly proceedings) and involved all major issues from the Palestine Question to the Law of the Sea to other matters of trade and intellectual property. They reached a climax at the time of exit of the US and Great Britain from UNESCO, which was then directed by Ahmadou Mathar Mbow, a Senegalese diplomat and statesman.

These and other contests have shared a few singular features. One is a Western insistence on representing the essential core and therefore will of something called international community. In any case, the label of international community has often been reserved for Western entities in relations to others, who remain the object of intervention on behalf of the international community. This is to say that the term ‘international community’ has had political functionality in relations of power and domination in which Europe (and later The West) subordinated ‘Africa’. The relevant tradition can be traced back to the opening moments of the modern era, particularly during the ascension of The West to global hegemony. While it has undergone changes over time, the embedded imaginary of international community and its will have been built around artificially fixed identities and politically potent interests. Accordingly, the identity of the West, and therefore the international community, flows from a theology of predestination, formally enunciated as the Monroe doctrine in the US or the Mission Civilizatrice in France.

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