The ever-growing list of conflict zones in which sexual violence has been reported globally this year, including in Israel, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti, underscores the persistent horror of this scourge. Acts of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) violate not only the physical and mental integrity of the victims but also breach international humanitarian law and human rights principles. The consequences extend beyond the immediate trauma, impacting individuals, families, communities and countries for years, even decades, afterward.

A woman who says she was raped by armed men from a Mai Mai Cheka militia near Livungi, Republic of Congo. September 17, 2010. (Michael Kamber/The New York Times)
A woman who says she was raped by armed men from a Mai Mai Cheka militia near Livungi, Republic of Congo. September 17, 2010. (Michael Kamber/The New York Times)

USIP has been working on this issue for nearly 12 years through the Missing Peace Initiative — a partnership between USIP, Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Women in International Security and the Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration at Washington University in St. Louis — to focus on the issue of prevention.

Kathleen Kuehnast, director of women, peace and security at USIP and a co-founder of the Missing Peace Initiative, discusses CRSV, the effectiveness of international legal frameworks in preventing and prosecuting such crimes, and what measures can be taken to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors of CRSV into their communities.

What factors contribute to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war? 

Kuehnast: First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Conflict-related sexual violence, or CRSV, refers to acts of sexual violence, including rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and other forms of sexual abuse, that occur in the context of armed conflict or war. Such violence is often used as a strategy or condoned practice by armed groups or individuals to intimidate, control and instill fear among civilian populations. Although women and girls are more often victims of this criminal act, anyone can be a victim of CRSV.

There is no one factor that contributes to the use of sexual violence in war. It appears that it has been a part of the human dynamics of war since humans began recording their nefarious activities. From the scholarship over the last 15 years, we know there is widespread variation in CRSV. It is sometimes committed on a massive scale, and sometimes it is what might be called “opportunistic.” What is important to know though is that this form of violence is personal in the sense that unlike the act of shooting someone with a gun, when there is a distance from the victim, sexual violence requires intentionality and aggressive physical contact. It is never an accident.

Scholarship on CRSV points to a couple of important findings. First, sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. Research analysis of wars over the past 45 years by Yale University’s Elisabeth Wood finds that not all wars result in sexual violence being used in conflict. The finding is important because it means there are ways to prevent the use of sexual violence in conflict. Dara Kay Cohen of Harvard demonstrated in her research that not only is there variation between wars, but even within the same conflict, some armed groups perpetuate sexual violence on a large scale and others do not. For example, research shows that rape was widespread in the civil wars of Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste but far less common during El Salvador’s civil war or on the part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sir Lanka.  

Second, research points to the fact that leadership matters. When an armed group’s leaders maintain control insisting on no tolerance for sexual violence in a conflict then it usually doesn’t happen. But when that leadership either turns a blind eye or intentionally orders it, this is considered criminal under the Rome Statute of 1998 of the International Criminal Court (ICC), when rape as a war crime was codified.

Prevention is inferred in both examples of scholarship’s contribution to the better understanding of CRSV. Why does it not happen in some conflicts but in others, and why does leadership offer a key intervention? And, of course, making sure there is accountability of those who order sexual violence or ignore it is key to prevention.

For 10 years now, through our Missing Peace Initiative, we have annually hosted scholars working on CRSV for workshops to learn about their research on sexual violence and its relationship to armed conflict. We support these scholars, but also understand that for their knowledge to have impact, helping them shape communication of their findings for nonacademic audiences is critical. The recent Missing Peace Global Symposium demonstrated that scholars want to get their findings to those policymakers. USIP prioritizes building bridges between policymakers and scholars on the topic of CRSV.

How effective are international legal frameworks in preventing and prosecuting instances of sexual violence in conflict zones?

Kuehnast: CRSV is a fairly nascent field compared to human rights writ large. The breakthrough came during the 1990s with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Unlike during the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, when there was a decision not to address sexual violence crimes, the ICTY brought forward clear charges against Serbian military leaders for wartime sexual violence. Progress has been made over the last two decades that has refined CRSV international policies. This week the latest jurisprudence was released at the United Nations on gender-based crimes and crimes against children.

These growing legal frameworks are making a difference and will continue to improve accountability. If we look back to World War II and the Japanese occupation of Korea, what were euphemistically called “comfort women” we now call survivors of extreme sexual violence. It is important to make these linkages that CRSV is not new, but we do now have international policies, including U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 and Resolution 1820, as well as mechanisms of prosecution. 

Have these mechanisms stopped sexual violence? There is no silver bullet, so to speak, for stopping sexual violence in conflict just as there is no one way to end it during peacetime as well. It is accurate that we continue to see this form of criminal warfare in many of our current conflicts. Take the recent conflicts in Israel, Sudan, Ethiopia’s Tigray region and Ukraine; and it continues in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The question is: Is this recognition of CRSV because we are turning our attention to it now or is it getting worse? We don’t know because we haven’t really studied it in a methodological way. We are doing it now. That is the good news.

I recall a U.N. Peacekeeping general a decade ago said at USIP that sexual violence is more effective at destroying a village or a community than a bullet, and it is cheaper. That is really painful to hear. How do you begin to address it? So, you do need global legal frameworks to prosecute CRSV, but there is no simple fix. The legal approaches are critical, but they alone cannot end this form of criminal violence. 

The international courts are very expensive, they take a very long time, they are often very politicized. They are not alone going to end sexual violence in a conflict. 

How does sexual violence impact individuals and communities during and after wartime?

Kuehnast: In most societies, the body has its own sacredness. For any individual, especially a male, the classic form of sexual violence is rape, but there is a long list of other forms of violence. Sexual violence basically breaks all the codes in that society. Once the rules are out of the window, it is so disruptive to trust and safety, and in its disruption sexual violence becomes an effective tool of the perpetrators. 

When we first did the Missing Peace symposium it was really an effort to bring all the different stakeholders together. One of the successes of that symposium was the fact that the survivors of sexual violence who attended — both male and female — spoke to the fact that they are experts, not an example of a survivor. They informed policymakers, practitioners and scholars. That is a critical part of the story: bringing a more holistic view of this problem and how to fix it.

Are there successful examples of conflict resolution or peacebuilding efforts that specifically address sexual violence?

Kuehnast: Colombia, which went through a decades-long civil war, has recently held its own tribunal and they noted 35,000 victims of sexual violence, and that includes both men and women. That is something to look at. It is important to study how a country addresses this kind of criminal activity and helps to bring healing to its victims and survivors. 

As we see in World War II, the problem just doesn’t go away — Japan and Korea still have this diplomatic divide around the fact that Japan will not apologize for what happened in World War II when Korean women were made sexual slaves to the Japanese army. So, the fact that Colombia is trying to address this in their own civil war should be studied and offered as a way forward for other countries. Colombia is in so many ways ahead of many parts of the world in terms of the horrific things they have experienced as a country, but also the ways they are trying to address them. 

How can societies address the stigma and trauma associated with survivors of sexual violence in conflict zones? What measures can be taken to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors of sexual violence into their communities?

Kuehnast: There is no one way. A multifaceted approach is required. In these survivor-centered programs, first the individual goes through their own personal journey of therapy, coming to terms with what happened to them. Survivors emphasized at USIP’s recent Missing Peace Global Symposium on CRSV that they are experts on issues related to surviving such horrific acts of violence and need to be a part of the policy shaping sphere before policies about them are made.

Working with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, USIP will help them better understand the evidence-based and survivor-centered approach to CRSV. It will engage survivor groups to help inform this multifaceted approach. 

It is important to focus on the survivor, but we also have to address the question of accountability of individuals and the leadership of armed groups responsible for CRSV. That is what the Ukrainians are talking about in their own courts; they are holding Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals accountable for committing sexual violence in conflict as a strategy of their warfare.
A dual approach is needed where you support and care for survivors first, but also for those who witness and are indirectly affected by this form of violence is important. The impact on family members and neighbors who have witnessed sexual violence and are indirectly affected by these criminal acts, their sense of helplessness cannot be overlooked. Those who witness atrocities are also hugely impacted. 

CRSV is also the only form of violence that can lead to the birth of a child. Many children born of wartime sexual violence are both stigmatized and invisible, often without legal status or access to any services. 

Not doing further harm is a real issue here and one of the hardest parts of the prosecution process — to do no further harm to the victim, because they have already lived it and having to relive this experience is traumatic.

The Missing Peace scholars offer a promising way forward: Approaches from public health, social psychology and other disciplines also need to be drawn into resolving what is a multidimensional problem. Hopes should not just be pinned on closing the impunity gap through prosecutions. A concerted, long-term and multipronged effort that brings together advocates, survivors, practitioners, scholars, policymakers and donors is needed to address the root causes of CRSV.

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