Sexual violence in conflict - how to end impunity?

Executive summary

Sexual violence, mostly targeting women and girls, is a widespread and systematic feature of many wars and conflicts both in history and across the contemporary world. It is a phenomenon that destroys lives and communities, and leaves a terrible legacy for survivors and their families. But the challenge of addressing this pervasive reality is made all the more difficult when impunity is the rule and not the exception.

This report examines the issues around impunity for sexual crimes in war and conflict, maps the organisations and initiatives that are working for justice in the area, explores the instruments and capacities available in making progress against impunity, and makes recommendations to the Norwegian authorities as to what they might do to improve their contribution.

What can be done to reduce impunity? There is an international consensus to combat sexual violence in conflict which is based on various instruments and declarations, including United Nations resolutions on women, peace and security, and the founding Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. But these lack effective reporting mechanisms through which they can be enforced. So although the means to prevent and halt sexual violence in conflict exist, there are questions over how to ensure the accountability of governments, states, local actors and the international community itself to the human-rights norms that would ensure this.

International cooperation and best practice

To be effective, the struggle against impunity must address the responsibility of all relevant actors, and involve substantive collaboration between all stakeholders. The cooperation of the UN, governments, researchers, NGOs, peace missions, humanitarian aid organisations, the security sector and especially women’s groups and networks (including survivors of sexual violence) is essential if lasting results are to be made possible.

The development of best practice in this field can take many forms, including:

  • the adoption at country-level of National Action Plans (NAPs), focussing on Security Council resolution 1325 – as only 19 countries to date have produced a plan
  •  increased funding for initiatives to combat sexual violence
  •  deeper coordination between countries and stakeholders in a holistic approach
  • stronger monitoring and reporting mechanisms to pursue accountability at all levels; reinforcing legal and judicial systems nationally and internationally, and
  • seeking justice for survivors by enacting and enforcing legislation that can help bring the perpetrators of sexualised violence to account wherever they are based.

However, the reality is that few countries have made the prevention or punishment of rape a priority, and bringing justice to rape survivors has proven to be difficult even in countries were gender equality is formally recognized and effective laws are in place.

Accountability and reporting mechanisms

National courts have the responsibility to prosecute sexual violence and provide justice for survivors, even in times of armed conflict. But in the aftermath of conflict, the inclusion of sexual violence as part of transitional justice processes and the establishment of rule of law are challenged by different factors.

Given the unwillingness or incapacity of many national governments to provide justice to survivors of sexual violence, the international community has the responsibility of taking these cases to the International Criminal Court or of enforcing the principle of universal jurisdiction. To achieve global accountability, these instruments need to be strengthened by exploring cross-country judicial and civil-society cooperation, in tandem with capacitating efforts to investigate crimes: ending impunity involves building the capacity to analyze and monitor.

At present, the only reporting mechanism on the violation of women’s rights within the UN system are the reports submitted every four years to the CEDAW committee by states that have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Some actors in the field argue for a strengthened focus on resolutions 1325 and 1820 as part of this reporting mechanism. Others have suggested that the Human Rights Council could be the place to hold countries accountable.

Raising awareness and involving civil society

Norwegian civil society has introduced the idea of an international civil-society awareness-raising campaign on sexual violence, to generate international awareness and consensus on the need to end impunity, and pursue accountability at all levels. Furthermore, states’ responsibility according to the Rome Statute and the principles of universal jurisdiction should be integrated to achieve a more comprehensive approach to the different instruments.

Norway is considered a principal actor and contributor to the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 and the subsequent women, peace and security resolutions, and it supports a number of bilateral and multilateral initiatives. Norway could take a stronger lead by increasing cooperation with other states that have adapted National Action Plans (NAPs), including the Nordic countries, EU countries and the US, as well as emerging powers such as China and India. Cooperation should include the strengthened involvement of civil society actors, and especially women’s groups and survivors of sexual violence.

Seeking lasting results, Norway could explore the possibility of greater engagement in countries in which Norway is already involved (such as Burma, Liberia and Colombia), with a view to conducting a thorough assessment of the specific context – an assessment which, in all cases, should be a prerequisite for any involvement by international actors.

In assessing the work being done and the challenges facing actors working to end sexual violence in conflict, not least women’s organisations and survivors’ groups, this report seeks to provide resources and suggestions for advancing efforts to achieve justice and accountability.