Source: WHO

International Responses to Sexual Violence against Women

Years before the adoption of Resolution 1820, the problem of sexual violence against women had been a concern and there had been efforts at the international level to deal with this menace. Until the twentieth century, sexual violence was rarely considered as a crime. For instance, these crimes were known to occur within the society which is labeled a private arena and therefore not within the purview of the state. Nevertheless, from the twentieth century a number of international responses have been made to this problem.

In the past, sexual violence was seldom considered an issue of international relevance. It was only from the twentieth century that sexual violence began to receive serious attention. For instance, implicit in the Additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977,  is the protection of women against sexual violence. Article 51 (2) of this protocol states that, “[t]he civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited”. Sexual violence against civilians including women and girls particularly in times of armed conflicts is then supposed to be prohibited.

Efforts have also been made by the United Nations (UN) to bring an end to violence against women. First, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the UN in 1979. The Convention requires state parties to ensure protection of women from all forms of discrimination[i] which includes sexual violence, often specifically targeted at women and girls.

Second, proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 1993 and Rwanda (ICTR), 1994, established by the United Nations, gave more exposure to the crime of sexual violence against women. The Furundzija case of the ICTY, for instance, is notable for setting precedence in its prosecution in which rape and sexual assault were considered a single charge and for establishing rape as a war crime under International Humanitarian Law.[ii] The decision of the Akayesu case of the ICTR is also particularly historic “because it authoritatively affirms the intricate linkage of sexual violence committed during the Rwandan conflict”.[iii]

Third, in 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. This conference established the Platform for Action and Declaration. The Platform for Action calls on governments, non-governmental organizations and other bodies to take “strategic action” in certain critical areas of concern such as violence against women.[iv] Thus, the action to be taken on this issue is for governments and other organizations to “reinforce laws, reform institutions and promote norms and practices that eliminate discrimination against women…”[v] The Declaration also confirms women’s rights as human rights.[vi]

The 1998 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court provides for the prosecution of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.[vii] The widespread and systematic nature of sexual violence against women and the use of sexual violence as a means of extermination during armed conflicts qualify the act of sexual violence for prosecution under this statute.

Instruments by the UN concerning women’s rights were formulated mainly by the UN General Assembly until in the year 2000 when the topmost organ of the UN, the Security Council, welcomed issues of women on its international peace and security agenda. On October 31, 2000, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 which recognizes the special needs of women and girls during post-conflict reconstruction and therefore encourages women’s equal participation in peace processes. Paragraph eleven of Resolution 1325 “emphasizesthe responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls, and in this regard stresses the need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions”.[viii]

It was later realized that the problem of sexual violence against women during armed conflict needed special attention. This led to the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1820 on sexual violence against civilian population especially women and girls. Passing Resolution 1820 was however not met with acceptance by all UN member states. The passage of Resolution 1820 occurred following controversies with regards to the importance of the resolution. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 was passed on June 19, 2008 at the 5916th meeting of the Security Council after a day-long ministerial debate. Eight years earlier, the Security Council adopted its landmark resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security which stresses women’s participation in peace processes and also notes that women and girls be protected from sexual violence. Resolution 1820 which is about ending sexual violence against women is therefore not an entirely new resolution which speaks to the issue of sexual violence against women.

As discussed earlier, there already exist a number of international instruments and measures to address issues of women’s human rights. This fact formed the basis of argument raised by the Russian Federation during the ministerial debate. According to Russia, the Security Council should treat the subject of women, peace and security in a broad sense and not sexual violence as a separate issue.[ix] They also cautioned against the repetition of efforts made by the Secretary-General since the General Assembly have already asked him to report on sexual violence, in a similar manner as stated in the draft of Resolution 1820. In the view of Russia, efforts must rather be strengthened in the respect for and full implementation of conventions on women’s rights such as the CEDAW.

China, in a like manner, did not appreciate the relevance of passing Resolution 1820.[x] China recognizes the special role of the Council to deal with sexual violence but according to them, the Council should rather concentrate on the prevention of conflicts, peacekeeping and post conflict reconstruction as a whole by stressing that participation of women in every stage of peace processes be heightened. Despite these arguments, the Security Council, then chaired by the United States represented by their former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, went ahead to pass the resolution with the counterargument that there exists a link between sexual violence and the peace and security of nations.[xi]


[i] Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women

[ii] Campbell, K, “Acts of Testimony, Legal Memories: Sexual Assault, Memory, and International

Humanitarian Law”, (2002), p. 156

[iii] Askin K. D., “Sexual Violence in Decisions and Indictments of the Yugoslav and Rwandan Tribunals: Current Status”, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, No. 1, (1999), p. 98

[iv] Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, Fourth World Conference on Women, (September 1995), Article 46

[v] Ibid., Article 108 (d)

[vi] Ibid., Article 14

[vii] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 6, 7 and 8

[viii] See Operative Paragraph 11 of Resolution 1325, Adopted by the Security Council at its 4213th meeting, on October 31, 2000

[ix] News and Media Division, The United Nations Department of Public Information, (June 19, 2008)

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

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