Sexual violence in conflict zones: A history of the neglected war crime

Traumatized Bosnian rape victim during the war in former Yugoslavia (Photo: Antony Loyd)
Traumatized Bosnian rape victim during the war in former Yugoslavia (Photo: Antony Loyd)

Author: Sofie Rose

UN reports since mid-2014 reveal a significant increase in the number of reported cases of sexual violence perpetrated by terrorist groups in Syria. In interviews with female refugees in neighbouring countries, fear of rape is cited as a major factor influencing their flight form the Syrian Arab Republic. Moreover the atrocity of conflict-related sexual violence, including rape, sexual torture, forced marriage, and sexual slavery continues in Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan (Darfur) and furthermore in post-conflict zones such as, amongst others, DRC, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire[1]. To bring insight to this subject, in this article Sofie Rose, a master’s student in International Security and Law, examines the history behind the phenomenon and particularly the handling of it by the international community. The objective is to expose when it was brought to the agenda in the UN, and subsequently to identify what incidents, and/or structural changes that could have caused an increased attention to conflict related sexual violence within the international community. 

From the establishment of the UN to contemporary time

First, it is absolutely essential to recognize that rape, and other kinds of sexual violence, is not a sexual act but an act of violence. This is especially clear in relation to wars where rape often involves an array of components such as torture and humiliation. It has been estimated that gang rapes constitute 90% of rapes committed during war[2] where the victims can be as young as 4 months and up to 80 years old[3]. These horrifying facts emphasize that conflict related sexual violence is particularly aggressive acts where sexual satisfaction is not the purpose for the offender. In 1949 the 4th Geneva Convention, art. 27 stated the following: “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault”[4]. The wording clearly reveals that the purpose of the article was to protect women’s honor and the crime itself was perceived as being some kind of indecent behavior. Viewed from its historical context such a perception of rape is very common, both within war and in general. Here it is seen as a misdeed driven by some kind of uncontrolled sexual impulses instead of a direct and intentionally aggressive act of violence. This perception has later led researchers to the assessment that under this particular paradigm, sexual violence in conflicts was not recognized as a serious breach of international law such as other war crimes, but instead seen as an unfortunate bi-product of war[5].

This claim seems to be verified by the following decades of nearly complete silence upon the issue within the international community. In spite of existing evidence of the massive scale of crimes of sexual violence committed during WWII, none was prosecuted for war rapes under the Nuremberg trials of 1945-1946. The possibility of prosecuting sexual violence according to international law was actually legally present even before the clause in the Fourth Geneva Convention art. 27 was codified, because it could easily have been included in the Charter of The International Military Tribunal, art. 6b War Crimes and art. 6c Crimes against humanity, which counted:

”(…)Deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory.(…)and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war(…)[6].

In these formulations the huge number of incidents of deportation to forced prostitution and/or sexual torture could have been included and thereby leading to prosecution. But it did not, and silence prevailed on the issue. Especially in the following period where the cold war began to dictate international politics by the late 1940s, there proved to be little room left for discussing the said issue. Thus deadlock remained in the decades following the ratification of the UN Charter.

By 1975 it seems that the gender perspective was slowly finding its way into the UN-system. This tendency was expressed through the launch of the first World Conference on Women in the history of the UN. The conference initiated the beginning of a global dialogue on women’s rights, gender equality, and female participation in development and peace issues. Yet the coverage of sexual violence in conflicts remained very poor, and war rape was actually only mentioned once in the official 200 page report[7]. The two following World Conferences on Women in 1980 and 1985 did not mention the issue at all in their reports[8].

At the 4th Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 it seemed like changes was finally beginning to manifest. In the official report, the terms ‘sexual violence’ and ‘rape’ in relation to war is mentioned 12 times[9]. That is a remarkable increase compared to the three previous reports, which all in all only mentioned it once. It indicates that the issue was beginning to be articulated and thereby highlighted within the UN; a continuing tendency. In 1998 the Rome statute of ICC was adopted and entered into force in 2002 after ratification by 60 member states. In this, it is once again maintained that sexual violence in conflicts is a violation of international law. But there is a crucial difference in the respective wording of the statute’s provision and the wording of art. 27 in the Geneva Convention. Instead of being an attack on the woman’s honor it is now formulated more widely and much more explicit:“Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity”[10]. The wording indicates that it was henceforth seen as a direct act of violence and not just as an honor related sexual act.

A landmark was set in the year of 2000 where the Security Council passed its first upon a number of resolutions about war related sexual violence[11]. In the same year the General Assembly passed its 23rd Special Session titled:“Women 2000: Gender equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century,” which included a whole section concerning women in war with sexual violence as the main topic[12]. This was truly the decline and fall of the hitherto predominant paradigm of indifference and neglect. In 2007 the UN launched its campaign Stop Rape Now, parallel to establishing the agency UN action against sexual violence in conflict. The purpose of the campaign and the agency is to raise public awareness on the issue and thereby generate political will to take action and address sexual violence in conflicts both nationally and internationally[13]. Subsequently more resolutions addressing the atrocity were passed by the Security Council[14], and UN Women was established by the General Assembly in 2010. The gender perspective was now implemented in the UN and the fight against sexual violence in conflicts was on the agenda.

The Balkan War and the Genocide in Rwanda

Several factors can help explain this discursive alteration that happened within the UN after 1995, and thereby brought the phenomenon out of the shadow. Firstly, the outbreak of two tragic conflicts in the 1990s is very likely to have caused an increased awareness upon the issue. The war in former Yugoslavia 1992-1995 and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 included both gender-specific atrocities in such an enormous scale that it paralyzed the world community. Unlike past wars these conflicts were particularly exposed to media coverage and the atrocities thereby attracted worldwide attention relatively quickly. Estimations suggest that between 20.000 and 50.000 women and girls were raped in Bosnia during the war[15] and 250.000 Rwandan women and girls became victims of sexual violence during the genocide. The UN economic and social council even reports that according to the highest estimate that have been made in Rwanda, the number of rapes surpasses half a million[16].

Besides the public attention drawn to the immense amount and extreme character of said atrocities, the world community has come to realize the unfathomable extent of the problem and its systematic form. Furthermore it was brought into light that the sexual violence was so organized that the Serbian soldiers in Bosnia had created actual ‘rape-camps’ where they held Muslim women captive and exposed them to sexual torture[17]. Survivors reported how the soldiers had told them that they wanted to ‘make little Chetniks’; a depraved reference to the fact that they were raping the Bosnian women with the purpose that they should give birth to ‘Serbian’ children[18]. Thereby the rapes contained unprecedented elements of ethnic cleansing and genocide during both conflicts. The wording in the Beijing report of 1995 confirms that the UN had become aware of these facts:

The use of rape as(…)an instrument of “ethnic cleansing” is as depraved as it is reprehensible[19]. (…)There is a deplorable trend towards the organized humiliations of women, including the crime of mass rape.”[20]

In addition, the two conflicts are likely to have influenced the re-conceptualization of war rape form the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Rome Statute, where a much wider range of crimes of sexual violence is included. The ICC holds jurisdiction in accordance with the Statute with respect to four main crimes, out of which sexual violence is explicitly included in two: Crimes against humanity and War Crimes, and implicitly included in on: Genocide[21].

The escalation of violence against women in war had reached tremendous heights while the whole world was watching. Therefore it is likely that especially these two conflicts catalyzed an increased awareness upon the issue within the international community.

Security issue and war strategy

The occurrence of sexual violence in conflicts was not just symptomatic for the Balkan War and the genocide in Rwanda but continued incessantly in subsequent conflicts; just as systematized and just as brutal. This could likely have been a factor contributing to a key acknowledgment within the UN: Sexual violence is a war strategy, not a social problem nor an unfortunate bi-product of war. Modern conflicts contain many elements of psychological warfare where the attempt is to affect the civil population as much as possible, to destroy the collective self-understanding and to subordinate the enemy’s culture by terrorizing the civilians.[22] One of the purposes is to humiliate the enemy as much as possible thereby deconstructing their moral. In a military-strategic perspective, the civil population, and thereby particularly women and children become a tactical target to achieve this aim[23]. Especially in addition to the many ethnic and religious conflicts we observe, this claim seems to be verified, as sexual torture is often used as a direct tool against the enemy. The organized and systematic character of sexual violence that the world witnessed in the conflicts of the 1990s revolutionized the whole perception of war rape.

The report of the Beijing Conference confirms that the UN in 1995 had become aware of the war-strategic aspect of sexual violence in conflicts. In this report rape is consistently equated with terms such as; ‘weapon of war’ and ‘tactic of war’:”The use of rape as a weapon of war (…)”[24]and ”(…)using systematic rape as a tactic of war and terrorism”[25]. Wordings as these demonstrate new insight that sexual violence is not a problem that takes place in the periphery of the conflict but on frontline. Rape can be viewed as an ugly kind of ammunition in the arsenal of war strategies, a kind of ammunition that not only makes physical damage but also traumatizes the victim. In this sense rape is a double-edged sword. But the discursive shift upon the issue called for action and awareness within the UN, thus urging the Security Council to take action.

According to art. 39 of the UN Charter, it is within the Security Council’s authority to determine the existence of any threat to the peace and breach of the peace and furthermore to decide which measures shall be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security[26]. Therefore the new perception of sexual violence in conflicts is absolutely essential. When sexual violence is acknowledged as a war strategy it becomes a security issue because the use of it can threaten the maintenance and particularly the restoration of peace and security in the same way as other war strategies. Passing its first resolutions upon the issue in itself indicates that sexual violence had obtained this new status of being a security issue. Furthermore the specific wording in particularly the resolution passed in 2008 reveals the equivalence between sexual violence, weapon of war, and obstruction of the security, as the Security Council notes accordingly:

“That women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcible relocated civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” And therefore: “Stresses that sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war(…)may impede the restoration of international peace and security”[27].

Such acknowledgements contributed greatly to bring sexual violence on the UN agenda. It seems that the war strategic aspect of sexual violence had challenged the conventional perception of which issues constitutes a threat to and not at least prevents the restoration of international peace and security. It is symptomatic for the traditional view on war and security that it “have been measured in terms of bullets, bombs and blades”[28]. This hitherto poor understanding of the fact that sexual violence is a war strategy with security-political implications is very likely to have caused a neglecting approach to alternative war strategic issues such as sexual violence, which meant that the international community failed to address the problem. Until the 1990s it has been one of the least discussed and least prosecuted war crimes in history. By 1995 the discourse changed and the new perception of the issue added acknowledgment and seriousness to its handling, which contributed to an increased awareness upon conflict related sexual violence within the UN system.

Apparently there seems to be a weak or lacking connection between normative wishes and the facts of reality. The UN reports that in ceasefire and peace agreements the inclusion of provisions of sexual violence is failing almost consistently, despite the systematic and extensive appearance of it in these very conflicts. This lack can have serious consequences for the durability of peace because it destroys confidence in agreements and mediation processes. If sexual violence is not included in such processes and agreements it can continue to be used as an act of war beyond these agreements and in situations of ceasefire which can catalyze a cycle of vigilantism and revenge. The international community and the United Nations personal must stand together by encouraging and urging an active inclusion of sexual violence in every conflict resolution and peace-making process[29]. Addressing sexual violence in conflict zones is a significant tool in securing a lasting peace and mutual respect of human rights.

[1] S/2015/203

[2] Pruitt, Lesley Locking back, moving forward: International approaches to addressing conflict-related sexual violence, 2012, s. 301

[3] Nørdam, Marie, mfl. Seksuel vold i væbnede konflikter, 2010, s. 107

[4] Convention(IV), Relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war. Geneva, August 12. 1949, Article 27.

[5] Pruitt, 2012, s. 301

[6] Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1, Charter of the International Military Tribunal. Section II, Jurisdiction and general principles, Article 6, (b) (c)

[7] E/CONF.66/34 (1975)

[8] A/CONF.94/35 (1980) A/CONF.116/28/Rev.1 (1985)

[9] A/CONF.177/20/Rev.1 (1995)

[10] Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, July 17. 1998, Artikel 7, (g)

[11] S/RES/1325 (2000)

[12]A/S-23/10/Rev.1, E. (2000)


[14] S/RES/1820 (2008) S/RES/2106 (2013)

[15] Ward, Jeanne If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced, and Post-conflict Settings – A Global Overview, 2002, s. 81

[16] E/CN.4/1996/68 para. 16 s. 7

[17] Seifert, Ruth The second front: The logic of sexual violence in wars, 1996, s. 35

[18]The independent, 1993,

[19] A/CONF.177/20/Rev 1 s. 196

[20] Ibid s. 187

[21] Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. July 17. 1998, Art. 6. (b) (d), Art. 7, (g), Art. 8 (xxii)

[22] Seifert, Ruth, 1996, s. 39

[23] Ibid, s. 40

[24] A/CONF.177/20/Rev 1 s. 196

[25] Ibid s. 62

[26] The Charter of the United Nations, Chapter VII, Article 39

[27] S/RES/1820 (2008) S. 1-2

[28] Anderson, Letitia Politics by other means: When does sexual violence threaten international peace and security?, 2010, s. 246



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