Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month chaired a session of the United Nations Security Council during which the 15-member Council unanimously adopted landmark resolution 1888, which aims to protect women and children from horrific violence in armed conflict and post-conflict situations. While Clinton's efforts provide evidence of the United States' increasing commitment to multilateralism as a means to solve global problems, they further demonstrate her resolve to bring an end to a major global crisis that may otherwise continue unabated.
Led by the U.S., more than 60 nations urged the U.N. to adopt the resolution and expand protections to prevent sexual and other violence against women in conflict zones -- and to even consider imposing sanctions on countries where such violence against women is used as a weapon of war.
"Even though women and children are rarely responsible for initiating armed conflict, they are often war's most vulnerable and violated victims," Clinton told the Security Council September 30. She noted that while the U.N. has been making special efforts since 2000 to prevent violence against women globally, "violence against women and girls in conflict-related situations has not diminished; in fact, in some cases, it has escalated."
The United Nations Development Fund for Women reports that "violence against women during or after armed conflict has been reported in every international or non-international war zone," including in, but by no means limited to, Afghanistan, Chechnya/Russian Federation, Darfur, Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia.
For example, a recent report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that since the beginning of 2009, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country wracked by war and which Clinton visited in August, 1,100 rapes occur each week; an average of 36 daily.
And as a tragic reminder of the severity of this global problem, the day before Clinton addressed the Security Council international media reported that in Guinea soldiers had publicly raped women in the streets, as part of an army crackdown of an opposition protest against the government.
Clinton told the U.N., "In too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of [such] violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks," creating political and economic instability, as well as intimidating women so they are prevented from helping rebuild their societies once armed conflict has abated.
Addressing the issue is important, Clinton said, because "our failure as an international body to respond concretely to this global problem erodes our collective effectiveness. So we must act now to end this crisis not only to protect vulnerable people and promote human security, but to uphold the legitimacy," of the U.N.
Security Council resolution 1888 calls for the U.N. to appoint a special representative to coordinate the efforts of the international community to prevent violence against women in conflict areas; as well as work to strengthen national judicial systems to address the problem of impunity, and better respond to victims.
Further, the resolution requests the U.N. consider sanctions when patterns of sexual violence are prevalent in war zones or post-conflict societies.
Robert Perito, a peacekeeping expert and director of the Center for Security Sector Governance at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me that the fact that sanctions are included in the resolution is important, because in circumstances where soldiers or police are using sexual violence as a means to conduct a conflict, "there's little you can do to prevent it, except to establish international norms that hold national leaders accountable to those norms."
Sheryl WuDunn, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and co-author of the best-selling book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," praised Clinton's efforts at the U.N. "She's moving the global establishment to start solving these extremely complicated issues," WuDunn said.
Of interest to students of public policy and diplomacy, WuDunn compared the Security Council resolution's inclusion of sanctions to the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which each year rates countries' efforts to prevent the illegal trafficking of human beings. If the U.S. determines a country has failed to comply with minimum standards to prevent trafficking in persons, then the U.S. could withhold non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign aid.
"The TIP report, for example, is extremely effective," WuDunn told me, explaining that "this is the same kind of approach" the U.N. is now taking to halt violence against women. "When you raise the issue of sanctions, that gets countries moving toward action. If [the resolution] is something that is implemented in the same way the TIP report is, it really can have some bite."
Kavita Ramdas, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, called the resolution "an excellent first step," and added that both a bottom-up as well as a top-down approach can help address the problem. "This is something we all struggle with, all societies, there's no one answer to this question," she said.
Remarkable examples of leadership often come from women themselves confronted by conflict, from Colombia to the Congo, Ramdas said, and so "our strategy should be one where we... work on this on a number of fronts." On the one hand using a local, grassroots approach emphasizing education and gender equality, because "it can't be imposed from outside." Still, Ramdas noted, the problem also requires "political will from the top."
At minimum, this landmark Security Council resolution provides a means to raise global awareness of this urgent problem, and importantly, presents an opportunity for the U.N., the U.S., and the international community to translate words into action, to eliminate violence against women in areas of conflict.