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Confronting sexual violence as a method of warfare

26-06-2008 Interview

The UN Security Council adopted a new resolution in June demanding that those engaged in conflict take action to halt rape and other forms of sexual violence against civilians. The ICRC's legal adviser on women and war, Jean-Marie Henckaerts, talks about the importance of this step and its likely impact.

  Jean-Marie Henckaerts    

  How significant is the adoption of this resolution by the UN Security Council?  

The resolution is an important signal that rape and other forms of sexual violence are unacceptable in conflict just as they are in peacetime. In addition, the resolution acknowledges that such violence against civilians is not just a by-product of war affecting individuals but often a method of warfare used systematically to destabilize, demoralize and humiliate communities and make them flee their homes. For too long, rape and other forms of sexual violence were treated as taboo with the authorities concerned hesitant to intervene. Now, the Security Council makes it clear that this kind of violence is a serious violation of the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law that protect people in situations of armed conflict. This obliges States to take action.

On the international level, the resolutio n is highly significant because the Security Council now acknowledges that widespread and systematic sexual violence against civilians constitutes a threat to international peace and security and therefore falls within its remit. This means that the Security Council will be able to impose sanctions on States that do not take the necessary steps to confront the issue. The resolution also means that the Security Council recognizes its own responsibility to ensure this happens.

In practical terms, the resolution already makes several demands on the parties to a conflict. For example, it obliges them to ensure that combatants receive adequate training so that they are aware that all forms of sexual violence are strictly prohibited; it also stresses the need for vetting procedures to identify those that have already committed sexual crimes. Such concrete measures could help prevent acts of sexual violence.

Last but not least, this step represents an acknowledgement of the suffering borne by the victims of sexual violence and shows they should not be blamed, stigmatized or rejected by their families and communities.

 What is the position of the ICRC on the resolution?  

The ICRC welcomes the resolution and the response to a problem that has been overlooked for too long. Every single rape committed during a conflict constitutes a war crime. The ICRC calls on parties to conflict to take every possible measure to prevent sexual violence against civilians and to aid those affected by such crimes. All acts of sexual violence should be prosecuted.

The ICRC welcomes the UN Security Council's demand that States take immediate steps to prevent crimes of sexual violence in conflict and to prosecute those suspected of having committed such acts. The success of the resolution will depend on the follow-up action taken by th e Security Council.

 What is the impact of sexual violence on those affected?  

Rape can have severe physical and psychological consequences for a woman's health. There is the risk of sexually transmitted disease or infertility for example. Acts of sexual violence can also cause long-lasting psychological trauma and severe depression.

Beyond the individual tragedy, the crime also has a wider social impact when its aftermath prevents a woman being able to support herself or her family. This may be the case not only because of the trauma or injury sustained during the attack but due to rejection by her husband, family and community. Through violating the women of a community, combatants are aware that they can break a society since the crime is culturally humiliating and demoralizing for their men as well.

  ©ICRC/W. Lembryk/cd-e-00569    
  Democratic Republic of the Congo. Female victim of sexual violence at the General Hospital in Shabunda.    

     What action does the ICRC take to help the victims of sexual violence?  

Firstly, the ICRC strives to make sure that the authorities and armed groups are aware of their obligations under international humanitarian law. When violations of IHL are committed, including crimes of sexual violence, the ICRC reports these to the authorities concerned.

In practical terms, let us take the example of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an illustration of ICRC activities on behalf of victims of rape and other serious crimes of sexual violence. In North and South Kivu, the ICRC helps victims receive post-exposure prophylaxis treatment (PEP), which helps prevent infection with tetanus, hepatitis B and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The organization provides post-rape treatment kits to hospitals and health centres and runs training courses to ensure that staff can administer the drugs. When necessary, the ICRC also arranges for rape victims to be transferred to hospitals with special surgical units or, in the case of severe psychological trauma, to hospitals that specialize in mental health.


In 2007, 6 hospitals and 4 health centres in North and South Kivu received regular assistance from the ICRC. Another 6 hospitals and 8 health centres r eceived emergency support as necessary, including PEP kits. In addition, 176 professionals attended ICRC-organized training sessions on how to respond to victims of sexual violence – this included training on how to administer PEP treatment.

The ICRC also supports a network of counselling centres, training their volunteers in counselling victims and in making appropriate referrals. It provides the centres with basic supplies and carries out any repairs that may be needed. It also helps community associations implement micro-economic projects to help victims earn an income.

In 2007, 29 counselling centres in the Kivus received ICRC support, including two located in the Goma camp for the displaced. More than 950 rape victims were seen by these centres. The ICRC also provided essential drugs to a mental health facility in Bukavu caring for those traumatized by conflict, including victims of sexual violence.

Finally, the ICRC encourages communities to accept and support the victims of sexual violence, organizing discussions with community leaders, local authorities, village elders, traditional birth attendants and healers.