Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict: A Global Call to Action

UN Secretary-General António Guterres urges global efforts to eradicate sexual violence in conflict zones, despite legal advancements and global efforts, as the world prepares for International Day.

Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict: A Global Call to Action
Photo Source: People Gathering on the Street During Nightime, Hasan Almasi via Unsplash. 2018 May 8.


Marina Sáenz

Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

As the world unites to observe the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on June 19th, a haunting truth looms large: sexual violence in conflict zones persists with alarming prevalence. In a time witnessing the highest number of armed conflicts since World War II, UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivers a stirring and urgent appeal. He highlights the need to address this insidious violence that devastates lives, both physically and psychologically, and rends the social fabric of entire communities. With harrowing reports emerging from Sudan, Haiti, and Palestine, Guterres' message resonates deeply, calling for an immediate and collective global effort to protect survivors, ensure justice, and restore their dignity. This day serves as a poignant reminder of our shared responsibility to end this egregious violation of human rights and support those who have endured unimaginable horrors.

The term “conflict-related sexual violence” (CRSV) encompasses a range of heinous acts, including rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity. These atrocities can be perpetrated against women, men, girls, or boys and are directly or indirectly linked to conflict situations. CRSV also includes trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence and/or exploitation in armed conflicts.

CRSV has emerged as a significant focus within human rights discourse relatively recently. The pivotal moment for CRSV recognition came in the 1990s with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR). Unlike the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, which notably excluded sexual violence crimes from prosecution, both the ICTY and ICTR explicitly charged military and political leaders with wartime sexual violence. These landmark decisions marked critical advancements in international law, with the ICTR notably recognizing rape as a form of genocide and a crime against humanity. These tribunals affirmed that such heinous acts would not go unpunished and set a precedent for future accountability.

However, despite advancements in legal frameworks and international policies, including U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, sexual violence in conflict zones remains pervasive. There is no single solution to end sexual violence, whether in peacetime or during conflicts. This is evident in ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Ukraine, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The persistence of sexual violence in conflict zones is not an isolated issue but a symptom of deeper systemic failures. In many war-torn regions, the rule of law collapses, creating a void where perpetrators can act with impunity. The breakdown of societal structures, combined with the strategic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, exacerbates the vulnerability of women and other marginalized groups. Governments, often overwhelmed by the immediate demands of conflict, frequently fail to prioritise the protection of civilians, allowing human rights violations to proliferate.

While legal approaches are crucial, they alone are insufficient to eradicate CRSV. International courts, although necessary, are often costly, lengthy, and politicised, limiting their effectiveness. The case of Colombia, which endured a decades-long civil war and recently held its own tribunal, is illustrative. The tribunal identified 35,000 victims of sexual violence, including both men and women. Colombia's efforts to address these crimes and support victims provide a valuable model for other nations.

The harms caused by sexual violence in conflict are so extensive on a physical and psychological level that they transcend generations. This has been seen in the cases of the globally known “comfort women” in China and South Korea. Japan’s reluctance to apologise for the sexual enslavement of Korean and Chinese women during World War II continues to strain relations.

As the world observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, it is evident that while progress has been made, significant challenges remain. A comprehensive approach that includes legal accountability, robust support systems for survivors, and a commitment to addressing the root causes of CRSV is essential. Sustained global efforts are crucial to eradicate this egregious violation of human rights and restore dignity to those who have suffered.



Sources and further readings:

Kathleen Kuehnast. (7 December 2023). Sexual Violence Is Not an Inevitable Cost of War. United States Peace Institute. https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/12/sexual-violence-not-inevitable-cost-war

United Nations Informations Service Vienna. (14 June 2024). The Secretary-General Message on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. United Nations. https://unis.unvienna.org/unis/pressrels/2024/unissgsm1410.html