The Grip of Sexual Violence: Reading UN Security Council Resolutions on Human Security

  • Karen Engle
Part of the Thinking Gender in Transnational Times book series (THINKGEN)


The issue I would like to pose in this chapter is about the grip of sexual violence on human security discourse. I do not want to address the violence itself, but to consider why many feminist — and even non-feminist — discussions about human rights and security have become inextricably connected to concerns about sexual violence, primarily but not exclusively against women. I consider here the United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions on what is termed ‘human security’, and debates and media around them. I do so because I believe they are representative of an escalating emphasis on the horrors of sexual violence more generally within international human rights and humanitarian law, discourse and advocacy.


United Nations Sexual Violence Security Council Armed Conflict Rome Statute 
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  1. 1.
    In this volume, see G. Heathcote, ‘Participation, Gender And Security’; D. Otto, ‘Beyond Stories of Victory and Danger: Resisting Feminism’s Amenability to Serving Security Council Politics’; and F. Ruby, ‘Security Council Resolution 1325: A Tool for Conflict Prevention?’. See also S. Cook, ‘Security Council Resolution 1820: On militarism, flashlights, raincoats, and rooms with doors — A political perspective on where it came from and what it adds’, Emory International Law Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2009) 125, p. 127;Google Scholar
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  5. 2.
    Although I will only touch upon this trend at a couple of points in this chapter, it deserves more thorough treatment than I am able to offer here. I have discussed this trend elsewhere, although not in the context of sexual violence. See K. Engle, ‘Self-critique, (anti) politics and criminalization: Reflections on the history and trajectory of the human rights movement’, in J. M. Beneyto and D. Kennedy (eds), New Approaches to International Law: The European and American Experiences (The Haag: TMC Asser Press, 2012) 41. Janet Halley specifically places her analysis of the treatment of rape in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, opened for signature on 17 July 1998, 2187 UNTS 3 (entered into force on 1 July 2002) within a broader frame of criminalisation favoured by those whom she calls ‘governance feminists’. SeeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  7. 3.
    As Dianne Otto posits in her critique of the overly broad zero tolerance policy for UN peacekeeping personnel, which I discuss further below: ‘Sex itself becomes the harm, the total harm, divorced from the material conditions under which it takes place. Such over-determined sexual and gender stereotypes provide ready fodder for “sex panics” which can serve to displace other fears and anxieties onto sexual activity. Sexual panics not only divert attention from underlying problems, but also make it relatively easy for the state, or the international community of states, to enact new “protective” laws that extend its power to regulate erotic behavior’. D. Otto, ‘Making sense of zero tolerance policies in peacekeeping sexual economies’, in V.E. Munro and C.F. Stychin (eds), Sexuality and the Law: Feminist Engagements (Abingdon: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007) 259, p. 262,Google Scholar
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    One of the few places in which this concern is specifically mentioned with regard to the treatment of wartime sexual violence is in reference to an international gathering on gender and transitional justice in the mid-2000s. Reflecting on some of the debates that emerged at the event, Vasuki Nesiah notes that ‘there were questions about whether the focus on sexual violence feeds into a regressive sex panic that is then used to regulate and further criminalize women’s sexuality — with particular consequences for women who were involved in sex work in conflict contexts. Did the preoccupation with sexual violence to the exclusion of other issues accompany, and even engender, a preoccupation with “legitimate” and “illegitimate” sex, policing the borders of the “decent” and the “deviant,” only to then reinscribe heteronormative models and approaches?’: V. Nesiah, ‘Discussion lines on gender and transitional justice: An introductory essay reflecting on the ICTJ Bellagio Workshop on Gender and Transitional Justice’, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 15, No. 3 (2006) 799, p. 806.Google Scholar
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    In this volume, see Heathcote, ‘Participation, Gender And Security’; L.J. Shepherd, ‘The Road to (and from) “Recovery”: A Multidisciplinary Feminist Approach to Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding’; S. Bhagwan Rolls, ‘Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: Linking Women, Peace and Security in the Pacific’; Otto, ‘Beyond Stories of Victory and Danger’; Ruby, ‘Security Council Resolution 1325’; and O. Simić, ‘Increasing Women’s Presence in Peacekeeping Operations: The Rationales and Realities of “Gender Balance”’. For a thorough discussion of SCR 1325, its situation in the women’s peace movement and its gender representations both in the language of the resolution and in its implementation, see D. Otto, ‘A sign of “weakness”? Disrupting gender certainties in the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325’, Michigan Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2006) 113.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    See, for example, SCR 1265, preamble para. 4 (‘gravely concerned by the hardships borne by civilians during armed conflict … especially women, children, and other vulnerable groups’); SCR 1296, para. 9 (‘Reaffirms its grave concern at the harmful and widespread impact that armed conflict has on women, children and other vulnerable groups’ (emphasis original). For discussion of the ways in which the category ‘women and children’ has long been a stand-in for the category ‘civilian’, see generally H.M. Kinsella, Image before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    P. Scully, ‘Vulnerable women: A critical reflection on human rights discourse and sexual violence’, Emory International Law Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2009) 113, p. 117. Sandesh Sivakumaran has made a similar critique, though she acknowledges that the resolution is not limited to females in its description of the ‘problem of sexual violence’. Still, the exclusory language of ‘women and girls’ is used when ‘specifying concrete, detailed measures of implementation or enforcement’.Google Scholar
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  18. 36.
    UN Action, ‘Analytical & conceptual framing of conflict-related sexual violence’, p. 3. The summary further explains that ‘[g]ender-based violence (GBV), which includes acts that are not sexual in nature, such as physical assault or the denial of economic resources, … is an overly-broad category for 1960 reporting purposes’. It also distinguishes sexual violence from ‘harmful traditional practices’ (without ‘specific justification’ for equating them), ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ (which it claims is dealt with elsewhere) and ‘survival sex’ (‘unless the circumstances are coercive and vitiate consent’). It appears that the document might have been responding to criticisms from a number of different perspectives, including those regarding the zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse. For criticisms of the zero tolerance policy from feminist perspectives, see, for example, Otto, ‘Making sense of zero tolerance policies’; D. Otto, ‘The sexual tensions of UN peacekeeping operations: A plea for “sexual positivity”’, Finnish Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 18 (2007) 33;Google Scholar
  19. O. Simić, Regulation of Sexual Conduct in UN Peacekeeping Operations (New York: Springer, 2012).Google Scholar
  20. 38.
    D. Lewis, ‘New UN “listing” mechanism aimed at combating sexual violence in armed conflict’, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard University (20 December 2010),–12-20/new-un-listing-mechanism-aimed-combating-sexual-violence-armed-conflict (last accessed October 2013). This response is part of a growing literature on sexual violence against men in conflict. See, for example, C. Lewis, ‘Systemic Silencing: Addressing Sexual Violence against Men and Boys in Armed Conflict and its Aftermath’, in this volume; M.E. Baaz and M. Stern, ‘The complexity of violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’ (Working Paper on Gender Based Violence, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, May 2010), pp. 43–7;Google Scholar
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  23. 39.
    Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, ‘From impunity to accountability: Ending impunity for sexual and gender based violence in conflict and post-conflict settings’ (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, June 2011), p. 4.Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    See United Nations Department of Public Information, ‘Understanding Extent of Sexual Violence in Conflict Essential for Effectively Protecting Women, Girls, Secretary-General Tells Security Council Debate’ (Press Release No. SC/11044, United Nations, 24 June 2013), which includes the title of the debate in its publication of the Secretary-General’s remarks. For the debate itself, in which nearly every speaker discusses the need to end impunity, see United Nations Security Council, Agenda: Women, Peace and Security — Sexual Violence in Conflict, UN Doc. S/PV.6984 (24 June 2013). For an example of the resolution’s focus on ending impunity, see para. 2 (‘calls upon Member States to comply with their relevant obligations to continue to fight impunity by investigating and prosecuting those subject to their jurisdiction who are responsible for such crimes; encourages Member States to include the full range of crimes of sexual violence in national penal legislation to enable prosecutions for such acts; recognizes that effective investigation and documentation of sexual violence in armed conflict is instrumental both in bringing perpetrators to justice and ensuring access to justice for survivors’ (emphasis original)).Google Scholar
  25. 45.
    Prosecutor v. Akayesu (Judgement) (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Trial Chamber I, Case No. ICTR 96–4, 2 September 1998), para. 731. I have critiqued this reasoning elsewhere. See K. Engle and A. Lottman, ‘The force of shame’, in C. McGlynn and V.E. Munro (eds), Rethinking Rape Law: International and Comparative Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2010) 76.Google Scholar
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    I. Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 53.
    See H. Charlesworth, ‘Not waving but drowning: Gender mainstreaming and human rights in the United Nations’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 18 (2005) 1.Google Scholar
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    Colapinto, ‘Looking good’, p. 61, citing an interview with Ken Berger. See also K. Lofton and B.R. Weber, ‘The legacies of Oprah Winfrey: Celebrity, activism and reform in the twenty-first century’, Celebrity Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2012) 104;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, for example, J. Peck, ‘Looking a gift horse in the mouth: Oprah Winfrey and the politics of philanthropy’, Celebrity Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2012) 106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Karen Engle 2014

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  • Karen Engle

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