Reducing Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Can NATO and UN Interventions Help?

Blog | September 12, 2018


Until recently, sexual violence during- and post-armed conflict was considered inevitable and a problem that the international community could do little to address. While this is no longer the case, owing to changes in approach and policies, there is still much room for improvement. One important tool that can impact conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) is international intervention by intergovernmental organizations (IGO) such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN).

IGO peacekeeping interventions can be effective in addressing sexual violence through their policies both during and after a conflict concludes. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000) as well as the many UN Security Council resolutions that have followed in its wake such as UNSCR 1820 (2008), have changed the climate as well as policy towards sexual violence. In fact, CRSV is now labeled as a war-crime and a strategic weapon, not merely an unavoidable result of conflict. These policies show progress, but improvements are vital moving forward.

The Impact of NATO and UN Interventions on Sexual Violence

Although heavily debated, NATO and UN peacekeeping can contribute to the reduction of the prevalence of sexual violence in armed conflict in certain cases, particularly when committed by state forces, pro-government militias and rebel/insurgent groups. In examining NATO and UN interventions between 1989-2009 and armed conflicts over the same period using Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) data, a drop in the prevalence of sexual violence can be observed when an intervention is present over a longer duration of an armed conflict, including the first five-years post-conflict.

This significant relationship between interventions and a lower prevalence of sexual violence should cause the international community to reflect on interventions by IGOs and what can be done to further improve their effectiveness. The correlation is likely tied to the implementation of international resolutions and policies such as UNSCR 1325, new positions such as Gender Advisors in missions, as well as a growing awareness of the issue globally.

Although IGO interventions may end or reduce sexual violence by certain actors, they can also bring new forms with them, such as Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA). In the case of Kosovo and the KFOR and UNMIK missions led by NATO and the UN respectively, there were recorded cases of forced prostitution and sex-trafficking where peacekeepers participated in or, in some cases, took the lead. For this reason, it is vital that policies addressing SEA are enforced and improved alongside policies to address CRSV by other actors.

Policy Recommendations

Addressing CRSV can be challenging as it is not present in all armed conflicts and it comes in various forms, yet there are concrete ways that policy can be improved and made more effective. Recent interviews with members of the Austrian Ministry of Defense provided a series of valuable policy recommendations to be implemented moving forward. Despite developments in training, including the required e-learning course made mandatory for all civilian and uniformed UN peacekeeping personnel in 2016, there is still a long way to go in improving the training of peacekeepers on the topic of CRSV. In-person instruction with scenario practice should be included moving forward as e-learning programs lack the in-person aspect that can be so valuable to foster understanding of CRSV’s impact.

One example of these trainings has been developed by Austria, namely the Protection of Civilians training and policy or POC. The training program is the only worldwide course certified by the UN as well as the EU, with training lasting one week. It includes in-person instruction on preventing and responding to CRSV, human rights law, humanitarian law, NATO and EU guidelines, SEA policy and other policy and relevant laws. In 2016, the member states of NATO also endorsed the POC policy. However, POC training has not yet been made mandatory for all peacekeepers. 

Additionally, in order to address sexual violence, the topic must also be expressly outlined in both NATO and UN mission mandates. In an interview with a previous Gender Advisor to the KFOR mission, he underlined the importance of including gender elements in trainings as well as mandates. If sexual violence is excluded from mandates, then it leaves peacekeepers unable to assist a victim and to engage in a violent scenario. Even if a peacekeeper is only 100 meters away from a mass rape, they may be helpless to act. This is unacceptable and shows a fundamental flaw in intervention policy. Including sexual violence in mandates and properly training peacekeepers to act when encountered with it in the field, is vital to curbing the overall presence of sexual violence in armed conflict and the impunity that all too often is inherent to perpetrators. The mandate is thus fundamental to the ability to address this topic.

In the policy conversation, it is also essential to include men in the narrative. Although mostly discussed as an issue for women and girls, men and boys can also be the victims of CRSV and gender-based violence (GBV). Men and boys can be sexually assaulted or forced to assault others, sometimes even a close family member. Thus, including men in the definition and policy allows for them to better identify with the problem and to see their role in helping to eradicate sexual violence for all.

For future policy and implementation, it is necessary to improve training and mandates for peacekeepers, end impunity for those who commit acts of sexual violence and broaden the conversation around CRSV and GBV to include men and boys. By making these changes, the international community can have a more meaningful impact on the use of sexual violence during- and post-armed conflict, improving upon the foundation that has been laid in the various UN Security Council Resolutions.

Julia Zimmerman is a foreign policy analyst based in Vienna, Austria.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute

Image: "School Sensitization on Gender Based Vio" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by United Nations Photo