The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS) released new research in April documenting the use of UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence and calling on the UN to improve the sanctions’ targeting and implementation. The Caravel sat down with GIWPS Executive Director and former-Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer and report author and GIWPS Hillary Rodham Clinton Law Fellow Sophie Huvé to discuss the report, titled “The Use of UN Sanctions to Address Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.”
Verveer called Huvé’s research “the first systematic review of the Security Council’s performance” in terms of sexual violence-related sanctions. The UNSC is granted authority by the UN Charter to “employ Chapter 7 measures, which are…coercive measures” to resolve issues of international security, according to Huvé. Sanctions fall under the umbrella of Chapter 7 measures—as does the use of force—but there has been dispute in the past over whether human rights and women’s rights issues could be considered to fall under the purview of the UNSC as security matters. There were plenty of others that disagreed. Huvé said, “For a lot of states, sexual violence is…a soft topic. It belongs to the human rights agenda, and it belongs to the UN General Assembly. It’s not something that belongs with the Security Council.” Security Council Resolution 1820 threatened the use of sanctions. [Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] said that sexual violence, when used as a weapon of war, is a threat to international peace and security,” Huvé added, providing background on the UN’s adapting stance on the issue of sexual violence.
This new way of thinking was a major coup for France, the U.K., and the U.S., three of the P5 permanent UNSC members that supported a new and more interventionist theory of international law. Huvé explained that “if you’re Russia or China, you have a very different view on what the Security Council can and should do to deal with human rights violations…it’s an issue of sovereignty.” Huvé and Verveer both critiques this way of thinking, pointing to cases of weaponized sexual violence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that showed the severe, destabilizing consequences of allowing impunity where these atrocities are concerned. They both also agreed that it was too difficult to pass new sanctions regimes on a human rights basis. “A lot of research has shown that the cases where the Security Council is most effective are the places where the P-5 do not have strong interests. If you have [a case where]some of the P5 have strong, competing interests…then you’re screwed.”, said Huvé. Verveer pointed to the case of Sudan and South Sudan, saying that China and Russia’s economic interests in Sudan (largely in the form of arms deals) have prevented effective UNSC sanctions despite a compelling security and human rights basis. The sanctions on South Sudan, by contrast, have been much more rigorously implemented because neither China nor Russia has significant economic interests in the country.
The UNSC is not the only international body concerned with human rights. Verveer also pointed to regional bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and African Union and judicial bodies like the International Criminal Court as potential partners in the fight to end conflict-related sexual violence. “[The world] has multiple actors, and countries can be very effective [at sanctions],” Verveer added, noting U.S. and EU unilateral sanctions against human rights violators.
Huvé and Verveer also said that the real strength of UNSC sanctions is that they are not purely economic. The imposition of sanctions is also intended to stigmatize the actions of perpetrators of sexual violence. Huvé warned that these soft power effects are not to be underestimated, saying, “A lot of people…were actually put on the sanctions list and then discovered their trade deal with a foreign country was off, their invitation to that party was off, their support from X, Y, or Z groups was also taken off the table, their ability to engage with other government leaders was suddenly not here anymore.” Even when the implementation of the tangible parts of the sanctions is weak, the stigmatizing effect can restrict the ability of targeted individuals to continue their campaigns of sexual violence. This also gets to the crux of why sanctions are used: Huvé repeatedly cautioned against viewing sanctions as a form of punishment, saying instead that the goal of sanctions is “to put as much incentive on the individual as they can to trigger a change of behavior.”
The GIWPS report shows that “despite very similar conflict contexts, some of [the countries]did have human rights criteria included in the sanctions regimes, and some did not.” The research suggests, therefore, that the inconsistency of application and implementation of UNSC sanctions is what prevents them from being a more effective tool to end sexual violence in conflict zones. Huvé and Verveer hope that the report can educate UN diplomats on the issue of sexual violence and the often complex mechanism of UN sanctions so that they can fight to end these heinous violations of the human rights of vulnerable women across the globe.