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Conflict-related sexual violence: Report of the Secretary-General (S/2021/312)


I. Introduction

1. The present report, which covers the period from January to December 2020, is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 2467 (2019), in which the Council requested me to report annually on the implementation of resolutions 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1960 (2010) and 2106 (2013), and to recommend strategic actions.

2. In 2020, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, two major milestones in the development of the women and peace and security agenda, namely, the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, were commemorated. The onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic revealed the fragility of the hard-won progress made in this area and put political commitments at risk of being rolled back or reversed, as attention and resources were redirected towards the prevailing public health emergency. The pandemic amplified gender-based inequality, which is a root cause and driver of sexual violence in times of conflict and peace. It exacerbated the disproportionate socioeconomic and care burden borne by women and led to a global spike in gender-based violence at a time when avenues for seeking redress were narrower than ever, as shelters closed and clinics were repurposed in response to COVID-19. Lockdowns, curfews, quarantines, the fear of contracting or transmitting the virus and limited access to first responders compounded the existing structural, institutional and sociocultural barriers to the reporting of sexual violence, which is already a chronically underreported crime. The contraction of routine health services and the imposition of transportation restrictions also created barriers to the provision of services, including access to emergency post-rape care and sexual and reproductive health care, for victims of sexual violence. The pandemic further complicated the pursuit of justice and redress, as lockdowns affected reporting mechanisms, the work of investigators, judges, prosecutors and lawyers and the overall effective functioning of justice and accountability systems. In addition, oversight and monitoring of contexts in which conflict-related sexual violence frequently occurs, such as detention facilities, displacement settings and remote rural areas in which women undertake essential livelihood activities, were significantly reduced.

3. In addition, COVID-19 gave rise to new, gender-specific protection concerns linked with: militarization, as well as checkpoint and border closures, which restricted the operating space for women’s organizations; sexual harassment of women healthcare workers and women in isolation and treatment centres; and sexual violence against women detained for alleged curfew violations. Women and girls in congested refugee and displacement settings were among the hardest hit by the intersecting crises of conflict, forced displacement and COVID-19, facing elevated risks of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking, a situation that was exacerbated by an overall decline in humanitarian reach and resources. Economic desperation and collapsed social safety nets increased recourse to negative coping mechanisms, such as child marriage and “survival sex”. Marginalized women and girls in conflict-affected and displacement settings were also among the hardest to reach, as restrictive social norms and the gender-based digital divide impeded their access to health and safety information. Moreover, in contravention of my call of 23 March 2020 for a global ceasefire to enable the world to focus on defeating COVID-19, a number of parties to armed conflict continued to use sexual violence as a cruel tactic of war, terro r, torture and political repression in order to advance their strategic objectives, including those of propelling population flight and controlling contested territory and natural resources. As the pandemic raged on, many armed actors seized the opportunit y to strike and gained ground while the scrutiny and attention of the international community and the media were diverted. Conflict-related sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum; rather, it is linked with wider security factors such as economic hardship, social tensions, impunity and institutional weakness, many of which have been exacerbated by the advent and consequences of COVID-19. Limitations on the availability and capacity of law enforcement and judicial authorities to receive and process reports of sexual violence, the stalling of legislative reform, the suspension of training for judicial and security actors and, in some cases, the release from custody of perpetrators of sexual violence, as part of efforts to curb viral transmission in crowded detention facilities, all contributed to a climate conducive to impunity.

4. The current pandemic is a gendered crisis, and no effective response can be gender-blind. The present report confirms that the needs of survivors of sexual violence cannot be put on pause, and neither can the response to such violence. If left unaddressed, conflict-related sexual violence can engender vicious cycles of violence and impunity, with corrosive effects on social cohesion, public health and peacebuilding. To rebuild better, we must ensure that the survivors are not forgotten and that their voices are heard and heeded at all levels of decision-making, in line with the survivor-centred approach advanced in resolution 2467 (2019). In its resolution 2532 (2020), the Security Council further recognized that conflict can exacerbate the effects of the pandemic and called for concrete action to minimize the disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on women and girls. Accordingly, in collaboration with national authorities, the United Nations system and civil society partners endeavoured to sustain efforts to address this scourge, where possible, by pivoting to virtual services and hotlines, convening remote training sessions, coordination meetings and consultations with referral networks in order to compensate for the reduced physical presence in the field and advocating the integration of concerns pertaining to conflict-related sexual violence into national emergency response plans. In that context, efforts were made to promote the designation of sexual and reproductive health care as an essential service in order to avoid its defunding and de-prioritization in the light of the painful lesson, learned from past epidemics, that more women die as a result of a lack of access to reproductive health care than from the disease itself. Adaptation and innovation strategies included reporting through the lens of intersectionality, which highlights vulnerabilities arising from various forms of discrimination, demonstrating that survivors cannot be treated as a homogenous group. Although addressing conflict-related sexual violence has been made more complex by intersecting crises and inequalities, the dire effects of such violence on human rights, public health, peacebuilding and development render our collective response more urgent than ever. The pandemic demands a paradigm shift: efforts must be made to silence the guns and amplify the voices of women peacebuilders, as well as to invest in public welfare rather than in the instruments of warfare. In this context, service delivery is not a secondary issue, but rather the ultimate expression of political will. The current crisis is a test of our resolve to translate commemorations and commitments into real-world results, through an intersectional, gender-responsive and ultimately transformative global pandemic recovery.

5. The term “conflict-related sexual violence”, as used in the present report, refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict. This link may be evident in the profile of the perpetrator, who is often affiliated with a State or non-State armed group, which includes terrorist entities or networks; the profile of the victim, who is frequently an actual or perceived member of a persecuted political, ethnic or religious minority, or targeted on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; the climate of impunity, which is generally associated with State collapse; cross-border consequences, such as displacement or trafficking; and/or violations of the provisions of a ceasefire agreement. The term also encompasses trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence and/or exploitation, when committed in situations of conflict.

6. While many countries are affected by the threat, occurrence or legacy of conflict-related sexual violence, the present report is focused on 18 countries for which information verified by the United Nations exists. It should be read in conjunction with my 11 previous reports, which provide a cumulative basis for the listing of 52 parties (see annex). The majority of listed parties are non-State actors, with several having been designated as terrorist groups according to the sanctions list of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities. National military and police forces that are listed are required to adopt specific, time-bound commitments, to cease violations and to implement action plans in order to address abuses, and are prohibited from participating in United Nations peace operations until they have done so. Effective implementation of commitments, including the cessation of violations, is a key consideration for the delisting of parties. Non-State armed groups are also required to implement action plans to prevent and address sexual violence in compliance with international humanitarian law and relevant Security Council resolutions.

7. Delivering effective responses, based on reliable reporting, to this historically “hidden” crime requires dedicated human and financial resources that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge. In this regard, the deployment of women’s protection advisers, who are responsible for convening the monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements on conflict-related sexual violence in the field, ensured the continued availability of information at a critical moment, when the issue was at risk of being further obscured by COVID-19. At the time of writing, women’s protection advisers are deployed in seven United Nations field operations. A total of four peacekeeping missions with mandates that include the protection of civilians have established monitoring arrangements and incorporated the matrix of early warning indicators of conflict-related sexual violence into their broader protection structures. Two special political missions have also established monitoring arrangements. In 2020, both the authorization of the mandate for the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in the Sudan (UNITAMS) and the renewal of the mandate for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) required the deployment of women’s protection advisers in the respective missions.

8. To promote effective coordination, the United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict network unites efforts across 19 United Nations system entities with the goal of preventing conflict-related sexual violence, meeting the needs of survivors and enhancing accountability, through multidisciplinary expertise. The network is the primary forum through which my Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict promotes cooperation and coherence among relevant actors, in accordance with the principle of “Delivering as one”. United Nations Action also provides strategic support to country-level action through a multi-partner trust fund. Between 2009 and 2019, support was provided for 52 projects in 16 conflict-affected countries, as well as regional and global initiatives, under the fund. Following an internal review, the network launched a successor fund, namely, the conflict-related sexual violence multi-partner trust fund. This fund, which builds upon past achievements by, and synergies developed among, members of the network, Governments and civil society partners, will advance the survivor-centred approach outlined in resolution 2467 (2019) by supporting the provision of comprehensive services for survivors and for children born of wartime rape, and by addressing structural root causes. In 2020, the fund prioritized a project in Somalia aimed at supporting the rehabilitation and reintegration of approximately 400 women formerly associated with Al-Shabaab, many of whom are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Since the onset of COVID-19, the project has been adapted to include the provision of preventive health training and of personal protective equipment, as well as hybrid in-person and virtual capacity development for national counterparts. The network also undertook strategic advocacy, assisting my Special Representative in developing a policy brief on the nexus between COVID-19 and conflict-related sexual violence, and marked the twentieth anniversary of the women and peace and security agenda by issuing a joint statement in which all parties were urged to comply with my call for a global ceasefire, including for the cessation of sexual violence. In addition, the network mobilized to gather and share information, finding that the pandemic had exacerbated sexual violence, hampered the timely collection of data, impeded access to services owing to the imposition of quarantines, curfews and movement restrictions and diverted funding away from activities aimed at combating sexual violence, thereby exacerbating the chronic shortfalls in the resources allocated to addressing this crime.

9. To strengthen accountability, the Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict, in accordance with its mandate under Security Council resolution 1888 (2009), assists national authorities in establishing institutional safeguards against impunity, as part of broader efforts to reinforce the rule of law. Although some progress has been made, impunity prevails. In 2020, the pandemic had an undeniably adverse impact on the rule of law response, constraining the ability of law enfor cement and judicial authorities to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate these crimes. Despite these challenges, the Team pursued initiatives to enhance the evidence base for effective accountability measures, partnered with the Journal of International Criminal Justice on the publication of a landmark special issue of the Journal on accountability for sexual violence in conflict and launched a digital dialogue series that reached thousands of academics, policymakers and rule of law practitioners, fostering a community of practice that transcends national borders and institutional divides. Since its establishment, the Team has engaged in 13 conflict-affected settings, in follow-up to the high-level political engagements of my Special Representative and with the consent of affected States. In the Central African Republic, the Bangui Court of Appeal handed down three convictions for conflict-related sexual violence in 2020, following the provision by the Team of technical and financial support to the national judiciary. The Team also helped to build case-tracking capacity in the high courts of Bangui and Bimbo in order to strengthen coordination between national investigative units and relevant jurisdictions. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Team provided technical assistance for the investigation, prosecution and trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, who was convicted by the Operational Military Court of North Kivu in November 2020. In Colombia, the Team provided guidance for the development of a document entitled “International standards for the prosecution of crimes of sexual violence in armed conflict”, which will support the transitional and ordinary justice systems in addressing these crimes. In Iraq, the Team worked with partners to strengthen the draft of the Yazidi Female Survivors Law, which was adopted on 1 March 2021. The Team also continued to support the national authorities in Guinea in ensuring accountability for the crimes of 28 September 2009. In Nigeria, the Team contributed to the training of personnel from the Attorney General’s Office, the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and the National Judicial Institute, with a view to integrating sexual violence charges into ongoing cases.

10. While acknowledging that conflict-related sexual violence committed by parties to conflict is distinct from incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse that continue to be committed by United Nations personnel in complex operating environments, I reiterate my commitment to improve the way the Organization prevents and addresses such conduct. In my report on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (A/75/754), I provided information on efforts to strengthen the system-wide response and ensure full implementation of the zero-tolerance policy.