UN resolution to protect women against war not working

Kenneth Roth 



In the 15 years since resolution 1325 was passed, the UN has done far too little to safeguard women in war zones or give them a meaningful role in peacemaking

It has been 15 years since the UN security council passed resolution 1325, which aimed to end violence and abuse against women during war, and to bring women’s voices into peace talks.

But there is little to show for it. Government forces, rebel groups and even peacekeepers are still raping women as wars are fought. Girls are still being married off when wars leave their families unable to care for them. Aid groups in many places continue to distribute help only to male heads of households, when people can no longer tend their crops or work because of war.

The security council has just adopted its eighth resolution on the topic. Ministers and heads of state gathered at UN headquarters in New York to state their support and pledge funds. But racking up resolutions and pronouncements is not translating into changes on the ground.

No one doubts that women in war zones are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and other abuse and hardships. We have documented case after case in country after country, from Iraq to Nepal, to Sudan and South Sudan.

Yet the UN has repeatedly missed opportunities to improve monitoring of the treatment of women in conflict zones. Peacekeeping missions now invariably include slots for gender advisers, but these positions are low in the bureaucratic hierarchy and frequently go unfilled. The anniversary should have been a moment to establish senior positions on violence against women in the UN’s peacekeeping and political affairs departments, but the opportunity passed without action.

Nor is the UN creating the conditions for a serious effort to collect information on abuse, such as providing safe and confidential spaces where women can report sexual violence without fear of retaliation.

Even when information is collected, UN officials frequently leave it out of key briefings that might have prompted the security council to open formal inquiries or impose sanctions. In the case of children in armed conflict, systematic abuse can lead to a country being placed on a “list of shame” – a stigma that governments go to great lengths to avoid. But there is no such list for governments that tolerate violence against women. The security council has announced its intention to establish an expert group to focus attention on the problem, but Russia has questioned the need for it.

The UN peacekeepers themselves have been part of the problem. I recently visited the peacekeeping mission in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has numerous posters on the wall warning peacekeepers against sexual relations with local women. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has spoken forcefully against sexual abuse by peacekeepers. Yet posters can’t end the problem if the sexual abuse goes unpunished, as has routinely been the case.

Because the UN depends on governments that contribute peacekeepers to prosecute offences by their troops, there is an obvious temptation to ship suspects home and forget about the allegations against them. Credible efforts to collect testimony from the victim and witnesses so that the suspect can be prosecuted are almost unheard of.

The UN could bar peacekeepers from countries that fail to punish those responsible for sexual violence or for harassing victims who bring complaints. But the UN is usually in the position of supplicant, desperately pleading for more peacekeeping troops, so it is wary about pushing vigorously for justice.

Last month, however, after a series of disturbing abuse cases, the security council finally asked for regular reporting on these allegations on a country-by-country basis – an important and overdue step. Combined with major new pledges of peacekeeping troops in September, that step could begin to alter the tendency to sweep sexual abuse by peacekeepers under the rug.

The lack of real progress in addressing violence against women in armed conflict highlights the need to fulfil perhaps the greatest innovation of resolution 1325 – its insistence on a more prominent role for women in peace negotiations and peacekeeping efforts. Far too frequently, women are given token positions in peace processes. But peace tends to last longer if the negotiators routinely consult with women’s rights groups and women are included at the table. Recent research shows that women’s meaningful participation improves by up to 35% the chances that a peace agreement will last 15 years.

The security council should not just pay lip service to the inclusion of women. Rather, it should put its actions where its rhetoric is by ensuring senior-level presence for women in its debates on serious security issues. Fifteen years have passed with good intentions but little impact. It is now time for the security council to step up.


Kenneth Roth, 13/11/2015