Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is at the United Nations Security Council today to discuss a real weapon of mass destruction, one that is employed on a daily basis around the world: the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.
In conflicts from East Timor to Liberia, armed forces have deliberately and systematically used rape as a means of terrorizing enemy communities and maintaining control over territory and populations. The worst epidemic of sexual violence is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rebel movements, militias, and the Congolese army have perpetrated horrific bouts of mass rape, sexual torture, and other violence against untold thousands of women and girls. Because victims are stigmatized and shamed, the full extent of this crisis may never be known.
The Security Council resolution (pdf) that the U.S. is expected to sponsor as part of today’s meeting may finally help to elevate the political profile of this horrifying issue. It will increase information gathering on the scope of the problem, strengthen peacekeeping mission’s mandates to respond, and demand accountability for perpetrators. A similar measure related to the use of child soldiers has proven somewhat successful in requiring the UN’s elaborate bureaucracy to focus on protecting children in armed conflict.
This issue needs all the attention it can get. Just a few weeks ago the International Criminal Court, the best means of ending impunity for sexual terrorism, had to drop all charges related to sexual violence in eastern Congo. This was due to difficulty protecting potential witnesses from retribution.
Ending this crime against humanity, in Congo and beyond, will require linking efforts to protect women and girls with broader peace processes and conflict prevention. The U.S. played a key role in recent diplomatic breakthroughs, largely thanks to Tim Shortley, a State Department Senior Advisor who focused entirely on Congo and the related issue of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Regrettably, his portfolio has been broadened to include Sudan, risking the sustained high-level attention that these conflicts need. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazier needs to fill his shoes quickly with a diplomat of similar stature to consolidate recent gains and connect lofty Security Council rhetoric with meaningful protection for Congolese women.