Rape has long been seen as a by-product of war, cruel and brutal, but not central to the issue at hand. But In recent decades, rape has been used to terrorize populations and control territory. Now the UN Security Council is set to recognize that. Tomorrow the Council is expected to label rape a weapon of war and a threat to peace and stability. Advocates say the move is long overdue.
The catalyst for action seems to have been the recent crescendo of reporting and activism on the situation in eastern Congo. Tens of thousands of women have been brutally raped and mutilated by armed groups there. The atrocities have been going on for years and the effects have been devastating.
Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch says UN agencies have helped victims there.
"What we have not yet done is stopped sexual violence. That is the critical point now. We need to not just help the victims. We need to ensure there are no more victims. We need this rape to end and that's I think where the UN should be doing more," she says.
Van Woudenberg says the UN could be acting on a range of fronts. She says the 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo could do far more to protect women from rape. UN officials involved in restructuring the Congolese Army could refuse to accept the promotions of military officials implicated in the sexual violence.
"I personally have a list of 30-40 top officers those individuals are now generals and colonels. How can we help Congo to deal with this issue, to stop impunity, to stop these abuses, if such individuals remain at the top," she says.
And Van Woudenberg says the UN Security Council could elevate the issue to the highest possible level.
"Set this firmly at the center of any peace agenda," she says. "And say rape, when it's done on such a wide-scale basis, when it is used as a weapon of war, is a threat to peace and security."
That's in essence what the security council plans to do tomorrow. It's expected to pass a resolution that would enshrine sexual violence in conflict as a threat to peace and security.
Paula Donovan, co-director of the advocacy organization AIDS-Free World, says it's a critical move.
"It makes of something that was always considered an economic and social problem a political problem, and that's hugely important. When that happened to AIDS, back in 2001, when Richard Holbrooke brought to the Security Council the whole notion that AIDS should be considered a security risk, it really did change the dynamic," she says.
That new dynamic is already in evidence.
Tomorrow's Security Council meeting will be high profile, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chairing the debate. The United States holds the rotating presidency of the council this month. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been instrumental in pushing the issue. He is said to have been deeply affected by the recent documentary about rape in Congo, "The Greatest Silence."
Tracy Lavin, an advisor in the office of political affairs at the US Mission, saw the film too.
"That documentary made loud and clear what's going on," she says. "The ambassador immediately wanted to know more about the issue and how we could do more."
The result, advocates say, is a strong resolution. Advocates say they will need to be vigilant to ensure its provisions are carried out.
Donald Steinberg of the International Crisis Group says that includes the focus on ending impunity.
"Which is so important because too frequently amnesties given by the warring sides mean that men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes against women," he says.
Still many advocates are skeptical about the UN's commitment to the issue.
Former UN AIDS envoy Stephen Lewis has given a series of speeches over the past year, excoriating the UN for its failure to protect women and girls from rape. He has called the situation in Congo "an act of criminal, international misogyny, sustained by the indifference of nation states and the delinquency of the United Nations." And he doesn't mean only the Security Council. He blasts UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for not leading on the issue and paints a new interagency initiative on the issue as largely an exercise in rhetoric.
Kathleen Cravero chairs the initiative. She's also the director of the bureau of crisis prevention and recovery at the UN development program.
"I think having the Stephen Lewises out there really whipping everyone up into a frenzy on this issue is a good thing and I welcome it. But no, I don't think there's institutional misogyny. Could we be doing things better? Yes. Is the UN not trying? Does the UN not get it? That's not true. We do get it. We are trying. I think there's been a sea-change over the last two to three years in the way the UN has looked at and responded to this problem," she says.
Tomorrow's meeting seems to underscore that point, but for the women of Congo, protection from rape as a weapon of war is still a long way off.
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