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Portrait of the Special Representative Pramila Patten attending a conference

The SG Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

The Special Representative (SR) of the Secretary-General (SG) is a human rights expert appointed by the SG of the UN. The main role of the SR is to address critical human rights issues.

In 2009, the Security Council recognised the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon or tactic of war and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators. As a response, the Council estabished the mandate of the SG Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The SG Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

In 2009, by adopting Resolution 1888, the UN Security Council established the Office of the SR of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. The SR serves as the UN’s spokesperson on conflict-related sexual violence.

The appointment of an SR on sexual violence in conflict is in line with one of the UN’s objectives: eliminating the idea of sexual violence as an inevitable byproduct of war. Another aim is to outline the contours of sexual violence as a crime under International Human Rights Law and International Criminal Law.

The need to create such a position is due to the UN’s recognition of the detrimental impact that sexual violence in conflict has on societies. It has immeasurable consequences on survivors, their families, and their communities. Such consequences undermine efforts to ensure peace and security even after conflicts.

The Office Under SR Pramila Patten

The office was established in 2010. Currently, the SR is Pramila Patten who was appointed on 12 April 2017. During her mandate, she made justice and accountability two of the main priorities. On one side, consistent and effective prosecution is the only way to fight against impunity and, where possible, to offer some redress to victims. On the other side, prosecution could have a preventive aim, serving as a deterrent for perpetrators.

Another priority was to adopt a survivor-centered approach to justice. This approach promotes appropriate, accessible, and good quality services at the national level—including healthcare, psychosocial support, legal services, and livelihood support.

Finally, in order to set up her agenda, the SR pointed the finger at the root causes of conflict-related sexual violence. These include structural issues like gender inequality, discrimination, poverty, and marginalisation. These issues breed the ground for violence.

The SG’s Annual Report

A primary function of the office is to prepare the SG’s annual report on conflict-related sexual violence. The last report was published in March 2019 and refers to 2018.

The analysis of the UN Office confirms that sexual violence is still used worldwide as a weapon, a means of war. The report highlights the use of sexual violence as the following:

  • Part of a broader strategy of conflict to displace communities, eliminate specific groups, and to seize contested land and other resources
  • A means of repression, terror, and control against enemies: other ethnic groups, political opponents, etc.
  • A tactic of terrorism, including gaining information through interrogations, advancing extremist ideology and destabilising social structures by terrorising women and girls.
  • A means to recruit new members for terrorist groups
  • An economic investment, as in a source of revenue for groups. We need only think of revenue that is possible to generate from the abduction especially of women and girls sold on online slave markets and from human trafficking. The cases that occurred in 2018, verified and analysed by the UN for the aim of the report, bring out the nexus among sexual violence, trafficking and terrorism. Radicalisation and violent extremism have contributed to the entrenchment of discriminatory gender norms that limit women’s roles and their enjoyment of basic rights.
  • Having a direct link with forced displacement, where sexual violence is both driver and result of the forced displacement. Special vulnerability is associated to forcibly displaced people; many of them leave their homes and country to flee from war, including sexual violence but their status as displaced people exposes them to further sexual attacks at checkpoints, across borders, in refugee camps or camps for internally displaced persons. Women and girls are most at risk; they can also be victims of further sexual exploitation, trafficking, rape, and forced prostitution. Deeply entrenched gender-based violence, such as intimate partner violence, persists and can increase in displacement and resettlement contexts, primarily affecting women and girls.
  • A consistent aspect of political or election-related violence. In these contexts, sexual violence is used to intimidate and punish political opponents, their family members and women human rights defenders
  • A means to target the youngest members of a community, both girls and boys, because of perceived affiliations of their parents or their perceived utility or market value, in order to terrorise the whole group. The risk is very high if they are unaccompanied minors during migration or displaced with their families.

Where Everyone is a Victim

Sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, forced nudity, and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment, can also affect men and boys, especially in villages and detention facilities, as confirmed by data collected during the past years by the Office of the SR.

Men and boys also face reporting barriers owing to the stigma relating to perceived emasculation, as well as particular physical and psychological consequences. Further, the criminalization of adult consensual same-sex conduct, in many countries, may impede reporting for fear of prosecution, especially since there are often no legal provisions regarding the rape of men.

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Human Rights and International Criminal Law: An Introduction

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