The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Security Council resolution 2106 on 24 June 2013. This resolution was successful after much diplomatic work by the United Kingdom, as President of the UNSC in June. The ambition, as said William Hague, UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, is confine rape in conflict to the pages of history. It was a politically significant outcome in a year where the Security Council has not always been in agreement on the focus and efforts of this institution to the thematic area of Women, Peace and Security (WPS). Resolution 2106, and the UK-led PSVI, should be viewed as a starting point for a deeper effort to end gender oppression and inequality around the world that Australia can lead with its September Presidency focus on women's participation and leadership in conflict-prevention and peacebuilding. The exclusion of women from basic rights such as legal equality, property ownership, political representation or representation in peace, reconciliation and transitional processes – some of the basic means of empowerment – is among the primary causes of endemic violence against women and demands further attention in the UNSC in September. In both the April and June 2013 UNSC debates on WPS, Australia declared its full support for the PSVI and WPS agenda. To deliver on this, as Australia's UN Ambassador Gary Quinlan said in the June debate, implementation requires commitment and political will. It also requires the highlighting the structural conditions that give rise to violence against women needs to address these structural conditions that give rise to it and recognise women's meaningful participation ‘as essential in any protection or prevention response'. Given the strong commitment Australia has made to the WPS agenda while a non-permanent member on the UNSC, we suggest three potential areas of WPS focus for Australia to consider in its Presidency, informed by the passage of Resolution 2106.
S/Res/2106 (2013) builds on the five previous resolutions that constitute the WPS thematic agenda since 2000. It prioritises the implementation of legal justice and gender training for all pre-deployment and “in mission” peacekeeping to end the tactical use of – and pervasive impunity for mass sexual violence in conflict, post-conflict, and other situations of relevance to the Security Council (as earlier agreed to in S/Res/1888 ). To date, in addition to annual reports on WPS, the UNSC has tabled reports on situations of civil unrest, conflict and post conflict where sexual violence is widespread and documented as being used to intimidate, humiliate, torture and displace populations – i.e. Central African Republic, Darfur (Sudan), Mali, Sri Lanka and Syria State and non-state perpetrators of sexual violence may be named and listed – and now under S/Res/2016 – face the Sanctions Committee for their crimes. Moreover, the new resolution reaffirms that widespread and systematic sexual violence is indeed a war crime, a crime against humanity, an act of torture, or genocide that threatens international peace and security.
While applauding the attention of states, especially the UK government, to end sexual violence crimes in conflict situations, WPS advocates have voiced concerns that while the Security Council's recent focus on sexual violence in conflict is politically expedient and uncontroversial for the Council membership, it risks ignoring the root causes of sexual violence and the responsibility of both states and UNSC to prevent gender-based and sexual violence.
First, in their call for improved early warning of sexual violence in conflict, Resolution 2106 and the UK-led Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) open a window of opportunity for the UN Secretariat to regularly brief the UNSC on the relationship between egregious abuses of women's human rights and systematic sexual violence in conflict situations. Such cases will now be available to report to the UNSC after the passage of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution (A/HRC/23/L.28 ) on 11 June. That resolution called for “Accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women: preventing and responding to rape and other forms of sexual violence”. Contra UNSC resolution 2106, this HRC resolution adopted by 89 states attracted little international attention. Crucially, however, it empowers the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to require fact-finding missions (e.g. Sri Lanka) or commissions of inquiry (e.g. Syria) to devote specific attention to violence against women and girls in their reports and recommendations, or upon renewal of existing mandates. Such mission reports could and should be included in the UN Secretariat Women, Peace and Security report and October annual Open Debate in the Security Council. Waiting until sexual and gender-based violence crimes are extensively committed in already existing conflicts only promotes impunity for these crimes and is far too late for discussion of prevention efforts.
Second, Australia could commission a background briefing paper that explores how, and why, the Council might take a broader perspective. As noted, UNSC resolutions on WPS have increasingly narrowed their potential application away from the broad narrative and operational paragraphs of S/Res/1325 (2000) toward a focus on sexual violence in conflict. This focus has developed from a perceived political need to maintain consensus on WPS in UNSC. There is no state willing to argue that widespread and systematic sexual violence is not relevant to the Security Council. But there is less unity on whether situations outside of armed conflict (i.e. Syria, Egypt, Sri Lanka have all been contentious) in the context of elections, political strife or civil unrest should be included on the agenda. The background paper could evaluate how the abuse of women's human rights in situations ‘outside' of armed conflict might be legitimately included on the UNSC's agenda.
Third, and finally, Australia could take the initiative in calling for the UNSC to evaluate the impact of its own actions and the mainstreaming of gender equality within and across UN missions. Resolution 2106 has 23 itemised paragraphs that reiterate calls for many items already detailed in earlier resolutions on WPS. As such, perhaps the most important element is the granting of procedural clearance to the Secretary-General to continue with the annual reports on implementation of UNSC WPS resolutions – without first requiring invitation by the UNSC. Now is the time to bring the violence against women prevention efforts within the wider UN system into the UN Secretariat to provide guidance to the UNSC on the institutional mechanisms needed to empower women's agency and develop their leadership capacity to prevent sexual violence and build lasting peace.
In September, Australia has the opportunity to promote a nuanced perspective on sexual violence as an endemic continuum of violence which facilitates and exacerbates conflict. Australia has a crucial role to play in being able to push the Security Council to think creatively about its role and relationship with UN partner agencies and the UN system to address the root causes and risk factors for sexual violence.