UNITED NATIONS – Sexual violence (search) against women is taking place "on a massive scale" in countries in conflict, and the international response remains inadequate, one of the U.N.'s highest-ranking women told the Security Council (search).
Four years after the council adopted a landmark U.N. resolution committing governments to protect women from the abuses of war, Thoraya Obaid — head of the U.N. Population Fund (search) — said "most women in conflict and post-conflict situations continue to experience little peace and little security."
At an open council meeting focusing on implementation of the resolution, more than 50 speakers said much more needed to be done. Obaid was among the toughest in scolding world leaders for adopting standards and guidelines to protect women but taking little action on the ground.
"From Afghanistan to Liberia, from Colombia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Burundi to Darfur — the list goes on and on — women and girls, and even men and boys, are being subject to sexual violence, torture and slavery that defy the imagination and bring into sharp focus the cruelty that human beings can inflict on each other," Obaid said.
"It is truly sad, and terribly angering, to see the tremendous needs. But it is even more shocking to witness the response so far, which remains completely inadequate," she added.
Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the council that "women do not seek a special kind of justice."
"However, historically they have been and continue to be on the receiving end of a special kind of oppression and abuse," she said. "This is particularly so in times of conflict when the rule of force obliterates the rule of law."
Arbour urged the Security Council "to use all its influence to generate the political will, as well as the financial support, to protect women's rights and ensure women's access to justice."
Every day, she said, women and young girls who fled their homes to escape violence in Sudan's western Darfur region risk being attacked when they leave camps where they have taken shelter.
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, said the international community now realize that rape and other violence against women are systematically used as weapons of war, and the International Criminal Court has included rape in its list of war crimes.
But gender-based sex crimes are still carried out in conflicts, often with impunity, she said.
"In places such as Haiti and East Timor, rape has been used to punish wives and female sympathizers of the enemy," Heyzer said. "And in many wars and conflicts, rape has been used as a way of humiliating the men of the other side, infecting women with HIV/AIDS, forcing them into sexual slavery and destroying women's ability to revitalize their communities."
Obaid noted that in Rwanda, two-thirds of the women who were raped during the 1994 genocide were infected with the HIV virus "and they are dying slow painful deaths from AIDS." These women need anti-retroviral drugs, she said.
Many speakers lamented that the resolution's call for countries in conflict to give women a major voice at peace talks has gone largely unheeded — as has its call for the United Nations to give women top jobs in conflict resolution.
Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno noted that women constitute only 1 percent of military personnel in U.N. peacekeeping operations and that "peace processes and negotiations remain overwhelmingly male-dominated arenas." Of the 27 U.N. special representatives in charge of U.N. peace operations, only two are women, he said.
Sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian personnel is also far too widespread, he said, citing about 70 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against U.N. peacekeeping personnel this year just in the Congolese city of Bunia.
At the end of the daylong meeting, Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, the current council president, read a statement from the council strongly condemning "the continued acts of gender-based violence in situations of armed conflict."
The council urged "the complete cessation" of all violence and human rights abuses against women, stressed the need to punish the perpetrators, and called for an immediate increase in the number of women in all operations to prevent conflict and promote peace.