From Our Members: Rape as a Weapon of War

Guest Post by Akila Radhakrishnan, Senior Counsel at the Global Justice Center

As we continue into the second week of the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the conference this year focuses on the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.” This has included a significant number of debates, side events and panels devoted to sexual violence in conflict.

Sexual violence, including rape, is a powerful and cost-effective weapon and tactic of war that has been successfully used to terrorize, dehumanize, and break down individuals, families and communities. It was used during the Second World War—and presumably since time immemorial—and has more recently been used in countless international and internal conflicts, including those in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  The rampant use of rape as a weapon of war continues today in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Burma, to name just a few examples.

Since 2000, through its resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, the UN Security Council has issued condemnations of the use of sexual violence during conflict and attempted to enact measures to curb its prevalence and combat impunity. In Security Council Resolution 1820, the Council found that the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war “in order to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations” could be an impediment to the “restoration of international peace and security.”

Despite the UN’s attempts at concerted action on the issue of sexual violence in conflict, this global scourge continues unabated and, almost universally, unpunished.  In fact, according to one important study of sexual violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a woman living there is raped nearly every minute—that’s about the time it took you to read the previous three paragraphs.

International humanitarian law prohibits the use of weapons or tactics of warfare that cause superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering, or violate “principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.’’ The UN has even defined what it means for rape to be used as a tactic of war: “Sexual violence as a ‘tactic of war’ refers to acts of sexual violence that are linked with military/political objectives and that serve (or intend to serve) a strategic aim related to the conflict.”

While not all wartime sexual violence can be explained or understood in the same way, there are certainly instances where the evidence indicates that it has been or is being used as a weapon/tactic of warfare. In Rwanda, for example, rape was found to have been a means to achieve genocide: “Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group - destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.”

Wherever sexual violence is used in war, it falls into the category of prohibited weapons/tactics of war, comparable to such weapons as landmines and tactics as starvation. However, despite the endemic use of rape as a weapon/tactic of war, states have never been held accountable for its use as they have for other prohibited weapons or tactics of war.

Just as the classification of starvation as an unlawful tactic of war has had a tremendous deterrence impact, so, too, could the designation of sexual violence as an illegal weapon/tactic of war under humanitarian law. Such a designation could also be a vital step toward ending the culture of impunity that allows offending states and individuals to get away with committing sexual violence in war. Not only would treating rape as a prohibited weapon/tactic of war be essential to deterrence and changing norms that legitimize war rape, but it would also bring victims a whole new set of rights. Individuals raped in conflict would have a right to accountability and reparations for their injuries from the use of an illegal weapon/tactic, which would be separate and in addition to their right to have perpetrators charged with rape as a war crime or crime against humanity, for instance.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recently stated: “It is time that rape is treated as a security issue with real consequences, not a second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens . . . [t]his war tactic is as effective as any bomb and as destructive as any mine, and it needs to be addressed with the same determination as any other deadly weapon used in war.”


The time has come to go beyond the recognition that rape is being used as an illegal weapon/tactic of war – it’s time we started treating it like one, as we do with other prohibited weapons and tactics. 






Campaign member, the Global Justice Center, focuses on dismantling the patriarchal and discriminatory political and legal structures that foster impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and block avenues of justice for victims. The Weapons Discrimination Project seeks to have rape treated as an illegal weapon under the laws of war in order to ensure survivors’ rights to accountability and redress. Their August 12th Campaign challenges the routine denial of life-saving abortion to girls and women raped in armed conflict as a violation of their rights to nondiscriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions. 

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The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict
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