Why Is Sexual Violence Such an Effective Weapon of War?

Dawn Stevenson, University of Leeds, UK

Dawn Stevenson studied International Development and Spanish at the University of Leeds. After volunteering with a sustainable development NGO in Nepal for 9 months, Dawn is now working as a Policy Advisor in the Civil Service. Her main areas of interest are human rights, climate change and sustainable agriculture.


Sexual violence is one of many war crimes that is effectively and strategically committed to achieve war aims; it encompasses many forms of violence and is perpetrated against victims of all genders during both wartime and peacetime.This paper argues that rape is an extremely effective weapon of war because its multidimensional consequences give rape the powerful ability to destroy not only its victims, but to tear apart their families and communities. It will explore how rape becomes a strategic tool to inflict long-term, devastating and debilitating consequences for female victims, for the men socially connected to them, and equally for their communities and future generations. These consequences are facilitated by gendered structural violence and inequality entrenched in patriarchal (male-centred, structured in sexism) societies and their perceptions of female sexuality and male dominance. These pre-existing perceptions and attitudes facilitate the widespread use of sexual violence as both a deliberate strategy of war and as an outcome of economic grievances.

“We won’t waste bullets on you; we will rape you and that will be worse for you” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 13)

Sexual violence is one of many war crimes that is effectively and strategically committed to achieve war aims in almost every armed conflict in recorded history (Jones, 2013, p. 1). Until the recent UN recognition of its systematic and deliberate employment as a strategic weapon of war in 2008 (UN, 2014), sexual violence had been perceived as merely a consequence or side effect of war (MSF, 2004). However, brutal and devastating forms of sexual violence are utilized to achieve the military and political objectives of warring factions, to terrorize, displace and destroy ‘enemy’ groups (UN, 2014; Baaz and Stern, 2009; Jones, 2013, p. 2). Sexual violence encompasses many forms of violence and is perpetrated against victims of all genders during both wartime and peacetime. For clarity and precision of focus this article will specifically analyse sexual violence in the form of rape of women and girls. As it is rape that is perpetrated en masse as an effective weapon of war (Farwell, 2004). Moreover, the preponderance of rape warfare is perpetrated against women and girls (UN, 2008).

This article will argue that rape is an extremely effective weapon of war because its multidimensional consequences give rape the powerful ability to destroy not only its victims, but to tear apart their families and communities. It will explore how rape becomes a strategic tool to inflict long-term, devastating and debilitating consequences for female victims, for the men socially connected to them, and equally for their communities and future generations. These consequences are facilitated by gendered structural violence and inequality entrenched in patriarchal (male-centred, structured in sexism) societies and their perceptions of female sexuality and male dominance (Boesten, 2012). Structural violence is defined as violence present not necessarily in direct, physical action but embedded into the political and economic structures of society (Farmer et al. 2006, p. 1686). Many forms of social injustice, including gender inequality and poverty form structural violence because they prevent individuals from realising their physical and mental potential (Galtung, 1969, p. 171). This article will conclude that these pre-existing perceptions and attitudes facilitate the widespread use of sexual violence as both a deliberate strategy of war and as an outcome of economic grievances.

To explore these issues, the article will principally analyse the case study of the Rwandan Genocide (1994), in which systematic, militarised rape was clearly used as a strategy of genocide to achieve ethnic cleansing and displacement of the Tutsi population. It will also draw from comparisons from the lengthy conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (1997-2003), which provides insight into the complex interplay of the strategic, militarily-commanded use of rape understood by the ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ discourse (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4), and the wartime exacerbation of ‘normal’ sexual violence born of soldiers’ socioeconomic grievances rooted in structural violence. It will explore how in both Rwanda and the DRC, rape warfare perpetrated with the economic goal of extorting personal assets and land by displacing women and communities, thus showcasing the political economy of rape (Turshen, 2001).

Sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Rwanda

We must first examine the use of sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Rwanda and explore why it was so effective in achieving the Hutu war objectives of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group and displacing them from land and assets in order to pillage. During the three months of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans died, eradicating three quarters of the Tutsi population (Jones, 2013, p. 2). The systematic rape of up to 500,000 Tutsi women perpetrated by the ‘Interahamwe’ Hutu militia groups, civilians, and soldiers of the national Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) (Human Rights Watch, 1996), was used as a weapon of war and an act of genocide with the intent to destroy the Tutsi ethnic group.

Understanding why rape was used as a weapon to further war objectives in Rwanda necessitates understanding the foundations of the genocide that created those objectives. The root of this genocide was the colonial assignment of distinct races to the previously fluid Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, creating “racialized political identities” that were later reproduced by nationalism during the post-colonial Rwandan revolution of 1959 (Mamdani, 2003, p. 144). Rwanda became a ‘Hutu nation’, in which the ‘alien’, non-Rwandan Tutsi aristocracy was seen to be holding a colonial, illegitimate claim to power. This language of political racialisation produced a radicalised Hutu social ideology which was inflamed by the military invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) of exiled Tutsis from Uganda in 1990, which in turn triggered the civil war. The invasion was seen as an attempt to restore the colonial Tutsi monarchy, which justified brutal Hutu-Tutsi violence to wipe out the Tutsi population, all in pursuit of justice for the Hutu nation (Mamdani, 2003, p. 143, 147).

Genocide can be committed through various methods: by the mass murder and prevention of future reproduction of a victimized group, but also by destroying the cultural and social bonds of that group (Card, 1996, p. 8). In Rwanda, rape was used as a weapon for both strategies in the destruction of the Tutsi population. Firstly, rape was used to control reproduction, to end the Tutsi ‘race’ not only through murder and forced sterilization of Tutsi women by mutilation (Sai, 2012), but also by changing the race of the next generation through pregnancies resulting from Hutu rape of Tutsi women. During the genocide thousands of Tutsi women were gang-raped and raped with objects such as sharpened sticks and gun barrels, to cause life threatening injury and to forcibly sterilize them, to prevent the Tutsi population from bearing children (Human Rights Watch, 1996). In patriarchal societies such as the one in Rwanda, children adopt the father’s ethnicity; hence children of forced pregnancies take the ‘enemy’ group’s ethnicity (Sai, 2012). This ‘deliberate pollution’ of the “bloodlines of victimised populations” (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 341) is a frequent feature of genocidal warfare. It was also employed during the Bosnian war (1992-95), in which the systematic mass rape of an estimated 60,000 Bosnian women was used as a strategy for the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian race through forced pregnancies, so that raped Bosnian women would give birth to a Serbian baby (MSF, 2004). The ability of rape to eliminate ethnic populations by changing the bloodlines of the next generation through forced pregnancy makes it a unique tool of genocidal warfare.

Rape warfare is extremely effective in decimating enemy communities because of its multidimensional, devastating and long-term consequences for raped women in the aftermath of their abuse. Many women raped in conflict are killed directly after or die from their injuries (Card, 1996, p. 8), whilst survivors can suffer life-threatening and long-term physical injuries from rape and/or mutilation (MSF, 2004). Many victims are also deliberately infected with HIV, which in fact led to an epidemic in Rwanda (Park, 2007, p. 15). Psychologically, sexual violence is used to intimidate, threaten and keep women in a state of fear (Brownmiller, 1986). In Rwanda, the Hutu population was encouraged to “use rape as a tactic of terror and spiritual annihilation” (Jones, 2013, p. 2), stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity (Sai, 2012) and causing long-lasting trauma (MSF, 2004).

Another factor that contributes to the efficacy of sexual violence as a weapon of war is that perpetrators of rape warfare have historically maintained impunity from retribution (Falcon, 2001). Despite its recent recognition by the UN and international community as a global security problem (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013), rape remains one of the most “under-reported and inadequately prosecuted of all war crimes” (Allen, 2007; Jones, 2013, p. 1). The stigma and socioeconomic consequences for sexual violence victims, rooted in patriarchal gender inequality, reinforce impunity. As the vast majority of women who suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence in both Rwanda and the DRC did not report or reveal the abuse they went through due to fear of rejection and ostracization from their community (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Moreover, sexual violence is not sufficiently addressed in post-conflict reconstruction and transitional justice programs. The impunity of sexual violence is important to consider because a lack of deterrence “only perpetuates its use and lessens the likelihood that perpetrators will face justice for their transgressions” (Jones, 2013, p. 2) as well as reinforcing the image of a soldier’s entitlement to rape as a spoil of war (Falcon, 2001).

The physical and psychological trauma of rape is exacerbated by its socioeconomic consequences that are underpinned by gender inequality and patriarchal perceptions of women and female sexuality. This gives sexual violence the ability to destroy not only its victims, but also their families and communities. The importance of women’s sexual virtue and the prizing of female virginity means that raped women suffer from great stigma and shame. Survivors are commonly ostracised by their families and communities (Nolen, 2009) and are vunable to reintegrate into society. The husbands of rape survivors are also considered shamed, thus raped women are often rejected by their husbands (2009), especially when left with pregnancies and children from rape Thereby they lose their access to land and economic sufficiency, thus being forced to live in isolation and poverty (MSF, 2004). In this way, because of the structural violence of gender inequality entrenched into patriarchal societies, rape can tear apart families and communities, and create a population of landless, ostracised women in extreme poverty, transforming rape into “a kind of slow murder” (UN, 2008). Therefore, underpinning the power and efficacy of sexual violence as a weapon to dominate, destroy and humiliate enemy groups and the choice to use this method, is the cultural emphasis on women’s sexual virtue and on controlling female sexuality, founded on normalized gendered violence and gender inequality (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4).  The consequences of rape then reinforce the structural violence of gender inequality, as stigma, shame; social and economic ostracization and poverty exacerbate the already subordinated position of women in society, forming a continuity of violence against women, both structural and direct.

Women’s bodies as a battleground

Perpetrators exploit cultural conceptions of women’s sexual virtue and of men as protectors, to destroy individuals, families and communities through brutal forms of rape. In Rwanda, mass rape was used to tear apart communities and eliminate the cohesion of the Tutsi population. Frequent and brutal patterns of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide included rape in the presence of family members, and equally witnessing the torture and murder of relatives (Human Rights Watch, 1996). This method was also employed in the Rape of Nanking during World War II, where Japanese Imperial Army soldiers gang-raped tens of thousands of Chinese women and girls, including the frequent use of forced rape between family members upon threat of death and forcing victims to watch the rape of their relatives (Jones, 2013, p. 1). These patterns exhibit a “calculated employment of psychological warfare aimed at reducing the cohesion of family units and the community as a whole” (2013, p. 1). The fundamental function of rape is the assertion of a “cross-cultural language of male domination” (Card, 1996, p. 11) by which perpetrators dominate and humiliate not only their female victims but also the men who consider themselves protectors of those women – husbands, fathers and brothers: “you destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men” (UN, 2008). The way women and girls are raped to humiliate and dominate their male relatives reflects the entrenched, structural, gendered violence they suffer, as “their bodies become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle” (Park, 2007, p. 15). Built upon these foundations, the multi-dimensional destructive consequences of rape are particularly effective in damaging familial and community cohesion (Card, 1996, p. 11) and are strategically employed to achieve “genocide by cultural decimation”, rendering mass killing unnecessary (1996, p. 8).

The mutilation of breasts and genitals that was perpetrated en masse alongside rape during the genocide formed part of a campaign of terror and “intimidation in its most malevolent form” (Jones, 2013, p. 2) and showcased the efficacy of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war. This pattern reflected the hate media propaganda that portrayed Tutsi women as overtly “sexual weapons that would be used by the Tutsi to weaken and ultimately destroy the Hutu men” (Sai, 2012). As well as mutilations that took away distinctly Tutsi, ‘Hamitic’ features, the breasts, vagina and pelvic areas of victims were sometimes mutilated with machetes, sticks and boiling water following rapes (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Moreover, during the war and genocide women were more often raped out in the open than in their homes, often killed directly after they were raped, and “left splayed on public roads… with mutilated genitalia” (Sai, 2012). The horrific brutality of these assaults displayed publicly enacts symbolic violence, in that it sends the clear message of terror that “this can happen to you” (2012), validating Brownmiller’s (1986) assertion that through rape, “all men keep all women in a state of fear”. The clear patterns of mutilation show and symbolize the extreme bodily (re-)assertion of male Hutu dominance over Tutsi women and their sexuality, and over the whole Tutsi population, again exemplifying a war being fought over women’s bodies, which become the battleground for the humiliation of the enemy (Réseau des Femmes pour un Développement Associatif, 2005) (Park, 2007, p. 15).

A further purpose for using rape as a weapon of war in Rwanda was to disperse or forcibly relocate Tutsi communities, not only for ethnic cleansing, but strategically for the extortion of land and assets (UN, 2008). This was rooted in underlying Hutu grievances caused by the structural violence of social inequality between Hutus and Tutsis, entrenched by the colonial legacy of Tutsi aristocracy, which justified the extortion or ‘taking back’ of land from Tutsi families. Furthermore, the civil war legacy led to mass displacement, with 15% of the Rwandan population living in camps by 1994 (Mamdani, 2003, p.147).  The “plight of the displaced spread fear”, with hate media propaganda playing a crucial role in creating the discourse that if the Tutsi returned to power, the ‘Hutu nation’ would “lose both their land and their freedom, in short, everything” (2003, p. 147). Therefore, during the genocide, soldiers seized the property of widows whose husbands they had killed, acquired land through forced marriage to their victims, and pillaged the houses and possessions of those they raped (Turshen, 2001, p. 7). Some village massacres and mass rapes were committed for the prospect of acquiring land and assets (2001, p. 7) by killing the inhabitants and/or terrorizing them into fleeing their homes.

Rape for the extortion of assets: the case of the DRC

The effectiveness of rape as extortion of assets has also been a major objective of its mass perpetration during the lengthy conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sexual violence has been a ‘defining feature’ of the war, making it the clearest “example of brutality and [the] widespread nature of rape in modern-day conflict” (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 307), with currently approximately 1.8 million Congolese women having been raped in their lifetime (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012). Mass, brutal rape of civilian women was used to “destabilize, dominate and destroy entire communities” by up to 20 armed ‘warring parties’ in the Eastern DRC fought for control over the region’s vast reserves of gold, diamonds and other minerals (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 307) (Dettke, 2012). Clear patterns in the perpetration of rape show that it was committed systematically and strategically for the economic objectives such as wresting personal assets and land from women, creating the political economy of rape (Turshen, 2001, p. 1). Most rapes were perpetrated by armed combatants, and the livelihood of the majority of female victims was in agriculture, which gave them access to the valuable assets of land and livestock (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 332). The majority of rapes were committed inside the victims’ own home and in their fields, often in the presence of husbands and children (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012), and often with extreme brutality echoing those in Rwanda, including forced rape between victims, rape of the very young, old and pregnant, mutilation and murder (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 350). These patterns clearly showcase rape perpetrated to terrorize and displace women and communities, leaving abandoned settlements to the persecutors (Dettke, 2012), the power lies in the atrocity of rape which makes it an effective weapon of war.

However, analysis of rape warfare must consider that the causal factors of its perpetration are more complex than ‘simply’ as a deliberate tactic to achieve war aims. For Eriksson Baaz and Stern, the ‘rape as a weapon of war’ discourse can be problematic, because of its seemingly universal conception of rape warfare as a conscious military strategy, ordered and “enforced down the chain of command” (2013, p. 4). In some contexts, this very much is the case: in Rwanda both the killings and the mass, systematic use of sexual violence of the genocide are known to have been ordered or encouraged by military and political leaders at both national and local levels to further their political goal – the destruction of the Tutsi as a group (Human Rights Watch, 1996). However, the discourse can exclude the nuanced realities of different conflicts, in which a complex interplay of factors may lead to the perpetration of mass rape by soldiers without strategic orders necessarily being given (Boesten, 2010, p. 111).

In the DRC, the mass use of sexual violence in the conflict reflected the opposite: the breakdown of discipline and control in military structures, allowing soldiers to manifest their social and economic grievances into sexual violence (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4). Ethnographic research with soldiers in the DRC has shown clearly that individual perpetration of rape is very often directly caused by economic grievances and frustrations. Many militias in Eastern DRC are unpaid, with soldiers having little or no access to resources, making their living from extorting the population when possible in order to survive. Militias are dysfunctional and undisciplined, with combatants poorly trained, therefore rape becomes an ‘ideal’ and effective tactic to facilitate soldiers’ pillaging of local villages, that soldiers rely upon to meet their material ‘needs’ (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 342), without being a necessarily mediated and ordered warfare strategy. Interviewed soldiers said they had never received specific orders to rape, rather they had the attitude that rape is unavoidable in conflict situations (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2010, p. 31), and that rape was tolerated (even if not ordered) by their commanders. Furthermore, many soldiers claimed that poverty was their main reason for perpetrating sexual violence as well as other forms of violence, both to facilitate pillaging, and in their resorting to force to fulfil their sexual ‘needs’, being unable to “get a woman the normal way” without money (2010, p. 31).

Therefore, it can be said that the structural violence of extreme poverty can produce opportunistic rape (Boesten, 2010) within a patriarchal society that normalizes violence against women. From their justifications for rape, it is clear that in reality, widespread perpetration of rape by soldiers in the DRC (as in all conflicts), is caused not only by an ordered strategy but also influenced by the interplay of many contributing causes. These include ideas of militarised male sexuality that make them feel entitled to rape, and justify sexual violence as a ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable’ consequence when combatant men are deprived of sex (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2010, p. 32). Moreover, pre-existing patriarchal perceptions of women as sex objects and of rape as a legitimate ‘spoil’ of war (UN, 2014) justify perpetration of the mass rape of women, and are exploited during conflict, facilitating the targeting of women through sexual violence as a weapon for achieving war aims. The intersection of normalized, gendered violence, and extreme wartime violence can be seen here: research shows that sexual violence is perceived as normal by communities in Eastern DRC (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012), and wartime violence is the “magnification of existing institutionalized and normative violence against women” (Boesten, 2012, p. 7). Therefore, the efficacy of sexual violence to achieve war aims, as both a deliberate strategy of war and as the outcome of economic grievances, is facilitated by pre-existing perceptions and attitudes which embody gender inequality and normalized gender-based violence, for “what people tolerate in peace shapes what they will tolerate in war” (Nordstrom, 1997, p. 1).


Sexual violence becomes an inexpensive and readily available yet extremely effective tool to achieve war objectives (Nolen, 2009), because of its immense impact that destroys and displaces communities (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 352), eliminating the cohesion of opposition and providing opportunities for perpetrators to pillage assets and extort land from their victims (Dettke, 2012, p. 2). Though not the only war crime that is used as a weapon to achieve these purposes, sexual violence has a unique ability to destroy its victims physically, socially and economically and tear apart their families and communities, stripping the humanity not just from the victim but from the group she is part of (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 54). Held up by the structural gendered inequalities and perceptions of women in patriarchal societies, the consequences of rape devastate not only the victim but humiliate and destroy her family and community. The brutality and horror of rape perpetrated in warfare are so effective in terrorizing the population and preventing rehabilitation that they facilitate its use as a tool to achieve ethnic cleansing and displacement. The ability of rape to forcibly sterilize an enemy population and to ‘pollute their bloodline’ by changing the ethnicity of the next generation also make it a unique strategy of genocidal war. Moreover, whilst other war crimes face consequences in the post-conflict period, perpetrators of rape warfare commonly face no retribution. However, analysis of the complex interplay of contributing factors to the widespread use of rape in warfare, including the manifestation of economic grievances and brute poverty, and the exacerbation of pre-existing normalized sexual and gendered violence, shows that one cannot only conceptualize its use through the ‘weapon of war’ discourse, but must also consider these factors to gain a clearer understanding of the realities of rape in warfare.


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Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping as an Appropriate Institutionalised Answer to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Orsolya Plesz, London School of Economics, UK

Orsi is a Masters student at the London School of Economics and Political Science where she specialises in international conflicts. Previously, she studied Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester and experienced Israel’s military culture on her year abroad in Jerusalem.


This paper focuses on conflict-related sexual violence and argues that current enforcement measures of the international community to tackle this issue have proven to be inefficient. It is claimed that this inefficiency is due to the negative consequences of the use of violence, militarization and its gendered reconstruction of soldiers’ identities. Thus, this essay introduces unarmed civilian peacekeeping as a strictly non-violent method to respond to conflict-related sexual violence. However, the deployment of unarmed civilian peacekeepers in a conflict setting implicates moral concerns. For this reason, deontological and consequentialist arguments are utilized to analyse and argue in favour of the feasibility of unarmed civilian peacekeeping as an enforcement measure in a conflict setting.


The prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is a daily reality for many women and girls, and less frequently boys and men, in war-torn societies. According to a report by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, conflict-related sexual violence was widespread in the last 20 years in 51 countries in Asia, South and North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East when armed conflict occurred. However, this issue continues to be marginalised in the security sector. CRSV is often interpreted as a side-effect of, rather than a reason for, insecurity (Bastick, Grimm and Kunz, 2007, pp. 9-11). In 2000, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted the famous Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security; the first in a series that recognise women’s particular vulnerability in conflict zones, but also their agency and key role in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. During the last two decades, conflict-related sexual violence as a pitfall of the security sector started to draw more attention from scholars, journalists and policy makers.

Despite numerous calls from the UNSC in the last two decades for armed peacekeepers to tackle CRSV, the presence of UN peacekeeping forces in an area have in many cases been closely linked to the expansion of local sex industries that develop along highly gendered lines (Jennings and Nikolić-Ristanović, 2009, pp. 6-8). This enables the sexual exploitation of local women by peacekeepers that have also been accused of committing sexual violence and abuse on their missions. Thus, it seems that armed solutions do not suffice when it comes to tackle conflict-related sexual violence. This paper concentrates on unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) as a non-violent method to respond to CRSV, and its use as a weapon of war, by attempting to answer the question of when, if ever,  non-violence is a morally justifiable response to serious aggression. It will be argued throughout the essay that unarmed civilian peacekeeping is a more effective measure to tackle crimes of sexual violence in large scale conflicts, provided that the peacekeepers’ participation is voluntary, that they receive sufficient training on gender related issues and that their presence on the ground is requested by the negatively affected civil society. The main focus of the analysis will be limited to the immediate responses in an emergency: accompanimentprotective presence and inter-positioning. Protective presence is a method by which Unarmed Civilian Peacekeepers are strategically placed in locations where civilians face imminent threats. In order to ease the reading, this paper will use the term ‘protective presence’ as referring to these three methods of UCP. This essay relies on the work of NGOs and INGOs that adhere to three principles: strict non-partisanship, moderate to low levels of interventionism and obedience to the law of the country in which they perform their missions. The examples I use are the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) and Peace Brigades International (PBI). Although PBI offers its protection services to human rights activists, important lessons can be learned from their enormous experience. The importance of these principles will be discussed later in relation to the question of forced use of UCP.

The article begins by defining CSRV and UCP. This will be followed by an analysis of CSRV responses that involve the deployment of soldiers, which perpetuates and increases militarisation. This will pave the way to examining UCP using deontological and consequentialist criteria. The paper suggests that UCP can be imposed by the international community on a country that perpetrates, or cannot put an end to the use of, sexual violence as weapon of war. The conclusion brings all these sections together to show that UCP and its protective presence is a more effective measure to combat CRSV.

Conflict-related sexual violence

According to the United Nations Analytical and Conceptual Framing,

“conflict-related sexual violence refers to patterns of sexual violence against women, men, girls or boys occurring in a conflict, post-conflict setting or in other situations of concern such as in the context of political repression. Conflict-related sexual violence takes multiple forms such as, inter alia, rape, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced prostitution, sexual exploitation, trafficking, sexual enslavement, forced circumcision, castration, forced nudity or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” (Stop Rape Now, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, 2010, p. 3).

To add to this, as DeLargy (2012, pp.62-3) notes, there are long-lasting socio-economic impacts of sexual violence on the victim and on its community, and it is often used purposefully to demoralize and dissolve communities.

The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, depending on the circumstances, is considered to be a war crime, a crime against humanity, genocide and a gross violation of human rights that constitutes a threat to international peace and security (Stop Rape Now, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, 2010, p. 3). When sexual violence amounts to a mass atrocity, but the state is unable or unwilling to protect its population, the international community, according to the Responsibility to Protect norm, is expected to intervene in a supportive manner (Pillar II) to help the state fulfil its protection responsibility, or in a coercive manner (Pillar III) authorised by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (World Summit Outcome Document, 2005). The focus of this essay is conflict-related sexual violence in conflict and in conflict zones when it is systematically used as a tactic of war to destroy the social fabric of a community or a nation. As it has been outlined above, an overview of a more appropriate international response to CRSV that is based on non-violent methods which could be carried out by unarmed civilian peacekeepers, will be offered by the discussion in this paper.

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping is understood as civilians voluntarily acting as unarmed bodyguards to provide protection for communities they are sent to, and to strengthen local peace infrastructures (Mahony and Eguren, 1997, pp. 1-4). The most frequent deployment of UCP against imminent violence is in the form of protective presence. Protective presence is long-term physical nonpartisan presence and visibility (Julian and Schweitzer, 2015, p. 5). In later stages of a conflict, UCP is used as a peacebuilding operation. It facilitates space for dialogue and it encourages local solutions by introducing methods of nonviolent dispute settlement (Mahony, 2013), yet it does not impose its own approach to conflict resolution (Julian and Schweitzer, 2015, pp. 1-3). Activities of unarmed civilian peacekeeping include proactive engagement, monitoring, relationship building, rumour control and capacity development (Schirch, 2006, pp. 31-55). This essay will focus on the imminent protection services of UCP that are protective accompaniment, presence of an unarmed civilian peacekeeper and inter-positioning.

The idea of UCP by non-governmental and international non-governmental organisations was pioneered in the 1980s by Peace Brigades International (PBI) and has been adopted by many others since. To name a few, there are organisations that engage in UCP because of religious affiliation, such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, organisations that provide collective accompaniment in a specific area like Witness for Peace, and organisations that are actively involved in a cause, for example the International Solidarity Movement (Mahony, 2013). Additionally, these organisations do not have an official mandate and are not military personnel without weapons; rather, they rely on trained volunteers (Schweitzer, 2010a, pp. 1-8). What conjoins these volunteers is their belief in active non-violent methods (Mahony and Eguren, 1997, pp. 50-51).

The methodology of UCP is based on the idea commonly referred to as ‘political jiu-jitsu’ (Pattison, forthcoming). The non-violent methods employed on UCP missions, based on the principle of protective presence, aim to throw the violent party off its balance by using its brutality against itself. In other words, using non-violence against violence results in the delegitimisation of the violent party and the favourable perception of the non-violent party due to presumed unequal power relationships and the unjust utilisation of violence. Political jiu-jitsu achieves ‘dissuasion’, which Sharp defines as “the result of acts and processes which include an opponent not to carry out a contemplated hostile action”, such acts include “Rational argument, moral appeal, increased cooperation, improved human understanding, distraction, adoption of non-offensive policy and deterrence” (Sharp, 1985 cited in Mahony and Eguren, 1997, p. 84).

Military solutions

Having clarified the two main concepts of non-violence and serious aggression, below I will elaborate on the underlying reasons why it is problematic to employ violent methods in cases of conflict-related sexual violence. CRSV does not necessarily occur on the battlefields, but in regions hidden from the eyes of the international community, where it affects civilians disproportionately. Protection of civilians from CRSV requires physical presence on the ground. To this end, the international community, if it deems necessary, sends military peacekeeping missions to affected areas to stabilise, secure and protect. However, despite the deployment of military peacekeepers being the mainstream response, it is not the most appropriate.

The first objection to military peacekeeping as an international response to CRSV is based on the effects of militarisation on the soldiers’ behaviour. As many feminist theorists (see Maxwell, 2009; Cohn, 2012; Baaz and Stern, 2014) argue, the military is a highly gendered institution whose aim is to resocialise its members in order to construct a soldier identity that is willing to risk his/her life and take someone else’s. This resocialisation results in hyper-masculine identities, both in female and male soldiers, which glorify violence, aggressiveness, dominance and misogyny (DeLargy, 2012, pp. 61-62). Therefore, violence is redefined as a desirable and necessary way to fight the enemy. The abused use of violence calls upon military forces to resort to morally non-acceptable measures to fight the enemy, which can manifest in sexual violence. Even when this redefined approach to violence does not result in CRSV, it still generates a higher tolerance for extreme violent behaviours.

Second, military peacekeeping fails to address CRSV at its roots. Sexual violence as a tactic of war aims at the demoralisation and dissolution of communities. It is done by attacking those who are considered to be in need of protection, mostly women and girls because of their reproductive abilities. The purpose is to prove to the male counterparts that they are incapable of providing protection and therefore have failed to fulfil their fundamental role (DeLargy, 2012, p. 61). One of the reasons for using sexual violence as a tactic of war is to destroy the social fabric of a community. This is because victims of CRSV struggle to reintegrate into their communities since they remind their own community of its failure to provide protection. Tackling the issue of CRSV by deployment of armed international personnel is considered not effective for the reason that these forces participate in the maintenance of the protection myth defined above that is based on extreme gender divisions and unequal power relations. Additionally, once the military peacekeeping forces depart, the communities are left with their underlying gender inequality issues without having any coping mechanisms.

UN peacekeeping forces are not exempt from the effects of militarisation. This is because the military force of the UN is composed of its troop-contributing countries’ (TCC) military services (Anon, Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2016). The primary responsibility to train soldiers that are being sent to peacekeeping missions is borne by the troop contributing countries (Lyytikainen, 2007, pp. 4-15). Thus, having discussed the effects of military training and especially its effect of resocialisation, the risk prevails that soldiers that are sent to peacekeeping missions bear the characteristics of a hyper masculine identity. For this reason, it is important to incorporate a gender sensitive approach to the training of peacekeeping personnel. The UN has recognised the importance of gender mainstreaming in the training of its armed personnel, and the UN Development for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) developed training materials and offers advice for supplementary training for preliminary training that is available for police and troop contributing countries, yet the utilisation of such resources vary (Lyytikainen, 2007, pp. 7-11).

According to a 2007 working paper of the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) regarding gender sensitive training of personnel employed in UN peacekeeping missions, the extent of gender mainstreaming in preliminary trainings varies from country to country and depends on the respective country’s resources. The bulk of UN peacekeeping personnel come from developing countries of the Global South with limited resources and capacity to train their troops in a gender sensitive approach, as well as to involve non-technical matters such as preventing sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) (Lyytikainen, 2007, pp. 8-9). Countries of the Global North have wider resources available to include gender sensitive training (Lyytikainen, 2007, p. 9). However, greater capabilities do not translate into effective training and the expected results, as the situation in the Central African Republic humanitarian crisis illustrates, where French soldiers, among others, were accused of sexual abuse of children (Morenne, 2017). With regard to the induction training, the 2007 INSTRAW document draws attention to the insufficient gender awareness training. The length of such training, where it does happen, varies from 30 minutes to 2 hours (Lyytikainen, 2007, p. 9). Besides time limitations, existing language barriers also make it difficult to train peacekeeping personnel regarding gender issues in depth (p. 9). Moreover, during induction training the UN peacekeeping forces are being made aware of the UN’s Code and Conduct and Zero Tolerance policy regarding engagement in SEA (Lyytikainen, 2007, pp. 11-12). However, it seems that being aware of certain policies of the UN does not prevent peacekeepers to commit crimes of sexual violence and abuse by UN Peacekeeping. This is a concerning issue that could be understood in the framework of feminist theory of the effects of militarisation and unequal gender relations and should receive recognition and attention.

Despite these difficulties, in 2016 a compulsory online programme for all uniformed and civilian personnel was introduced with special focus on SEA to tackle the misconduct of UN personnel on Peacekeeping missions (UN News, 2017a). One of the recent developments is a new 4-point strategy announced by the Secretary General in March 2017, which aims to put the rights and dignity of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse at the forefront of UN efforts and to establish “greater transparency on reporting and investigations in an effort to end impunity for those guilty of sexual exploitation and abuse” (UN News, 2017b). The effectiveness of these efforts will be seen in due course.

Considering the relationship of feminist theory of militarisation and uneven gender sensitive training of UN Peacekeeping forces, it is not surprising that sexual violence is prevalent in UN peacekeeping missions, and that crimes of sexual violence have been documented on various missions, including in Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti (Maxwell, 2009, p. 110). Recent news reports also reported allegations of SEA committed by UN and French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR), that were acting under the authorisation of the Security Council (BBC News, 2017a, Morenne, 2017, and Foroohar, 2017). Overall, according to a 2016 report of the Secretary General, between 2013-2015 there were 187 allegations of SEA perpetrated by Peacekeeping personnel (United Nations, 2016).

As a response to the allegations of SEA in the CAR, an External Independent Review Panel, the “CAR Panel”, suggested that the way the UN handled these allegations was a “gross institutional failure” (Deschamps, Jallow and Sooka, 2015, p. v). Investigations identified 41 alleged perpetrators from its TCCs, 16 from Gabon and 25 from Burundi (Laville, 2017). Yet, further investigation of these cases is the respective countries’ responsibility. Investigating these allegations in a decentralised manner might result in lack of international attention, which leads to softer punishments of the perpetrators. Similarly, the BBC reported that the investigation of 6 accused French soldiers of sexually abusing children in the Central African Republic have not been charged (BBC News, 2017a). It is clear that the UN attempts to address issues of sexual abuse committed by its personnel with very limited success. On the other hand, a culture of impunity prevails regarding SEA crimes and Peacekeeping operations. It could also be argued that the UN is more interested in its political reputation than solving issues of SEA among its troops.

Due to the limited scope of this essay, an in-depth analysis cannot be provided on the effects of the involvement of women peacekeepers and their roles, however a few arguments may be considered. First, that the increasing involvement of women in peacekeeping missions may be a positive development towards gender equality. Female peacekeepers’ presence also aids the war-torn society by providing female role models and encourages victims of sexual abuse to report crimes based on the assumption that women would understand this issue better than their male counterparts (BBC News, 2017b).

However, the feminist theory of militarisation maintains the view that soldiers, regardless of their gender, are subject to the obtainment of hyper-masculine identities which could also result in downgrading the importance of sexual abuse and rape due to the high tolerance of violence. Further, post-colonial feminism argues that unequal power relations prevail among women of different cultural backgrounds (Tickner, 2013), which could complicate the self-identification of protected women with the peacekeeping forces’ female soldiers. Thus, involvement of women is important in peacekeeping operations, yet this paper maintains the view that it would not solve the underlying problem of militarisation in relation to CRSV.

To summarise, any attempt by the international community to tackle conflict-related sexual violence which involves military personnel is difficult to justify because the military system may facilitate sexual violence through the construction of hyper masculine identities. It is likely that the effects of militarisation result in doing harm intentionally and pushes the limits of tolerance for violence further than acceptable. Therefore, the next section turns to the discussion of unarmed civilian peacekeeping’s non-violent methods as alternatives to military solutions.

Deontological arguments for unarmed civilian peacekeeping

In what follows I will consider the inherent advantages of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping, that play a vital role in the justification of the utilisation of UCP as a response to serious aggression. The emphasis will be on the intentions of the personnel of UCP and will argue that the principle of volunteering cannot be changed by imposing UCP on other civilians.

One of the intrinsic arguments for using UCP is that its personnel is rightly motivated. Right intention is one of the main criteria of jus ad bellum of the just war theory, which defines the morally justifiable behaviour of when and how to wage a just war (Lee, 2012, pp. 69-85). Just war theory is relevant to the justifiability of the international community’s reaction when it acts in accordance to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, for instance. In cases where the international community steps in to protect civilians from serious aggressions when a country has failed to provide such protection to its own citizens, it is important that those who are being deployed to tackle the conflict are rightly motivated.

In order to establish the argument that the personnel of UCP is rightly motivated, civilians that engage in UCP need to be examined. First and foremost, the personnel of UCP consist of volunteers that undergo a recruitment process to ensure appropriateness on missions. A study conducted on PBI’s earliest accompaniment volunteers revealed that most of the volunteers had some level of college education and had diverse professions before their voluntary service (Mahony and Eguren, 1997, pp. 50-51). Among these, the most common were human service professions (p. 50). Furthermore, as Coy (2010, p. 4) points out, the volunteers of PBI do not have financial motivations since their travel expenses are paid by themselves and they receive minimal financial contribution to their living costs. What is it then that motivates these individuals?

Some volunteers join because of religious and spiritual reasons, others join as a result of interest in peacekeeping, and others join because of altruistic reasons (Schirch, 2006, pp. 82-83; Pattison, forthcoming). More importantly, these volunteers share a firm belief in non-violence, humanitarianism and commitment to do the right thing (Mahony and Eguren, 1997, pp. 50-51). Furthermore, due to the volunteers’ strong belief of non-violence, UCP does not and cannot harm the civilians it accompanies. This is due to the fact that non-violent methods lack the complex relationship to violence of military solutions which is being reinforced through the reconstruction of soldiers’ identity. As it has been demonstrated, the underlying intention of UCP is to genuinely help innocent civilians that are disproportionately affected by violent conflicts. Therefore, unarmed civilian peacekeeping fulfils the criterion of right intention of the just war theory.

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping’s voluntary character is of utmost importance. therefore, if participation is imposed on individuals, this form of peacekeeping faces a valid objection. Pattison (forthcoming), in his persuasive account on unarmed civilian peacekeeping, raises a worry regarding the supererogatory nature of the method of proactive nonviolent presence if this service is imposed on others. His argument goes as follows: UCP’s protective presence is based on people willing to be human shields. Individuals cannot be required to be human shields because that is a supererogatory request, therefore UCP cannot be prescribed to individuals as a response to serious aggression.

A few issues surface by further examining the possibility of institutionalising unarmed civilian peacekeeping recruitment. If UCP is being made part of a military system and proactive non-violent presence is imposed through conscription, then the international community is back to point zero given the account that has been given on the effects of militarisation. It is deemed true even if the conscripted soldiers are civilians because the problem is inherent within the military system.

Additionally, Schweitzer (2010b, pp. 61-62) argues that UCP could be turned into a civilian duty under Pillar III of the of Responsibility to Protect, which involves coercive means of intervention to stop mass atrocity crises, according to which not only governments are responsible for addressing serious aggression but civil society also could also have a direct role (pp. 59-60). This argument is unconvincing because individuals cannot be sent to areas of conflict of any kind and protect by taking serious risks so that other civilians will not be harmed. Considering that the effectiveness of the method is based on non-violent methods and a strong belief in such methods, sending individuals on UCP missions that lack the motivation of genuine humanitarianism could be rather counter-effective. Those who have been enforced to take this duty might not understand the principles of UCP regardless of prior training. In this case, imposing duties on civilians not involved in the conflict could be seen as playing the game ‘who comes back alive’, which would have demoralising effects on the societies who have to take this duty.

To briefly conclude this section, deontological arguments justify the deployment of unarmed civilian peacekeeping as a response to serious aggression of CRSV given the high moral qualities of UCP’s personnel. However, the use of unarmed civilian peacekeeping is conditional. The condition is that it needs the volunteers’ and their respective organisations’ agreement to participate in a mission since it cannot be prescribed to individuals.

Consequentialist arguments for unarmed civilian peacekeeping

Having discussed the main deontological considerations, this section analyses consequentialist arguments regarding unarmed civilian peacekeeping. These arguments will concentrate on the efficacy of the methods of UCP. It will be argued that protective presence of UCP is the most effective measure that can be invoked as a response to serious aggression of sexual violence. Based on the high efficiency of unarmed civilian peacekeeping to tackle CRSV, UCP could be employed by the international community if it has the request of the civil society in need.

To prove that protective presence of UCP is the single most effective measure of the international community, this essay makes the following assertions. Firstly, protective presence is effective because it “tacitly activates sensitivities” (Schweitzer, 2010a, p. 21) by being simply present, which deters the violent opponent. Those who resort to the use of intentional harm of civilians by using sexual violence as a tactic of war tend to favour hiding such crimes from the eyes of the international community in order to avoid repercussion. In these cases, protective presence changes the traditional dynamics of sexual violence, making the aggressors evaluate the importance of the presence of the unarmed accompanier and the political costs of the intended crime.

Furthermore, as it has been defined previously, the accompanier has the opportunity to utilise it skills of dissuasion, and through communication it can provide explanation of international human rights and the standpoint of the international community on conflict-related sexual violence. Secondly, it is also possible that the protective presence meets with a ruthless opponent who, after evaluating the political costs, decides to commit the crime (Mahony and Eguren, 1997, pp. 98-99). In this case, UCP is still effective in the long run, since the presence of a member of the international community in such hidden places assures awareness of the fact that sexual violence is being used as a tactic of war. Accordingly, unsuccessful accompaniment might have consequences that will deter from engagement in these criminal activities in the future (Mahony and Eguren, 1997, pp. 98-99). For these reasons, it could be argued that, in case of CRSV, accompaniment by unarmed civilian peacekeeping personnel is a game-changer because it is effective in the long-run even if the protective presence fails to prevent aggression at first.

The effectiveness of UCP in relation to conflict-related sexual violence can be exemplified by examining Nonviolent Peaceforce’s mission in South Sudan, where “incidents of sexual violence and harassment decreased to zero in some locations during protective accompaniment activity” (Anon, Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2016). By working on grassroots level, it is ensured that those who provide protective presence can analyse the situation at hand and apply the most appropriate response. In South Sudan, Nonviolence Peaceforce volunteers are trained to identify and address incidents of sexual violence. They have performed round the clock protective accompaniment for women at risk of sexual violence and established mobile protective response teams. Reintegration programs were facilitated and specialist support was provided to rebuild lives and to empower communities (Anon, Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2016). Volunteers work with local civil society organisations to transfer knowledge on deterrence, thus, upon their departure, working self-defence strategies are left behind. It is apparent from this example that CRSV can be significantly reduced if it is tackled by proactive non-violence. Furthermore, as a consequence of reintegration programs of victims of CRSV, the use of sexual violence as weapon of war is likely to lose its efficiency.

The efficiency of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping can also be seen in the preparation and training for missions. In most cases, volunteers of UCP receive pre-deployment general training and mission specific training that can last up to 3 weeks. Common elements of general training are gender issues, intercultural communication and working in a team. Special preparation includes information on country, culture and conflict and occasionally language training (Schweitzer, 2001, p. 303). The volunteers’ preparation is taken seriously in order to prepare the volunteers to be able to fulfil the task they need to tackle. After training and prior to departure some organisations, such as PBI, evaluate the participants’ competence and suitability for the mission (Schweitzer, 2001, pp. 293-302). Personal development, nonviolent methods and specific skills to the mission these volunteers are sent to are at the core of unarmed civilian peacekeepers’ pre-deployment training (Schweitzer, 2001, p. 298), which explain why UCP could successfully tackle CRSV without engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse.

Having argued so far that the effectiveness of UCP has its root in nonviolence, others oppose this viewpoint and attribute its efficiency to the privileged social status of unarmed civilian peacekeepers. To be more precise, Coy (2010) asserts that Peace Brigades International’s effectiveness, and consequently unarmed civilian peacekeeping’s effectiveness, is due to the volunteers’ ‘pale white skin’. In his account on PBI in the early decades, Coy claims that PBI “engaged and partly relied upon racist and classist constructions of internationality in order to protect local activists” (2010, p. 1). This essay recognises the possible validity of this objection but maintains the following claims. Firstly, it might be true that the internationality and the colour of the skin is what deters violent aggressors, however, the basis of deterrence is the racism of the violent aggressors and not that of the unarmed civilian peacekeepers’. In fact, by providing protection, UCP promotes the importance of human rights and therefore racial equality (Pattison, forthcoming). Secondly, organisations of UCP acknowledge the risk of depending on internationals from the Global North and aim to employ staff from various backgrounds (Schirch, 2006, pp. 83-84). If so, this essay takes the stance that if both in the short and long-term UCP is significantly successful in deterring aggressors of CRSV, while it addresses the problems at their roots, then sending UCP to tackle these kind of mass violations of human rights is morally justifiable.

Furthermore, credibility also has to be given to the issue that UCP is a limited enforcement measure. As Schirch explains (2006, pp. 65-72), if the parties want to keep fighting, and they enjoy the support of civil society, UCP cannot do much and neither can armed peacekeeping. This also means that CRSV prevails as a weapon of war due to its relationship to violence. As a consequence, UCP depends on the civil society actors’ desire for peace and willingness to transform their societies. Nonetheless, this essay takes the stance that if there is civil society keenness to solve underlying issues of extreme unequal gender relations but the government in question has not given its consent to third party interference, UCP could be imposed by the international community under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (1945).

This viewpoint is in accordance with Coy’s persuasive account (2012, p. 77) on the importance of non-partisanship, non-interference and obedience of local law. It is argued that, by following these principles, organisations could reduce their vulnerabilities and avoid delegitimisation and discrimination by the host government (Wallis, 2010, pp. 32-34; Coy, 2012, p. 77). Therefore, UCP could be enforced if genuine impartiality and non-partisanship is ensured. It is argued that the host government in which the intervention occurs would tolerate an imposed UCP measure better than it would a military solution. For the reason that the host government likely would regard military intervention as a violation of its sovereignty, this concern would be alleviated by the principle of non-interference of UCP. Besides, in the case where UCP is enforced and peacekeepers are being harmed intentionally by the host government, it would lead to reputational costs, delegitimation and serious repercussions. Given UCP’s high efficiency, impartiality and non-partisanship it is likely that in case of enforcement, UCP could provide protection and safe space to local dispute settlement without its volunteers being harmed. Therefore, its use is justified because it results in doing more good than harm. However, its enforcement depends on the condition of request from the civil society in need.


To summarise, this essay has established that conflict-related sexual violence is a serious aggression that needs to be addressed. It has shown that military solutions to address CRSV are both problematic and cannot be justified due to their complex relationship to violence. Therefore, this paper has argued that unarmed civilian peacekeeping could effectively address such issues due to its firm belief in nonviolence. Yet UCP also faces limitations. The voluntary nature of participation in UCP cannot be removed and the imposition of unarmed civilian peacekeeping by the international community is dependent upon the invitation of the civil society in need.


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