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In April 2022, reports from the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented evidence of war crimes that they deemed a human rights and humanitarian crisis after the Russian invasion (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2022). Among many horrific discoveries was the use of sexual violence. By early April, hundreds of cases of sexual violence by Russian forces against Ukrainians had been reported to the Ukraine ombudsman for Human Rights (Jakes, 2022). In one specific instance in Bucha, a group of Ukrainian women aged 14 to 24 were kept imprisoned in a basement and repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers (Limaye, 2022; Ferris-Rotman, 2022). While some assaults during war and conflict may be random attacks by individual soldiers, in other cases, sexual violence is used as an explicit military tactic (Hagen & Yohani, 2010).
The use of sexual- and gender-based violence as a military strategy is not new; it is a longstanding weapon of war that has been traced back to the 11th century and used internationally during conflict (Hagen & Yohani, 2010). The UN defines conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) as “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict” (UN, 2022). It is typically perpetrated by armed or unarmed military agents against civilians, with a goal of intimidation and domination (Hagen & Yohani, 2010). In 2021, 3,293 worldwide cases of CRSV were verified by UN investigators, an increase of about 800 from the year before (Patten, 2022). CRSV may be differentiated from other forms of sexual violence by: 1) scale (i.e., widespread; thousands to hundreds of thousands of victims or more), 2) public occurrence (e.g., in front of other civilians and family members to instill fear and pain; in front of other soldiers to increase military camaraderie), 3) brutality (e.g., assaults involve elements of sadism, xenophobia, and misogyny; repeated assault until physical injury is sustained), 4) sex slavery, 5) ethnic cleansing and genocidal rape (i.e., civilians are targeted because of their ethnicity or religion to cause sterilization or forced reproduction with the perpetrator’s genes; Hagen & Yohani, 2010). Despite the profound and devastating impact on individuals, families, and communities, war crimes involving sexual violence are among the least prosecuted, and many survivors never attain justice (Fadel, 2022; Karcic & Domi, 2022).
In 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820, explicitly constituting that rape and sexual violence are war crimes (UN, 2008). Yet, the number of successful international prosecutions is low (Fadel, 2022; Karcic & Domi, 2022). The most recent UN report on CRSV found that 70% of perpetrators had been on the list for five or more years (Patten, 2022), highlighting the poor accountability and repeated offenses by those violating international human rights. A major obstacle to prosecuting CRSV is determining which courts have jurisdiction over the crimes committed in war, whether political leaders will pursue prosecution, and whether evidence is collected in a timely manner (Ferris-Rotman, 2022; Karcic & Domi, 2022).
Several policies and protections are needed to both prevent the continued occurrence of CSRV as well as to quickly and effectively respond to survivors. These include passing and enforcing survivor-centric policies to increase accountability, prevention, and response to CRSV. For instance, UN Security Council Resolution 2467 (UN, 2019) advocates for comprehensive health care and reparations for survivors and urges sanction committees to penalize those who perpetrate and direct CRSV. Systemic improvements must be made to hold perpetrators of CRSV, including leadership that may have encouraged it, responsible for their actions. Additionally, it is important to send experts to conflict zones as soon as possible to collect evidence contemporaneously to facilitate prosecution (Ferris-Rotman, 2022). Similarly, there must be a process for safe reporting and response to survivors, such as the Murad Code—named after human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, a survivor of CRSV committed against Yazidi women in Iraq. The Murad Code outlines a code of conduct, best practices, and guidelines relevant for reporting and documenting CRSV to reduce harm suffered by survivors (e.g., repeated and unnecessary re-interviewing, interviews completed by untrained or unskilled interviewers, unclear or rushed informed consenting, lack of consideration for re-traumatization that can be caused by interviews). Another key need is quick access to quality health care, including culturally sensitive and trauma-informed mental and reproductive health services, by frontline health workers responding to conflict zones (Hagen & Yohani, 2010; Strzyżyńska & Koshiw, 2022). Lastly, diversity in leadership, such as appointing women in leadership positions, may facilitate advances in justice and raising more awareness of CRSV (Ferris-Rotman, 2022).
As Pramila Patten, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence, stated in her April 2022 address to the UN Security Council: “Survivors must be seen by their societies as the holders of rights that will be respected and enforced. And societies must realize that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding, or condoning it” (Patten, 2022). International collaboration and effort must be taken such that survivors of CRSV, including those from past and current conflicts, are not forgotten and perpetrators are held responsible.

About the Author

Alyssa Jones, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in Mental Illness Research and Treatment at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, SC, USA. Her research is focused on affective mechanisms associated with the development and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She also provides evidence-based treatment for PTSD and other trauma-related disorders.


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