Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones

From time immemorial, sexual violence has been considered as an inevitable part of a conflict zone or a war torn area. Earlier, there were no laws to regulate situations in war zones but now we have some international Conventions dealing with this issue. But the shocking fact is that till date the problem of sexual violence in war zones continue.

The situations of Syria and Yemen are burning examples of this. While it may appear to be a peculiarity of a lawless situation, it points a finger at the ill-treatment of women in times of difficulty. It at times takes the shape of sexual violence under order that is, a means of humiliating or achieving some economic or political end.  In the light of these situations, one needs to understand the international conventions in this regard and their efficacy.

History of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones

Although history speaks of a large number of such incidents, some are worth mentioning:

World War II and Occupation of Germany

During the World War II and the occupation of Germany by Hitler’s Nazi party, several incidents of rape and atrocities were heard of. But due to the silence of the parties, it was never brought forth even in the landmark trials of Nuremburg and Tokyo.

The Bangladesh Liberation Movement

During the Bangladeshi Liberation Movement several Hindu Bengali women on the side of East Pakistan were raped, tortured or sold off. A similar situation also prevailed in West Bengal where Muslim Bengali women faced the same plight.

Boko Haram in Nigeria

Last year a group of Boko Haram extremists abducted some women and girls in Nigeria. Not only this, their atrocities had developed a feeling of fear in the minds of women and other people in the poor areas of Nigeria.

International Conventions regulating sexual violence

Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols

Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, 1949 prohibits acts like violence to life and person which include mutilation, cruel treatment and torture , outrages personal dignity or humiliating and degrading treatment. Article 27(2) of the same Convention gives special protection to women at the time of war against rape, forced prostitution or any form of indecent assault. This is reiterated in the Additional Protocols of 1977.

International Criminal Law

Various International Criminal Tribunals have considered sexual violence as a war crime. Some of these tribunals are the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal, Tokyo Tribunal, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, International Criminal Tribunal former Yugoslavia (ICTY). They have termed these activities as genocide and war crimes.

United Nations

The UN Security Council and the UN Commission on Human Rights also address the problems of sexual violence. The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) focuses on specific protection for women and girls. They consider t rape and other forms of sexual violence “can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.  The Resolution 1888 (2009) created the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Sexual Violence in Conflict. This Office seeks to eliminate the problem of sexual violence in conflict zones by assisting national authorities in increasing criminal accountability,  responsiveness to survivors and judicial capacity, extending protection to women and girls who are the worst targets, spreading awareness about rape being  a tactic and a consequence of war and making people alert about it. It has identified certain countries like Bosnia and Herzegovnia, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Syria and some more regions where immediate action is required.

International Conventions-Where do they lack?

Although we found a plethora of international conventions dealing with sexual violence in conflict zones, the activities still continue in the present world. With incidents of slave trade of women for sexual purposes or incidents if rape being reported openly by the ISIS in Syria, it raises a question as to how far these Conventions have played their role. Some of the obvious drawbacks are:

Lack of enforcement

The Conventions are entered into at the international level but their enforcement depends on state to state. As a result of this, these provisions are not at all taken into consideration by the war torn states. For example, in Syria there is no strong law enforcement agency at present that would ensure compliance with the International law.

Failure of UN

The efforts made by UN Office of Special Representative have also fallen short. The lack of funds and failed talks has contributed to the Office not being able to discharge its functions efficiently.

One cannot brush away international mandates by merely calling them a soft law. The concerted and focused efforts of all nations towards one nation is lacking greatly while addressing such social issues.


It is a shocking fact that the world till date is tolerating such atrocities on women. There is no means of enforcing the laws or sanctions on these countries or groups that resort to such tactics. Sexual violence in conflict zones is not only a case of violation of international law but also a social and moral issue which needs to be addressed immediately if peace and human rights have to be enforced on this earth.

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