International Policy/United Nations

Guinea Rapes Test U.N.'s Stronger Promises to Women

Friday, October 30, 2009

In recent weeks, the U.N. has bolstered a groundbreaking, but largely symbolic, resolution passed in 2000 that identified women's rights and roles during war. Recent public rapes in Guinea now pose a crucial test of their strength.

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"The secretary-general doesn't have a reputation as being very fast in his appointments," said Marianne Mollman, director of advocacy for Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division, in a phone interview. "In the case of Guinea, the main issue is impunity. A special envoy could help make sure that there is no impunity; that the perpetrators would be brought to justice."

Guinean Women Gather Evidence

On Oct. 8, Guinean women gathered to collect information about the public rapes, in an effort by civil organizations to protect survivors and bring the perpetrators to justice, according to reporting by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

Aid agencies documented 33 public rape cases, but advocates fear many more female victims are afraid to come forward.

Rumors have even spread, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, that soldiers are entering hospitals and taking away women who said they have been raped.

"The soldiers were safe in the knowledge that nothing would happen to them," Deejah Diallo, a 27-year-old woman living in Conakry, Guinea's capital, said in a recent phone interview. "About the sexual violence, I think that's the supreme humiliation. Men have always done that…it's a pattern, see what's going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance."

In response to the state-sponsored violence, former colonial power France has suspended military aid and a West African regional bloc has imposed an arms embargo against Guinea.

At a recent summit in Abuja, Nigeria, the Economic Community of West Africa States said the country, which borders Sierra Leone and Liberia, is a threat to the region's security and stability. The United States has asked the president of Guinea, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, to leave office.

"We have made it clear… that the current junta led by Captain Dadis Camara should step down," said Phillip J. Crowley, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Public Affairs, at an Oct. 14 U.S. State Department press briefing. "We also think that there should be an international investigation of the events that resulted in the death of over 150 people."

The U.N. launched an international community of inquiry on Oct. 16. U.N. Secretary-General spokesperson Michele Montas said they would send a mission to Conakry shortly to investigate the recent killings and rapes.

Violence Criminal, Not Cultural

"Violence against women is not cultural, it's criminal," Margaret Wallström, vice-president of the European Commission, said in a talk at Columbia University on Oct. 15. "How do you build peace where this happened, if you've seen your mother or daughter raped?"

The Security Council on Oct. 5 also fortified the nine-year-old spirit of Resolution 1325 by passing Resolution 1889.

It mandates that the Security Council develop a strategy to increase the number of female peacekeepers and that gender advisors are placed to manage humanitarian assistance and participate in post-conflict resolution.

The resolution also calls for greater inclusion of women in negotiating teams. According to UNIFEM, women account for only 7 percent of negotiators in peace talks.

On Sept. 14, the General Assembly created a single new entity within the U.N. to promote women's rights. Within this entity, important offices, agencies and funds within the U.N. that focus on women will be merged into a larger institution.

Since 2000, the status of women in conflict has seen some victories, but has largely deteriorated.

Women are still largely on the margins of peace talks and negotiations, said Inés Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM. She said the U.N. has not once appointed a woman to mediate a major conflict and that sexual violence as a tactic of war is on the rise.

More than 200,000 women in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have been raped in the past decade, as many as 40 a day, according to a report from the U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The Security Council passed a resolution in June 2008 that recognized sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security. But like Resolution 1325, it lacked any implementation specifics, a criticism that U.N. votes and measures in the past month may help to overcome.

Rebecca Harshbarger is a New York-based journalist, who recently returned from reporting in Uganda for six months. You can visit her blog at www.ugandabeat.wordpress.com.

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