Security Council Resolution 1820: Some Reflections

When we think of UN Security Council Resolutions related to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, what immediately comes to our minds is Resolution 1325. There is no doubt that Resolution 1325 of 2000 is a landmark resolution, that sought to recognize women’s rightful place in prevention of violent conflict, peace negotiations, relief and recovery efforts and in building long lasting peace. However, there is a lesser known yet significant resolution – Resolution 1820 of 2008.


Resolution 1820 condemns and calls for the immediate end to the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war. It also mandated all parties to an armed conflict to take measures to protect civilians, including women and girls, from all forms of sexual violence. Significantly, the resolution refers to both ‘wars’ (international in nature) and ‘armed conflicts’ – which include internal armed conflicts. Given that in recent years, there are many more internal armed conflicts, this is of importance. Further the resolution uses the term ‘sexual violence’ which is broader, as rape is narrowly defined to include only penetrative sexual acts in many countries. In India, for instance, it was only in 2013 that the definition of rape was broadened to include non-consensual sexual attacks beyond the penile penetration of the vagina! To its merit, the resolution mentions sexual violence committed against women and girls, but does not confine itself only to this category of civilians. By implication, sexual violence against queer persons including trans*, non-binary and gender fluid and gender non-conforming persons, is not excluded. Recent reports of the Taliban holding a hitlist of LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan, and of Myanmar’s queer community facing death and torture from the military junta illustrate the relevance of such a non-exclusion in the resolution.


The Resolution also noted that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide. The Rome Statute, adopted by the global community in 1998, established the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a permanent international court that is mandated to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression. Advocacy by a significant number of women’s rights activists and organizations from various parts of the world in the law-making process, resulted in a recognition of a broader set of crimes, referred to under the umbrella term ‘sexual and gender-based violence.’ These include rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, as well as persecution on grounds including of gender. Significantly, these provisions apply to all genders.


Resolution 1820 is a historic milestone. Sexual violence has historically been ignored, tolerated, denied or brushed under the carpet as a necessary byproduct / “collateral damage” of wars and armed conflict. In the post-World War II context, the Nazi officials were not made accountable for sexual and gender based violence during the Nuremberg trials; members of the Japanese imperial army were not prosecuted for the sexual slavery during the Tokyo Trials. Moving from a culture of neglect and silence towards sexual violence in armed conflict in the 1940s to its international recognition and efforts at accountability in the last three decades is no easy feat! This was possible largely due to feminist campaigning and solidarity from the grassroots to the international arena. But of course, much more remains to be done.


The Resolution draws attention to military disciplinary measures, upholding principle of command responsibility, training troops on the categorical prohibition of all forms of sexual violence against civilians, and vetting armed and security forces to take into account past actions of sexual violence. Cumulatively, these make a dent in the prevailing military culture of hegemonic masculinity. Susan Brownmiller, Cynthia Enloe, Cynthia Coburn, Ramon Hinojosa and many others have illustrated how hegemonic masculinity in the armed forces is constructed, maintained and normalized through sexual violence.


In India, Justice Verma Committee recommended the inclusion of command responsibility for rape into Indian criminal law. This would have ensured that military commanders are prosecuted for rape committed by their subordinates when the commanders had (or ought to have had) the knowledge and power to prevent, prohibit or punish the same. However, this was not accepted. The non-acceptance can be understood within the context of hyper nationalism and popular jingoism, stoked by hegemonic discourses in South Asia.


In short, like many others, Resolution 1820 is a normative standard – one that has an immense potential to be used as an advocacy tool for domestic peace and justice initiatives.

*Dr. Saumya Uma is a Board member of Women’s Regional Network and teaches law at Jindal Global Law School, India.

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