United Nations Peace and Security

I. Introduction🔗

The commitment of the Security Council is unequivocal, to bring all tools to bear to break the seemingly endless cycles of sexual violence and impunity.

Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence1

The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organisation founded in the wake of World War II by 51 countries ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’.2 The UN is guided by the purposes and principles contained in its founding document, the UN Charter,3 such as maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, solving international problems cooperatively and promoting human rights.4 Almost all States in existence have ratified the UN Charter.5

Since its very beginning, the UN has encouraged and participated in the development of international law to regulate international relations and establish ‘conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained’.6 It has done so through its main bodies, including the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the UN Security Council (UNSC), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Secretariat.

The UNGA is the main deliberative, policy-making and representative organ of the UN. All UN Member States are represented in the UNGA, which functions as a forum for multilateral discussion of international issues covered by the UN Charter.7

Composed of 5 permanent and 10 non-permanent members, the Council has primary responsibility, under the UN Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security.8 Its decisions are binding on all UN Members.9

Note to reader
Our focus on the Council in this chapter is due to the Council’s lead and binding role in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression, and what measures may be required in response, under Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter.

The ICJ is the UN’s principal judicial organ. Its role is to settle, in accordance with its Statute and international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorised UN organs and specialised agencies.10

The Secretariat comprises the Secretary-General and UN staff members who carry out the day-to-day work of the UN as mandated by its main bodies. The Secretary-General is a symbol of the UN’s ideals, and an advocate for all the world’s peoples.11 Under the UN Charter, the Secretary-General is empowered to bring to the attention of the Council any matter that may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.12

I.1 CRSV under the UNSC Resolutions🔗

In its seminal 2008 resolution, Resolution 1820, the Council stated that CRSV has been used as a ‘tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group’.13 In 2009, the Council condemned in the strongest terms ‘all sexual and other forms of violence committed against civilians in armed conflict’, and recognised that in the context of armed conflict – both international and non-international – civilians (in particular women and children) require protection as an at risk section of the population.14 Since then, the Council has expressed concern over CRSV committed in, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo,15 the Central African Republic,16 Somalia,17 Mali,18 Yemen,19 and Sudan.20

The Council has noted that women and girls ‘account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons, and increasingly are targeted by combatants and armed elements’.21 Protecting and guaranteeing the rights of women and girls in times of war and promoting their participation in peace processes are essential to achieving international peace and security.22 The Council has also acknowledged that men and boys can be victims of CRSV, including in detention settings and within armed groups.23

Further, the Council has recognised that sexual violence is ‘known to be part of the strategic objectives and ideology of certain terrorist groups, used as a tactic of terrorism, and an instrument to increase their power through supporting financing, recruitment, and the destruction of communities’.24

I.2 The UNSC’s Response to CRSV🔗

Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Council has the authority to establish ‘the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression’, and to make recommendations or determine measures ‘to maintain or restore international peace and security’.25 Before doing so, the Council may require all parties concerned to comply with any provisional measures it deems necessary: a failure to comply may result in a harsher response.26

Decisions on procedural matters require nine members of the Council to vote affirmatively. Decisions on non-procedural matters require nine members of the Council to vote affirmatively, including the permanent members (i.e., China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America).27

Measures to maintain or restore international peace and security are generally considered as non-procedural matters,28 and include:

  1. Measures ‘not involving the use of armed force’, such as ‘complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations’. The Council may call upon Members of the UN to apply such measures;29
  2. Should such measures be inadequate, ‘action by air, sea, or land forces’. Action includes ‘demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations’.30

CRSV, as a practice that may reach appalling levels of brutality that persist after the cessation of hostilities and ‘impede the restoration of international peace and security’, may require the adoption of such measures to avoid the significant exacerbation of armed conflict situations.31 Hence, the Council has continuously included such situations on its agenda to, where necessary, adopt appropriate steps to address them.32 For example, it has required all parties to an armed conflict to cease all acts of sexual violence with immediate effect.33 The Council has done so by recalling the commitments States have under the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, reaffirming the obligation of States Parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its Optional Protocol (urging States that have not yet done so to consider ratifying or acceding to them), and noting General Recommendation 30 on Women in Conflict Prevention, Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.34

Note to reader
The intervention of the Council does not displace States’ obligations to prevent the commission of CRSV within their territory or, if it has materialised, to prosecute the perpetrators. ‘States bear primary responsibility to respect and ensure the human rights of their citizens, as well as all individuals within their territory’.

Other ways in which the Council has dealt with threats to peace include:

  1. State-specific sanctions regimes, including targeted and graduated measures against parties to armed conflict who commit CRSV;35
  2. The appointment of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict;
  3. The use of force.

I.2.1 Sanctions🔗

Sanctions are a non-military measure that the Council has increasingly resorted to. As sanctions are adopted in accordance with the Council’s powers under Chapter VII of the UN Charter,36 all UN Members have an obligation to implement them when called upon. Since 1966, the Council has established 31 sanctions regimes.

Security Council sanctions have taken a number of different forms, in pursuit of a variety of goals. The measures have ranged from comprehensive economic and trade sanctions to more targeted measures such as arms embargoes, travel bans, and financial or commodity restrictions. The Security Council has applied sanctions to support peaceful transitions, deter non-constitutional changes, constrain terrorism, protect human rights and promote non-proliferation.

Sanctions do not operate, succeed or fail in a vacuum. The measures are most effective at maintaining or restoring international peace and security when applied as part of a comprehensive strategy encompassing peacekeeping, peacebuilding and peacemaking. Contrary to the assumption that sanctions are punitive, many regimes are designed to support governments and regions working towards peaceful transition.37

The Council has imposed targeted sanctions on individuals who have perpetrated and directed CRSV.38 In resolution 2467, the Council reiterated its intention, when choosing whether to adopt or renew targeted sanctions in situations of armed conflict, to consider including designation criteria pertaining to acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence.39

The following are four regimes which expressly denote sexual and gender-based violence as violations of international law requiring sanctions.


In Resolution 1493 (2003), the Council called upon the parties to the conflict to stop violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Five years later, the Council ‘strongly condemn[ed] the continuing violence, in particular sexual violence directed against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’40 and included CRSV as part of the designation criterion for sanctions.41

In 2016, the Council adopted Resolution 2293 noting again ‘with great concern the persistence of serious human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations against civilians in the eastern part of the DRC’, including ‘sexual and gender-based violence and large scale recruitment and use of children committed by armed groups’. The resolution renewed the previously imposed sanctions.42

The Council also urged ‘the Government of the DRC to continue the full implementation and dissemination throughout the military chain of command, including in remote areas, of its commitments made in the action plan signed with the United Nations, and for the protection of girls and boys from sexual violence’.43 It welcomed efforts ‘made by the Government of the DRC to combat and prevent sexual violence in conflict, including progress made in the fight against impunity’. The Council called on the DRC ‘to further pursue its action plan commitments to end sexual violence and violations committed by its armed forces and continue efforts in that regard, noting that failure to do so may result in the [Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo] being named again in future Secretary General’s reports on sexual violence’.44


In Resolution 2002 (2011), the Council included sexual and gender-based violence as a designation criterion for targeted sanctions. The Council condemned in the strongest terms ‘all acts of violence, abuses and violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, committed against civilians, including children, in violation of applicable international law’.45 The Council stressed ‘that the perpetrators must be brought to justice, recalling all its relevant resolutions on women, peace and security, on children and armed conflict, and on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts’.46


In 2015, the Council established a sanctions regime against South Sudan, and included rape and sexual violence in the list of prohibited acts.47 The Council strongly condemned ‘past and ongoing human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law’, including those involving rape, and other forms of sexual and gender based violence, by all parties, ‘including armed groups and national security forces, as well as the incitement to commit such abuses and violations’. The Council emphasised ‘that those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights must be held accountable, and that the Government of South Sudan bears the primary responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity’.48

The Council also condemned ‘the use of media to broadcast hate speech and transmit messages instigating sexual violence against a particular ethnic group, which has the potential to play a significant role in promoting mass violence and exacerbating conflict’49 and called on the Government ‘to take appropriate measures to address such activity’.50 The Council urged all parties to instead contribute to promoting peace and reconciliation among communities.51


In 2014, the Council adopted targeted sanctions in Resolution 2134 against individuals undermining peace, threatening political processes, and committing atrocities, including sexual violence.52 The Council expressed its concerns about the ‘multiple and increasing violations of international humanitarian law and the widespread human rights violations and abuses’, including those involving sexual violence against women and children and rape ‘committed by both former Seleka elements and militia groups, in particular those known as the “anti-Balaka”‘.53

The Council decided that the mandate of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic had to be reinforced and updated to include the promotion and protection of human rights and ‘monitor, help investigate and report to the Council, specifically on violations and abuses committed against children as well as violations committed against women including all forms of sexual violence in armed conflict, including through the deployment of child protection advisers and women protection advisers’.54

I.2.2 The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict🔗

The Council’s binding resolutions on CRSV are complemented by the work of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, established by UNSC resolution 1888 (2009).55 To effectively address CRSV at both headquarters and country level, the Special Representative is empowered to:

  • Provide coherent and strategic leadership;
  • Strengthen existing UN coordination mechanisms;
  • Engage in advocacy efforts with parties to armed conflict, civil society and governments, including military and judicial representatives;
  • Promote cooperation and coordination of efforts among all relevant stakeholders, primarily through the UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict inter-agency initiative, a network of 24 UN entities aiming to end sexual violence ‘during and in the wake of armed conflict’;56
  • Work with UN Members to develop joint Government-UN Comprehensive Strategies to Combat Sexual Violence, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders;57
  • Provide additional briefings and documentation on sexual violence in armed conflict to the Council.58 A primary function of the Office of the Special Representative is to prepare the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on CRSV, focusing on countries for which credible information is available. The Report includes detailed information on parties to armed conflict that are ‘credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for’ acts of sexual violence. All listed parties should engage with the Office to develop ‘specific, time-bound commitments and action plans to address violations’, or risk exclusion from UN peacekeeping operations.59

Since 2017, the office has been led by the Special Representative Ms Pramila Patten of Mauritius, who has set three strategic priorities as part of her mandate, namely ‘(i) converting cultures of impunity into cultures of justice and accountability through consistent and effective prosecution; (ii) fostering national ownership and leadership for a sustainable, survivor-centered response; and (iii) addressing the root causes of CRSV with structural gender inequality and discrimination, poverty and marginalization as its invisible driver in times of war and peace’.60

The Special Representative has highlighted the work done by the Council to address CRSV throughout its resolutions:

‘The resolutions on sexual violence articulate the elements of a compliance regime to influence the conduct of perpetrators, and potential perpetrators. The resolutions reinforce International Humanitarian Law, which makes it clear that even wars have limits, and sexual violence is beyond the scope of acceptable conduct, even in the midst of battle. These limits have been universally agreed upon and must be universally respected. They include a categorical prohibition on all forms of sexual violence, which can never be excused, justified, or amnestied’.

In addition, the Special Representative has indicated that sexual violence ‘is the most consistently and massively under-reported violation’, hence the available data only represents ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Her office has recommended that the Council ‘mobilize immediately on the basis of our common conviction that even one case of sexual violence is unacceptable’.61

Note to reader
The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict has produced a number of important tools for States and international actors to combat CRSV. These resources can be explored in the "Further Readings" chapter.

I.2.3 Use of Force, Humanitarian Intervention and Responsibility to Protect🔗

In their international relations, all UN members must refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN.62 Under the Charter, there are only two exceptions to the rule:

  • States may use force in self-defence against an armed attack.63 The use of force in retaliation, including as punishment, revenge or reprisal, is not legal;64
  • Under article 42 of the Charter, the Council may expressly authorise States, and States acting through international organisations, to use force after determining the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression. Since the end of the Cold War, the Council has authorised the use of force numerous times.65

A third, but controversial exception, ‘not mentioned in the Charter and presumably to be found, if at all, in customary international law’, envisages a right for States to use force to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in another State (i.e., a humanitarian intervention) without the authorisation of the Council.66 Its proponents hold that, in cases of egregious violations of IHL and/or international human rights law, State sovereignty and the prohibition on the use of force must yield to humanitarian imperatives.67

Conscious of the controversial nature of humanitarian intervention, and of the much-criticised NATO military intervention in Kosovo,68 at the 2005 UN World Summit meeting, UN Member States committed instead to the principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P).69 They found that, under this principle:

  1. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from mass atrocity crimes (i.e., genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity);
  2. The international community should encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility, including ‘before crises and conflicts break out’, and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability;
  3. In accordance with the UN Charter, the international community has the responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations from such crimes and peaceful means are inadequate, the international community should take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Council and in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, to protect that State’s populations.70

While the application of R2P is restricted to mass atrocity crimes, the UN has a vast array of tools available to address these violations. This encompasses:

  • Preventative measures, including ‘monitoring and warning systems for mass atrocity crimes, institution-building, and diplomatic efforts’;
  • Protective measures once atrocity crimes are committed, including refugee camps for fleeing populations, coercive measures against perpetrators such as targeted individual sanctions on travel and finance, and the use of force through the Council as a last resort;
  • Post-hoc measures to respond to mass atrocity crimes, including creating international commissions of inquiry, referring cases to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, and assisting local efforts for truth and reconciliation.71

II. Legal Framework🔗

United Nations Security Council resolutions, including resolutions on:

  • Women, Peace and Security Agenda
  • Children and Armed Conflict

III. Obligations under the UNSC Resolutions🔗


III.1 States should criminalise CRSV🔗

III.2 States parties to armed conflict must cease CRSV against civilians🔗

III.3 States parties to armed conflict must fully respect international law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls🔗

III.4 States should be inclusive in their efforts to address CRSV🔗

III.5 States must take special measures to protect their population, especially women and girls, from CRSV🔗

III.6 States should take special measures to protect children from CRSV🔗

III.7 States should implement the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and include civil society, especially women, in peace processes🔗

III.8 States should incorporate a gender perspective in peacekeeping operations and training to prevent and respond to CRSV🔗

III.9 States should support women organisations’ gender-sensitive efforts to address CRSV🔗

Justice and Accountability🔗

III.10 States must promptly and ethically investigate CRSV🔗

III.11 States must prosecute CRSV🔗

III.12 States should refrain from using amnesty provisions in cases of CRSV🔗

III.13 States should undertake comprehensive legal and judicial reforms to ensure that victims/survivors of CRSV have access to justice🔗

Humanitarian Response🔗

III.14 States should provide victims/survivors of CRSV with appropriate, comprehensive care🔗


III.15 States should provide victims/survivors of CRSV with reparations🔗

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