A Culture of Impunity: Understanding Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Contemporary Proxy Warfare

By Megan Gittoes

Around the world, civilians caught in the midst of armed conflict are increasingly suffering from conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). This disturbing upward trend was confirmed during the 9378th meeting of the United Nations Security Council in 2022, where it was contextualised in part as being due to rising global militarisation and arms proliferation. CRSV is not a new phenomenon, but this upsurge is more than just a reflection of historical patterns of violence. It underscores a critical challenge in contemporary conflict dynamics.

CRSV devastates communities, eroding trust in legal and governance systems and leaving lasting generational trauma. It severely impedes recovery efforts post-conflict by having dismantled the social fabric of communities and families. Driven by a range of motives, including political, military and economic gains, this heinous violation of human rights deliberately targets civilians, causing enduring harm to victims, fracturing families and tearing apart community cohesion.

While a victim-centred approach to this crime is critical, the recent increase in CRSV must be understood against the backdrop of the 21st century’s shift towards proxy warfare, a military strategy that has yet to be fully explored in relation to CRSV. Examples of the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria and Israel exemplify the severe consequences of covert proxy warfare on the escalation of sexual violence. These conflicts will serve as critical case studies to illustrate how proxy wars can exacerbate the conditions for armed conflict, amplify the risks of CRSV and foster a climate of impunity for both the state and non-state actors involved.

Moreover, the international community’s inadequate response to preventing and addressing these crimes signals an urgent need for a more profound examination of the evolving nature of warfare. By delving into the complexities of CRSV within the context of modern proxy warfare, there is an opportunity to address this multifaceted challenge, paving the way for more robust measures to protect civilians and uphold human rights in conflict zones. Such an analysis can develop more effective strategies for both prevention and accountability through a robust legal framework.

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