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March 5, 2016

Responding To: Human Security in the Face of Violent Extremism

Obstacles for Countering Sexual Violence as a Form of Terrorism

Celeste Carano

In both her speech and blog post, Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura made a compelling argument on the critical need to recognize sexual violence as a form of terrorism. During her talk at Georgetown University on February 22, Bangura highlighted in particular the dangers of the sophisticated recruitment strategies of ISIS and its brutal tactics to kidnap, enslave, and ransom women. Stating “there can be no security without women’s security, and no peace without peace for women and their families,” she drew a clear link between sexual violence and state insecurity.

 But while Special Representative Bangura argued compassionately for the need to recognize the threat of sexual violence, her visit was too brief to fully explore how it ought to be countered. Speaking on her prior efforts working with governments in Latin America and Africa, she emphasized the necessity of national buy-in to successfully fight these crimes. She has found that increasing the cost of and punishment for these crimes can prevent their repetition, but only if there is willingness to uphold the law. Her experiences working with governments has taught her that it is crucial that leadership agree to work towards solutions, and that only after a leader commits to fighting the problem can legal experts come in to support action and reconciliation.

What remains an open question after the discussion is how that knowledge and framework can translate to extensive criminal networks of terrorists like ISIS or Boko Haram. There is no potential for terrorist networks to acknowledge the seriousness of the crimes committed; they are in fact a deliberate, pre-planned tactic to terrorize a population. Further, there is no potentially empathetic “leadership” to engage. Unfortunately, Ms. Bangura’s talk suggested rather pragmatically that in countries where this is the case, change is unlikely. But is the only alternative for actors like the UN or United States to wait out the violence and plan to assist in reconstruction and reconciliation when it’s over? Acknowledgment of sexual violence as a terrorism strategy is a beginning.

But clearly, more research, and new strategies, are needed to manage international intercession in these crises.

Celeste Carano is a M.A. Candidate in the Global Human Development program at Georgetown University. 

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