German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, center, participates in a Security Council meeting on sexual violence at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Seth Wenig)

BERLIN — When Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last October for their work to stop the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, there was widespread praise from all parts of the world, including the United States.

But when the Trump administration was asked this month to do its part, and to pass a U.N. resolution to end sexual violence in war, things suddenly looked a bit more complicated.

Until the end, international politicians and celebrities urged the United States to “stand on the right side of history,” as actor George Clooney said, and to “ensure [victims’] voices are at the center of our response,” as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and actress Angelina Jolie wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

But to no avail.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council finally passed that resolution, but only in a watered-down version, diluted by the Trump administration.

European allies are furious.

France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, lashed out at the United States for what he called an “intolerable and incomprehensible” stance.

U.S. allies abroad have grown accustomed to a U.S. administration with interests that are often diametrically opposed to theirs, including on trade, Iran and the European Union. But sexual violence in war? Really?

The move to water down Tuesday’s resolution followed weeks of U.S. objections to remove all references in that paper to reproductive and sexual health, which the U.S. delegation feared would be understood as support for abortions. Like prior Republican administrations, the Trump administration has rolled back much of the support granted to nongovernmental organizations for projects that support or facilitate abortions.

In the Security Council, the United States wasn’t alone in its opposition to the original resolution: Potentially encouraged by the U.S. move, China and Russia threatened to join the protest, even though both had previously supported or abstained from similar resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly.

In the Security Council, China and Russia also opposed parts of the resolution that would have made it easier for international organizations to track perpetrators of sexual violence in war.

After the references to reproductive health were removed at U.S. request, both nations abstained on Tuesday, and the resolution passed 13-0.

The approved resolution still supports measures to end the use of sex as a weapon of war, and Maas, the German foreign minister, carefully worded his response on Tuesday. “The resolution calls on all U.N. member states to support victims through better access to justice, medical and psychological assistance and reintegration into society,” he said.

But other U.S. allies were more blunt in their responses, suggesting that the U.S. objections were threatening the dignity of women worldwide.

“Women and girls who suffered from sexual violence in conflict, and who obviously didn’t choose to become pregnant, should have the right to terminate their pregnancy,” said Delattre, the French ambassador.

The initial version of the draft resolution had stated that victims of sexual violence should be able to access services, which specifically included “sexual and reproductive health.” Amid objections, a subsequent version referred only to “comprehensive health services” for victims of sexual violence.

But for the Trump administration, even offering vaguely defined “comprehensive health services” for sexual violence victims went a step too far.

In the end, the Trump administration’s opposition to abortions trumped other countries’ determination to offer support to victims of sexual violence. In practice, the watering-down could give nations accused of committing or backing such violence a pretext to justify a lack of progress in supporting victims.

Also removed from the final resolution were references to expanded U.N. monitoring that would keep track of violations of the resolution. That, in practice, could mean that perpetrators will have to fear less international scrutiny than originally planned.

To avert a U.S. veto, the passed resolution included only watered-down references to the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is supposed to prosecute war crimes but has recently found itself in a clash with the Trump administration after it considered investigating U.S. troops over the war in Afghanistan. Unlike most of the world, the United States never ratified the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty.

For advocates dedicated to ending sexual violence in conflict, the U.S. resistance appeared especially contradictory for an administration that has often portrayed itself as championing the rights of Yazidi women, who have faced sexual violence by the Islamic State in recent years.


Baseh Hammo, a Yazidi woman who escaped enslavement by Islamic State militants, shows injuries to her hands inflicted by an Albanian who forced her to put her hands on hot asphalt, then stomped on them with his boots. The photo was taken Feb. 28, 2019, in a relative's tent in a camp for displaced people outside Dahuk, Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed)

Human rights groups argue that the U.S. move sends the wrong message, after decades in which sexual violence has become a more systematically used weapon of war. Whereas rape has often accompanied conflict in history, the use of sexual violence as a systematic intimidation tool mostly emerged in the 20th century.

Between 1992 and 1995, Serb troops systematically raped at least 20,000 girls and women, according to the European Commission, which in a 1996 report detailed that “impregnated girls have been forced to bear ‘the enemy’s’ child,” thus exposing them to lifelong psychological scars.

“Sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can,” the United Nations’ State of the World’s Children concluded the same year.

By 2008, U.N. member states had acknowledged in a landmark resolution that sexual violence in conflict had “become systematic and widespread, reaching appalling levels of brutality."

Last year, Burmese troops systematically raped Rohingya women, which Human Rights Watch said was part of a campaign to spread fear and terror.


A Bosnian Muslim woman walks among gravestones at the memorial center of Potocari near Srebrenica, about 90 miles northeast of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Amel Emric)

Amid that context, any attempt to water down a resolution to address this situation — for whatever reason — would be exposed to harsh criticism. In Britain, the fury of allies stunned by the U.S. stance turned against President Trump himself on Tuesday.

“It beggars belief that on the very same day Donald Trump is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution against the use of rape as a weapon of war, Theresa May is pressing ahead with her plans to honor him with a state visit to the U.K.,” said Emily Thornberry, a member of Parliament and shadow foreign minister with the opposition Labour Party.

The U.S. role in diluting Tuesday’s resolution is now likely to feature prominently on posters and in anti-Trump slogans during the mass protests expected against Trump during his London visit in June.

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