The Other Red Line: The Use of Rape as an Unlawful Tactic of Warfare

The Security Council has found that the endemic use of rape in war for military advantage – which is primarily targeted against women and girls – is a military tactic that presents a threat to global peace and security. Despite concerted global efforts over the last two decades to end its use, rape as a tool of war continues undeterred. This article links the intransigent use of strategic rape with states' failure to treat it as an unlawful tactic of war under the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) that regulate the ‘means and methods of war’. Embedding strategic rape under IHL's weapons framework will increase its stigmatization, a critical factor in stopping the use of abhorrent weapons or tactics in war. Other potential benefits include the opening up of civil and criminal accountability frameworks and others which provide restitution and reparations for war rape victims. This article focuses on the role of all states in enforcing the weapons framework and it calls for states to undertake an impact and injuries assessment of strategic rape under the Article 36 weapons review process.

Treating strategic rape as an unlawful tactic would help save women’s lives, make clear that injuries from strategic rape are ‘war wounds’, and that foreseeable injuries, including pregnancy, must be treated with the same professional care, treatment advances and restorative health goals accorded to injuries from conventional weapons.
Treating strategic rape, which disproportionately impacts women and girls, as an unlawful tactic of war, will be the first time the nondiscrimination mandates of IHL have been applied to its weapons framework. Extending IHL’s weapons protections to victims of strategic rape will ensure their equal rights to justice, reparations, medical treatment and deterrence, which are currently available to victims of other unlawful weapons and tactics.
Embedding strategic rape within the purview of the laws of war governing the legality of tactics and weapons will foster its stigmatization, which has proven critical to stopping the use of other abhorrent weapons and tactics. Further, changing the norms around strategic rape by bringing it under the weapons framework and shifting the focus of responsibility from individual perpetrators to violator states will mobilize states to work together to end the use of this abhorrent weapon.