Protecting women from conflict-related sexual violence is once again at the forefront of activity at the United Nations.

On September 30, 2009, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1888, which recommends ways for the UN and its Member States to improve their response to sexual violence committed during armed conflict. Such steps include comprehensive legal and judicial reforms. Although the resolution won praise, many women’s rights activists believe it is long overdue. Marianne Mollmann of Human Rights Watch characterized the resolution’s adoption as a move to “finally generate the leadership to help the UN act swiftly and coherently to halt sexual violence in wartime,” but warned that further action is still required. This criticism has been a familiar refrain since the UN passed The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979.

In 2000, the UN adopted Resolution 1325, which demands that states recognize the necessity of having women play a role in the promotion of peace and security. Involving women in conflict resolution, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction ensures that the perspectives and needs of women are taken into account. Resolution 1325 warned the world that failure to involve women in these processes makes it easier for horrific acts of sexual violence against women and girls to occur during armed conflict. However, the UN failed to take more concrete steps such as mandating that experts on women’s issues be a part of its peacekeeping and humanitarian response efforts, and eight years passed before the issue was taken up again by the Security Council.

In 2008, Resolution 1820 committed the Security Council to consider how to prevent and adequately respond to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. This resolution was adopted in response to sexual violence being used as a tactic of war in Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since 1996, there have been 200,000 cases of sexual violence reported in the eastern DRC alone, and approximately 1,100 rapes are currently reported in the DRC every month.

Now, approaching the tenth anniversary of Resolution 1325, action is the new watchword for stopping sexual violence and protecting women’s rights. Resolution 1888 builds on previous resolutions to bring about concrete changes in the way that the UN is organized to deal with sexual violence. A special representative is to be named who will lead efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence. The resolution also aims to fill the gaps in expertise at the UN, both at mission level and at headquarters. A team of technical experts will be created to work with the new special representative to support UN country teams and peacekeeping operations as they confront sexual violence. These experts will work with governments to improve civilian and military justice systems by increasing capacity and making the systems more responsive to victims, so that perpetrators of sexual violence can be brought to justice.

A new agency for women was also unanimously voted into creation by the General Assembly on September 14, 2009. This yet-to-be-named agency combines four existing offices into a more streamlined and coordinated office. Most importantly, the new office will be a part of the Secretary General’s core team. This represents a major elevation of women’s issues at the UN.

The test for the UN now will be to see how well these structural changes translate into changes on the ground. Just two days before Resolution 1888 was passed, public killings and rapes were perpetrated by Guinean security forces in broad daylight in a stadium in the capital. It remains to be seen whether the UN’s efforts will translate into justice for victims of the violence that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “criminality of the greatest degree.” The hope is that a more organized UN initiative will lead to more effective prosecution of perpetrators and to the protection of victims and potential victims of sexual violence during the conflict.