Stopping sexual violence in conflict: gender politics in foreign policy

Consistent promotion of gender equality has to drive foreign, security and development policy if sexual violence in conflict is to be stopped.

Anne Marie Goetz
20 June 2014

 Last week, what was billed as the world’s largest summit on the issue of sexual violence in conflict, co-hosted by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie, concluded in London. It was not the size of the gathering (with almost 2000 participants) that mattered; it was that it signalled how firmly this long-ignored issue has been accepted as the business of peace and security institutions. The meeting assembled government representatives (from 123 countries), prosecutors and gender crimes investigators, academics, survivors of violence, human rights defenders, officials from international organizations, and military commanders. For the many feminist policy activists - including myself - who have struggled for decades on the margins to generate action on this issue, a gathering of so many people with the power to make a difference was something few could have imagined. Feminist policy activists have become increasingly worried, however, that the focus on security solutions may come at the expense of broader strategies to fight gender inequality and empower women.

The stated focus of this four-day meeting was developing strategies to prevent abuses and punish the perpetrators of sexual violence. In the opening plenaries speakers used variants of the threat: ‘we will come after you’. The main formal output of the Summit was an ‘International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict’, a practical manual designed to assist in prosecuting sexual violence as a crime under national and international law. 

The pugilistic ‘we’ll get you’ and ’you’ve been warned’ discourse received an enthusiastic response: finally international leaders were standing up for rape victims around the world. The speakers had tapped a deep well of resentment at the international community’s historically weak response to this crime. Military metaphors peppered plenary speeches. However, the get-tough rhetoric particularly in the case of sexual violence tends to reinforce the conventional notion of women as victims and (mainly male) military actors as their protectors.  It was acknowledged of course that deploying troops in anti-terrorism or in peacekeeping missions – whether in Afghanistan or the Balkans – has not always led to the protection of women. Although the Summit’s conclusions called on defence ministers to take responsibility for preventing sexual violence by their armed forces, the problem is a political one that won’t be addressed fully by new recruitment and training strategies. There was little discussion of how the prospect of prosecution for abuses might affect the willingness of countries to supply peacekeepers. 

The conference’s focus on military and justice responses was a consequence of the way in which sexual violence in conflict was re-framed by the United Nations Security Council in 2008. UN Security Council resolution 1820 identified sexual violence in conflict as a threat to international peace and security and a tactic of warfare that required a security response. Sexual violence would no longer be a subject only for humanitarian relief. Resolution 1820 was in part driven by increased awareness of innovative peacekeeping tactics that had been used to prevent organized sexual violence. For instance, UN force commander Major-General Patrick Cammaert improved the security environment for women in some areas of Eastern DRC through intelligence-collection from women on impending threats, patrolling in the areas (and at the times) that sexual violence was known to occur, and enabling women to alert peacekeepers of anticipated attacks.  

Resolution 1820 also called for political action – requiring the Secretary-General and his envoys to raise the issue of sexual violence when seeking to resolve conflicts. The intention of actors within and outside the UN who pressed for this resolution was to compel the UN’s peacekeeping and peacemaking bureaucracies to make ending conflict-related sexual violence central to their work. Within the UN this took institutional form in the creation of the cross-UN collaboration ‘UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict’ which was intended to make sexual violence no longer just a ‘women’s issue’ or a matter for humanitarian agencies.

Sexual violence in war is now out of the ghetto. But the security and law enforcement focus may have encouraged the notion that sexual violence in conflict can be addressed without intensifying the political project of ending gender inequality that produces sexual violence even in peacetime. Advocacy language suggesting ‘it’s not about sex/women/gender, it’s about war’ may have helped to convince the Security Council that this was a subject requiring their attention, but may also have unwittingly downplayed the importance of the feminist emancipatory projects of empowering survivors, and ensuring that protection and recovery efforts contribute to transformation in gender relations. 

Conflict-related sexual violence is indeed an illegal tactic of warfare. But unlike other prohibited methods, such as the use of chemical weapons and landmines, sexual violence comes from and reproduces unequal gender relations. Even in a war zone, sexual violence that qualifies as a crime against humanity or a war crime may be a minor portion of the sexual attacks women suffer as social protections disintegrate and male predation is normalized. Whoever the perpetrator, whatever the purpose of the attack, the destructive impact of sexual violence comes from gender ideologies that humiliate and silence victims, and that keep prosecutions of rapists rare.  

Leymah Gbowee, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, reminded a formal plenary of government ministers that sexual violence in war is linked to sexual violence in peacetime.  UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka told the conference that a commitment to women’s empowerment must infuse all protection efforts. Australia’s Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison (a You Tube sensation for his tirade about allegations of  sexual abuse in the army) connected the societal ‘squandering of women’s talent and the traducing of their potential’ to  the brutal sexism of militaries around the world. Expert panels called for more women in public office, in leadership roles in the military, foreign service, and judiciary. They recommended using quotas for women in delegations to peace talks, something that has never seriously been discussed. Establishing reparations systems for sexual violence survivors, and funding women human rights defenders were also discussed.  The announcement on the day after the Summit of the award of OBEs to Madeleine Rees and Brigid Inder, two brave and energetic activists for women’s rights and justice, was an acknowledgement that decades of global women’s peace and justice activism is the reason why the issue of war crimes against women are getting the attention we saw at the Summit.

Wartime sexual violence thrives on the silence of its victims, so ensuring that survivors are heard is both a political act and a means of generating appropriate responses. Survivors and the organizations that support them were not, however, as visible as many had expected. Male survivors had prominent speaking roles.  This gave admittedly overdue attention to sexual violence against men and boys. The high visibility of male survivors was no accident in a meeting so heavily invested in optics: the celebrities, the media coverage, the advertisements in the London underground, the choreographed plenaries. But as one UN official noted, 98% of victims are female so this crime is a matter of women’s subordination. Even if rape of men is much more widespread than we realize, the basic fact that women are its principal victims will still mean that getting an appropriate response involves a feminist project of emancipation.

William Hague’s closing speech indicated that his office had not lost sight of the women’s empowerment agenda. He acknowledged that conflict-related sexual violence had languished for so long off the diplomatic radar because of the way societies discriminate against women and tolerate abuses of their rights. He condemned the continued exclusion of women from peace negotiations, despite repeated calls by the Security Council for more action.  

Hague has made this his signature issue.  No other foreign minister - not even Hillary Clinton before leaving office last year - worked so assiduously to generate international action. By the time of the conference, 155 countries agreed to take at least some kind of action, national or multilateral, to stop sexual violence. Hague’s focus on this issue has already triggered modest policy actions. For instance, when it was known that the UK would be placing sexual violence on the agenda of last year’s G8 summit, members (except Russia) rushed to finalize their National Action Plans on women peace and security.

Adopting this issue requires Hague and the UK government to expend little political capital. That conflict-related sexual violence must be ended is now uncontroversial, and the need for security and justice responses more or less universally accepted. But pressing for women’s leadership is a much tougher sell, and will require the UK government to exert leverage, which does consume political capital. In theory, Security Council resolution 1325 commits all UN member states to promote women’s legal, political and economic empowerment as an investment in international peace and security.  In practice, little has changed because women’s empowerment MW LINK is still not considered a priority subject of international decision-making. 

The true test of the UK’s commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict will be whether it uses its considerable financial and diplomatic resources to insist on concrete measures to elevate women’s voices and participation in tandem with protection measures. The UK is the Security Council lead on all elements of women, peace and security: protection as well as participation. Implementing the Security Council resolutions that set out obligations to include women in peace talks, state rebuilding, and security organizations must be an integral part of ending sexual violence in conflict.  As a major foreign policy issue, conflict-related sexual violence must be raised in all of the UK’s bilateral and multilateral relationships.

A strong commitment to promoting women’s leadership as part of the effort to address conflict-related sexual violence would have implications for the allocation of foreign aid. Compared with the hundreds of millions spent on demobilizing combatants, the sums available for women’s empowerment and protection in conflict situations and fragile states remain puny. Reparations programmes and the many services that survivors need (especially access to safe abortions) are notoriously poorly funded. Organizations that promote women’s rights or support survivors of sexual violence need way more funding too  Economic recovery programmes need substantial allocations to support women’s enterprises or access to jobs. A multi-donor agreement is needed similar to the UN’s 2010 commitment to devote at least 15% of peacebuilding funds to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Negotiating a commitment of that magnitude would be a huge foreign policy coup.

In the conference’s concluding session, Hague said that he was saddened that women’s groups still have to ask to participate in peace talks as a favour rather than to be entitled to automatic inclusion. The UK government could insist that peace processes in which it has a financial or diplomatic stake require the negotiating parties to include women, and that the mediation support teams include gender experts and consult with women’s civil society organizations. The UK could also press forcefully for gender issues to be on the agenda in peace talks and in the donor conferences that follow. Within the Security Council, this commitment must be expressed in consistent questioning of peacekeeping mission leaders and envoys regarding their efforts to support gender equality. Mandates for UN missions are already relatively consistent in addressing sexual violence; now they should include much stronger directives to ensure women’s participation in elections, access to identity documentation, transitional justice processes, and post-conflict recovery institutions and state-building processes. These proposals are nothing new: feminist peace activists have made them for years.  International supporters of peace talks often lament that they did try, but that resistance from the negotiating parties, or fragile state governments, or a lack of qualified gender experts, or simply time constraints, make such an inclusive approach impossible. But the UK and other governments championing this issue must make it clear that such answers are not acceptable.  Isn’t that what diplomacy is for?


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