When the state rapes

zohra moosa
27 November 2007

Rape has been used as a weapon of war for centuries. As Laura Smith-Park wrote a few years ago:

From the systematic rape of women in Bosnia, to an estimated 200,000 women raped during the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, to Japanese rapes during the 1937 occupation of Nanking - the past century offers too many examples.

But as the author notes it has been relatively recently that the use of rape as a deliberate military tactic has begun to be documented in detail, including its use in Sudan, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since then, there have been many reports, conferences, and international efforts to address the issue, including at last month's UN progress review on resolution 1325 and as Amnesty's ground-breaking Lives Blown Apart report documents. openDemocracy itself has discussed the issue.

The salient point to remember in all this, for me, is the fact that this conversation is about how rape is not a ‘by-product' of war, like spoils that are plundered by the unruly, but is instead part of a coordinated military strategy.

To this extent, I share America's position that sexual violence sponsored by governments is worth considering in a different way to sexual violence more generally. According to the New York Times, the US has drafted a UN resolution that:

would specifically condemn rape and sexual abuse used by governments and armed groups to achieve political and military objectives.

Indeed, I think Kristen Silverberg, the US assistant secretary of state for international organisation affairs, makes a very significant point when she states:

We think there is a real difference between governments that fail to prevent rape and governments who promote it. We do not want the resolution to blur that difference.

However, South Africa has objected to the resolution because, as Baso Sangqu the country's deputy ambassador argues:

it is politicized and singles out clear categories of rape. We want a resolution that is nonpoliticized and that looks at rape in a holistic manner in all its situations including rape by soldiers in detention centers and in situations of foreign occupation.

To my mind such a resolution would still account for the use of rape in detention centres and foreign occupation because they are both still related to state-sanctioned, and in some cases state-promoted, use of sexual violence ‘to achieve military and political objectives'. Perhaps he feels the lines would be more blurred when it came to judging the actions of UN ‘peacekeepers' who have also been accused of rape?

Ronnie Mamoepa, foreign affairs spokesperson for South Africa, is also concerned by the resolution as he believes that:

the draft resolution seems to create two categories of rape: those perpetrated by military personnel and those committed by civilians.... [giving] the appearance that rape by the military is more despicable than rape by civilians.

But isn't it more despicable? The military exists to protect and defend people. Should it not have strict(er) codes of conduct about what is acceptable and what isn't in pursuit of its aims precisely because (a) it has been entrusted by its citizens to serve their interests well and (b) it has the power and resources to wreak greater pain and destruction than lone civilians do? Who can you turn to for protection if the state itself is your tormentor?

Lisa Vetten a researcher at the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre makes a good point when she notes that it can be difficult in conflicts like the genocide in Rwanda to determine who is military and who is civilian. Nevertheless, when we know that tens of thousands of women in Sierra Leone are still seeking justice for war-related sexual violence, I don't see how we can not recognise that the systemic promotion of violence against women by those struggling for power is worth its own resolution.

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