News / Women

End sexual violence in conflict

Urging the UN and other peacekeeping organisations to take more urgent and decisive measures against perpetrators of GBV in conflict.

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Codes of conduct, sanctions and stemming the flow of weapons are as important to ending sexual violence in conflict as moral outrage – which is good though not enough. Governments must do more than develop plans and coalitions. International organisations need to force armed groups to choose between sexual violence or their very survival.

To do so will require ramping up and implementing commitments to peacekeeping and the protection of civilians. It demands a coherent and effective UN Security Council, determined to act in concert.

It necessitates transparency across the public and private sector, to prevent resources from flowing to groups that commit these atrocities. And it warrants investment in carrots as well as sticks.

Original article and links appears in the Nordic Africa Forum, here.

In Roxanne Gay’s novel, Untamed State, a Haitian American lawyer named Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped and held hostage for one million US dollars. Her wealthy father refuses to pay the ransom. Her captors rape, beat, burn, cut, drag, starve, punch, kick and humiliate her.

And so, Mireille’s ordeal continues for 13 days. Haiti is not a warzone. But Mireille’s story has something to tell us about today’s efforts to end sexual violence in conflict.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) Foreign Office is hosting the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict (ESVC) between 10 and 13 June 2014. It will be co-chaired by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, the Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The summit will examine a wide range of issues that relate to the persistence of sexual violence in conflict. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of delegates from the general public, expert and ministerial levels will participate.

They will build coalitions in order to get more support to survivors of wartime sexual abuse. They will deliberate how to promote gender equality in international and regional peace and security organisations. They will hear about the gaps in law, order and justice in war-torn or post-conflict societies which generate impunity. The summit will thus be an important opportunity for advocacy and policy development.

But is it enough? Nearly twenty years ago, when the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing, China, representatives of government and civil society said many of the same things which will be said in London. I wish instead that the UK crowd would debate why nothing has changed in the last two decades.

Today, millions mobilize around their moral outrage. And increasingly that outrage is directed toward unthinking policy elites, corrupt politicians and weak states. The Nigerian government continues to face criticism for its failure to rescue over 200 girls who were abducted from their school in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria in April by Boko Haram.

Close to one million people have signed the Bring Back Our Girls petition, posting on social media and hashtagging #bringbackourgirls. International solidarity is important in these and other cases. But I fear that tomorrow, the Chibok girls will either be forgotten or reified to the point that we never address the underlying causes that led to their abduction.

The June summit to end sexual violence in conflict stirs the same thoughts. In my own research, the causes of armed group impunity for sexual violence are complex. I have conducted focus groups with former combatants of two rebel groups which took part in Burundi’s civil war, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and Palipehutu-National Liberation Forces (FNL).

I was surprised to find that members of FNL held each other accountable under a code of conduct which mitigated their commission of sexual violence. After the war, the former fighters of FNL were more likely to believe that they were accountable for rape. The FNL code of conduct was a prohibitive instrument which met four important criteria.

It was costly: offenders would be executed. It was clear: the armed group held indoctrination sessions where the consequences for sexual violence were explained and articulated. It had depth: even commanders could be executed. And for most of the civil war in Burundi, it was constant: the prohibition remained the same over time.

Underpinning the implementation of this prohibitive instrument, were several operational incentives. Rebels and insurgents must have support in terms of information, materials and refuge, often relying on the civilian population or external funders. And they must be able to recruit members and maintain their loyalty.

When these needs are met without much thinking or effort, the goodwill of the civilian population becomes inconsequential.

Research by Elisabeth Jean Wood and Dara Kay Cohen provides important evidence that armed groups’ organisational orientation plays a causal role in whether or not they commit large scale sexual violence. Cohen has shown for example, that gang-rape is a function of the socialisation of armed groups which rely on forced abduction to recruit their members.

These findings pose troubling questions about how the world can end sexual violence in conflict. For one thing, along with moral outrage, we need to block the flow of materials, weapons and political support to armed groups that carry-out these abuses.

The UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, former foreign minister of Sierra Leone, Zainab Bangura, has come out in favour of working with armed groups to develop codes of conduct against sexual violence. Such efforts should increasingly target state as well as non-state actors with hard stances such as sanctions, but also with soft approaches through negotiation.

UN member states may protest such rough treatment, or object to negotiating with insurgents. Negotiation might give insurgents power and legitimacy.

But the international community can use a multipronged approach by protecting civilians more robustly, stopping weapons and financial support to these groups and at the same time requiring them to behave better.

Indeed, Bangura’s predecessor, Margot Wallström shaped the UN’s new policy of listing armed groups which are suspected of committing sexual violence precisely for these purposes.

I hope that the June summit takes up these strategies, and that participants also discuss how to get the UN Security Council, governments and multinational corporations to stop inadvertently or purposely supporting armed groups which foster wartime sexual abuses.

Finally, let us return to Mireille, our protagonist from Haiti. Mireille’s horror is exacerbated by a father that refuses to sacrifice his pride and his money for her safety. He argues to himself that he worked hard for his millions and that her kidnappers did not. He convinces himself that paying the ransom would encourage future hostage-taking. He believes in protecting his family fortune.

I often feel similarly about our global complicity in the problem of sexual violence in conflict. The international community picks and chooses its principles conveniently in order to protect its interests, and not the women, girls, boys and men held captive by armed thugs in today’s conflicts.

We trivialise and script sound bites instead of supporting scholarship about a phenomenon that has never been afforded real investigation. We worry about the sovereignty of states and their legitimacy. We complain that it costs too much political and financial capital to send peacekeepers to distant lands. And instead, behind the scenes, we strike deals for defence contracts. We feign outrage and fund wars. And we always, always keep something of our own fortune.

In the meantime, the contours of a problem like wartime rape fall out of our fingers. It becomes emotional, yet abstract and distant; and we must leave it to idealists to remind us to #endsexualviolenceinconflict.