Tackling Sexual Violence in Conflict: A Report from the Global Summit

The Global Summit on Sexual Violence is the largest and most high-profile event ever held on this topic. But while it has brought much needed attention to the issue of sexual violence in conflict, it has also attracted significant criticism. Genderpol member Claire Duncanson reports from the summit and reflects on its achievements and limitations.

s300_ESVIC-Global-_-London_960x6The tone of the Global Summit on Sexual Violence, hosted by UK Foreign Minister William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, was confident and ambitious: sexual violence is not inevitable, it was repeated often, and we can end it. Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee inserted a dose of reality into the proceedings when she pointed out that to imagine that we can stop sexual violence in conflict without stopping war itself is like imagining we can draw blood without breaking the skin. Until then, at least in the sessions I attended, war was very much the elephant in the room. The plenaries were full of rousing speeches full of conviction that sexual violence in conflict can and will be eradicated, and that this summit marked the beginning of the end of sexual violence in conflict. Of course, plenary speeches are supposed to be full of aspiration and inspiration, but even in the breakout sessions, there was very little mention of violent conflict itself.

Many feminists have made this point before. Cora Weiss, President of the Hague Appeal for Peace, has argued that our focus must not be on making war safe for women; it must be on abolishing war. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the rape capital of the world, was repeatedly cited at the summit, but I heard very little about the context or causes of the conflict, and the role of international actors in fuelling the violence. Indeed, such discussion may have been actively blocked. The DRC sits on vast resources of minerals needed for the electronic goods industry, such as tin, coltan and tantalum, estimated to be worth $24 trillion. With so much at stake, conflict over control of the mines is brutal. The focus on tackling the impunity of perpetrators through improving the judicial system and the education of soldiers seemed too narrow, given the incentives for continued lawlessness and fighting.

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern’s recent book reminds us that the horrors of war are not experienced by women as single-issues. They note that most rape survivors tell of the many violences they have experienced: stories of pillage and of family members being killed, tortured, or abducted. Their main worries are often the lack of basic means of survival, lack of land to cultivate, lack of clear water, and concerns about hungry and often malnourished children. These insecurities will not be resolved by tackling sexual violence in conflict.

Many feminists have also pointed to the analytical myopia inherent in separating sexual violence in war from the sexual violence which occurs in ‘peace’. Gender-based violence affects women in all countries, and is endemic even in societies which have not experienced ‘conflict’ for decades. In this vein, Caron Gentry has expressed frustration with the Summit for the way in which it constructs sexual violence as a problem which happens ‘over there,’ denying the extent to which violence against women happens within western ‘civilized’ countries

Meanwhile, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini suggests that William Hague has taken the wrong tack with his inclusive approach to the Global Summit. 151 countries were invited and 123 were said to have attended – an impressive gathering on a subject which has hitherto been very much neglected by state leaders. Anderlini argues that countries with a bad record on gender based violence should not have been allowed to attend, but this risks ranking different countries in ways which could reinforce the colonial Othering highlighted by Gentry. Anderlini is clear that western nations are far from perfect when it comes to gender based violence, and is as focused as Gentry on the need for the international community to recognise the links between sexual violence in war and peace, but the different approaches illustrate the complexity and difficulty of tackling sexual violence. If there is consensus in the commentary, it is on the argument that achieving gender equality is fundamental if sexual violence, and war, are to be abolished.

Of course, the more focused the topic of a global conference, the more likely it is that clear action points and policies can be agreed on by nation states. Indeed, the narrow focus and goals arguably made it possible to get so many countries to attend. To some extent, then, it’s understandable why the focus was restricted to ending sexual violence in conflict, and why many speakers avoided mentioning sexual violence in peacetime and the need to tackle militarism and war itself.

This approach did result in more concrete discussion and recommendations to the Ministers than many conferences I’ve attended. There was much focus on tackling impunity, including promises from western countries to provide more resources to judicial systems in conflict affected countries in order to tackle the problem of impunity. There was also a focus on training militaries – both on how to respond to sexual violence, and on gender equality and sexual violence more broadly, so that the scandals of peacekeepers themselves sexually exploiting and abusing civilians could be consigned to the history books. There seemed to be careful attention to the fact that men and boys are also victims of sexual violence. An excellent fringe event organised by the OSCE and DCAF on changing military culture was addressed by Australian Army Chief, Lt Gen David Morrison, who tackled the issue of militarised masculinities head-on, in ways reminiscent of his 2013 address, which has become something of a You-Tube sensation.  Perhaps the most concrete commitment was given to the need to provide more services to survivors, and the Summit ended with the launch of a global advocacy and support network, Survivors United for Action.

Some might say these policies are little more than a sticking plaster. Strengthening the legal and judicial system in the DRC, for example, might lead to an increase in arrests and convictions for perpetrators of sexual violence, but it will inevitably be too little, too late given the extent of the problem and the powerful economic drivers motivating armed militia to rule through terror. Until these root causes driving the conflict are tackled, some argue, attempts to tackle impunity through legal processes have serious limitations.

I would liken the suggested policies and actions less to a sticking plaster, however, and more to rocks forming a dam – each rock seems to do little, but together they can turn a river into something else entirely, a reservoir. The policies do seem to only get at sexual violence in war, not at war itself, but the sorts of actions being talked about – strengthening and improving the implementation of international humanitarian law – add up to challenging war as an institution. Yes, lots of things were not mentioned at the summit, most notably the global networks of profit-making in arms and minerals, but that doesn’t mean that smart feminists weren’t working on getting the policies in place that will address war itself and that will address sexual violence in peacetime. It may have been focused on sexual violence in conflict alone, but the policies recommended do not necessarily leave war or patriarchy intact. If all countries were to commit to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence; to training their militaries to the highest human rights standards, including women’s human rights; if all peace processes were to take gender based violence seriously, and include measures to hold perpetrators accountable and to ensure the participation of women; war becomes restricted to so few legitimate means of waging that it can become de facto obsolete. The next step, of course, is to see these policies become a reality.

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The blog of the Gender Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh - and friends
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