How Can We Prevent Rape as a Weapon Used in Conflict?


This week, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK government will give £1M for the United Nations’ efforts to end, punish, and prevent sexual violence in conflict. The donation is both commendable and necessary. Statistics on rape in war are notoriously unreliable and hard to compare and collate, but it is safe to say that civilians have been targeted for sexual assault in every conflict everywhere since forever. Most recently, news is surfacing about systematic use of sexual violence as torture in the protracted violence in Syria.

However, precisely because it would be hard to think of a conflict where sexual violence has not been used to terrorize civilian populations, it is valid to ask if this is a good investment. In other words, can we do anything useful to stop sexual assault in conflict, and, if so, is the United Nations the entity to do it?

To the first question, the answer is a resounding yes.

Sure, rape is a particularly effective weapon in terms of terrorizing civilian populations, and so, from a pragmatic perspective, warring parties might to loath to give it up. But there is ample precedent for effective bans—at least on paper—of equally efficient and vicious weapons: land mines, cluster bombs, chemical weapons. So while it is the efficiency of rape as a weapon that has kept it in business for centuries, this can be no excuse to give up in advance on capping its use.

The reason that rape in conflict is completely avoidable is that the weapon is a human being, in most cases a man.

This, in fact, was for many years the main excuse for the action. “Boys will be boys,” commentators and military commanders shrugged when confronted with the news that a particular platoon had raped civilians, as if men are genetically disposed to force sex on others. I have even heard well-meaning activists suggest increasing spousal visits for soldiers in active combat as a way to prevent rape in war, as if raping was an expression of sexual desire and need.

Of course, we know now that this is not true. Rape, like other sexual assault and sexual harassment, is not about attraction, desire, or sexual expression. It is about power, humiliation, and control. When we say that all men are genetically predisposed to have a pathological need to control another human being physically and emotionally it is as insulting as it is to say that all women are peaceful or weak. If I were a man, I would certainly resent the implications. Or, as Nobel Laureate Jody Williams said this week at the same event at which Mr. Hague pledged for the UK: “We need men to stand up and say: ‘I don’t want anyone to look at me and think I am capable of that.’”

Which brings me to the second part of my initial query: is the United Nations the best vehicle for preventing rape in war?

On the face of it, the track-record is not good. The United Nations Security Council has historically been notoriously reticent to address sexual violence in war. A 2000 resolution known mostly for its number (1325/2000) included calls to end impunity for rape and to prevent such atrocities. Still, it took almost eight years before this abstract commitment was translated into something as ephemerally concrete as “let’s start getting real information on what is happening.” It took another 12 months plus before the Council thought to create a dedicated office to process the gathered information and coordinate scattered UN efforts on rape in war, and an additional many months before the office was at least partially staffed and funded. (It is this office the UK has pledged to support). Meanwhile, rapes continue, with the main discernible difference being that we now know about it.

At the same time, U.N. efforts, troops, and aid officials may be able to bring support and supplies where community efforts are stretched to the limit. In fact, it is not so much a question of identifying one key road to change as it is of accepting that we all have work to do. That is the thrust behind the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, launched this year in May by the Nobel Women’s Initiative. The campaign asks each of us to make a pledge to help end rape in conflict. William Hague pledged £1M on behalf of the United Kingdom.

What will you pledge?

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