“Irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict”, this is the aim of Global Summit To End Sexual Violence In Conflict being held in London. The event is chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie in her capacity as the UN’s special envoy for the UNHCR. Great.
I can’t help but feel a bit cynical about this event though. One could argue that the United Nations Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda has tried to do just that. And there are plenty of resolution to prove it – 6 on top of landmark Resolution 1325. Do we just need to be seen to keep the momentum going while nothing of substance, mind blowing, decisive actually happens? Haven’t we been here already? I have an old feeling of déjà vu.
Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board with these events, and some change is happening. I am however tired of the rhetoric and the parallel lack of meaningful change. I am tired of oxymorons such as the ‘positive discrimination’ provisions to ‘help’ women (watch out for my upcoming piece on this). I am tired of the statistics. I am tired of living in a world where one has to make a business case to argue that women should be treated like human beings in the workplace. I am just tired.
What do I mean by meaningful change? Well, I mean a real change towards gender justice. But few really understand what that means, which is why we keep going around in circles. It is not about paternalistic approaches to ‘help’ women. It is about choice. For women and men.
The United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security agenda has been hailed as a major breakthrough in focusing much needed international attention on violence against women and gender inequalities in situations of armed conflict. A product of the Security Council after much lobbying by women’s and civil society organisations, the stakes and expectations were very high. Sexual and gender-based violence had become endemic and the scale of atrocities reached horrifying levels during the conflicts of the 1990s. Protection of Civilians had earlier began to feature as a new thematic focus for the Security Council’s program of work, but was insufficient as a gender sensitive mechanism to attract the attention and necessary level of political will to push the issue forward.
Sexual and gender-based violence is, sadly, common in most, if not all, conflict situations in which the social fabric has broken down, there is little to no effective governance and social protections, security and law and order are absent and/or militarised, and where armed groups seek to control or terrorise populations to gain a military advantage. Most importantly, sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict of the scale we are confronted with today is symptomatic of societies in which gender inequalities and traditional, men-dominated conceptions of women and men’s roles prevail. The perpetrators also vary widely as has been found in DRC where civilians themselves have committed sexual violence crimes. Often the levels of domestic violence also increase dramatically in times of conflict. From Liberia to Colombia, Mali, Afghanistan or Sierra Leone, sexual and gender-based violence, committed against women and girls, but also against men and boys, is frequent.
Rape and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated to pursue military, political or social objectives constitute a violation of International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law and Criminal Law. Sexual and gender-based violence is a form of discrimination, a crime against humanity, a war crime and a constitutive act in regard to the crimes of genocide and torture. States are obligated to refrain from violating human rights under these international legal mechanisms, and to ensure that the necessary steps are adopted to prevent incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, protect all civilians in situations of armed conflict, provide access to justice and eliminate impunity by ensuring the prosecution of these acts. The Women, Peace and Security agenda has had some impact on international law by reinforcing the existing legal frameworks and by adding to the list of soft law mechanisms that can contribute to the development of international customary law. It has also contributed to the debate about the legislative role and power of the Security Council.
But the law can do little to change stereotypes and long-held assumptions about the roles of women and men in society, especially when it is not supported by policy and practice. The UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda began by seeking to develop a normative framework that reinforces legal obligations but, most importantly, that promotes the necessary changes in policy and practice to ensure the effectiveness of the existing legal mechanisms. Resolution 1325 recognised that women perform multiple roles in conflict. They are not mere victims in need of protection, they are agents of change that experience conflict in a way that is different to men’s experiences. Women are combatants, economic, political and social actors, peace-builders and peacekeepers, leaders and advocates, and as such they ought to be recognised for their potential to contribute to the establishment and maintenance of peace. But the extent to which the Agenda has managed to do that in a way that effectively contributes to the empowerment of women, and to gender equality based on the notion that women are key stakeholders rather than passive recipients or victims, is still, questionable or, at best, limited. This is especially evident if we consider subsequent resolutions.
In addition, conceptualisation matters, as does defining the problem. And as Laura Shepherd has recently pointed out, not only do we (and international law!) keep conceptualising the role of women in conflict as passive recipients of protection and assistance, we are also failing to address the real issue of conflict-driven sexual violence by leaving out men and boys.
Why am I so skeptical about this particular event? Because I am tired of talk fests and empty rhetoric without accountability. I am increasingly tired of the altruistic objectives of people in power to save complete strangers, rather abstractly conceived (‘women in conflict’), while they fail to exercise their responsibility with those closest to them. I have met too many of these people over the years, and even worked for a few. How can we take them seriously? Of course it pays to have that abstraction as it allows you to escape the necessary reflection that would highlight that your actions might actually be contributing to the problem you are so altruistically (and with such fanfare) trying to ‘resolve’ – but without being made accountable. LET’S STOP SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN CONFLICT! (shhhh let’s forget about women survivors under my responsibility because that is just too real). Nice one Mr Hague.
The momentum for action is there already, and I very much believe it is irreversible. What we need is a complete shift in thinking, we need accountable leaders who walk the talk and go beyond rhetoric, and we need the political will to eradicate sexual and gender based violence in conflict. And I am not sure that this Global Summit, Angelina Jolie and all, is going to get us any closer than we already are without, at least, these three elements.
 For an interesting historical review see for example VISEUR SELLERS, P. The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in conflict: The Importance of Human Rights as Means of Interpretation, OCHA, Available from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/women/docs/Paper_Prosecution_of_Sexual_Violence.pdf.
 See for example the Annual Report 2011 of the Team of Experts, Rule of Law/Sexual Violence in Conflict, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (2011).