Tag Archives: Sexual violence

The Illusions of Political Will

“I didn’t rape because I am angry, but because it gave us a lot of pleasure,” a 22-year-old Congolese soldier told the Guardian.  He admits to having raped 53 women, including children of five or six years old.  There is something acutely disturbing about the precision of his count. If I didn’t want to see him medievaled, I’d cry for his lost soul.

How demoralized would you have to be not to appreciate the Hague/Jolie media-grabbing joint jaunt to DRC and subsequent press conference at the Summit of G8 Foreign Ministers?  The storyline portrays a decisive moment.  Pick your pet phrase.

The tide has turned. William Hague: “Governments finally confront this problem . . .  historic agreement . . . pledging to work together to end sexual violence in conflict.”

Nowhere to hide. Zainab Hawa Bangura:  “sexual violence will not be tolerated . . . pursued by any and all means at our collective disposal.”

We’ve turned a corner. Angelina Jolie: “many individuals and NGOs who have worked tirelessly to address these crimes for years, but the international political will has been sorely lacking”

The obvious question is this:  Why now?  It all sounds fine, laudable even.  Like progress.  Like an important change.  Like the powerful nations who control the world are finally going to end this pox.  But this is not a new issue.  So why now?  What does it really mean that the world is supposedly finally getting serious about rape in war?

The cynical answer is that the power relationships underpinning massive rape and massive impunity are pretty much identical to the power relationships underpinning the gender breakdown of the G8 meeting of foreign ministers.  Put bluntly, if men’s fundamental human dignity, let alone genitalia, were being regularly violated on account of their gender, it wouldn’t require Brad Pitt’s wife to bring it to your attention.

Implication 1:  If you don’t change the determinants of the gender imbalance in the G8 summit, you won’t stop conflict rape.

Implication 2:  It takes the G8 Summit of Foreign Ministers to affect actual change.  Which implies what for the myriad of other causes that do not blip loudly on their radar?

OK.  #1 is a cheap shot, though probably true (perhaps a blog topic?).  But #2?

Another answer is that Jolie has it wrong when she laments the lack of political will.  At least since the war in Bosnia almost two decades ago, the world has done everything it knows how to do, if judged by how we typically address this sort of issue.  There has been no shortage of reports, symposiums, declarations, news coverage, NGOs, celebrities etc etc.  Even a few prosecutions. Rape in war was elevated to the status of a crime against humanity.  Aside from not being the issue du jour of the G8 foreign ministers, what level of attention/action has rape in war not garnered?

How have years of effort been any different from attempts, say, to end modern slavery, protect the rhino, stop child labour or end poverty?  Seems to me that this rather typical approach to ending conflict rape well resembles the work (and results) of Western-led efforts on any number of ills, especially those that tend to occur outside of the West.  Seems to me we’ve been serious about stopping rape in war for a while now, it’s just that the champagne toasts of success have yet to materialize.  Hence Hague and Jolie’s implying that it actually takes the G8.

Implication 3 (deduced from Implication 2):  Then what the hell is the worth of all those individuals and groups working tirelessly?  Our work (“our”: because I personally and my organization have been busy on this issue for years), one would have to conclude, has been rather ineffective.

Implication 2, reversed:  Jolie and Hague have it wrong.  Maybe the collective foot stamping “enough is enough” of the G8 Summit of Foreign Ministers will prove exactly as effective as the work of the foot stamping of the rest of us.  Maybe all our professional hoopla is simply one more illusory exclamation of action to come, one more delusional expression of hope.  Maybe, stripped bare, we are looking at the model for (Western) do-gooderism.

1. Talk about it.

2. Do a bunch of stuff.

3. Observe that actions do not live up to either our hopes or our publicity.

4. Praise the effort and proclaim to have learned valuable lessons.

5. Start over again at Step 1, with a ratcheted up version of the same recipe.

That may sound somewhat depressing.  The truth may be worse.  Maybe the Hague-Joliesque occasional trumpeting of All New! and Improved Efforts, Strategies & Conviction to Actfunctions as its own failure guarantee.  Maybe it is the very act of the G8 press conference that takes the wind out of the sails of political urgency.  We feel good that the horrible matter is being addressed.  The fig-leaf of activity will hide the ineffectiveness of the model.  When it comes to conflict rape, perhaps Jolie’s quote could be rewritten:  “the international political will has been sorely lacking because so many individuals and NGOs have worked tirelessly to address these crimes for years”.

And that, my friends, is why I prefer the simple aspirations of humanitarian action.

Weapons of Mass Erection II

The story is back!  [See my blog below, dated 2 May].  More charges that Col. Gaddafi is distributing Viagra to soldiers in order to encourage mass rape.  This time, we have the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, making the claim.  He asserted that Gaddafi is buying containers of the drug to enhance the possibility of mass rape.   “[Viagra is] like a machete,” Ocampo said. “It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

At this stage, it is rather impossible to judge the veracity of the charges.  Pfizer wasn’t too pleased.  They addressed the issue back in May, and have trotted out the same line again.  

That highlights the simple fact that these sorts of allegations have consequences.  A major pharmaceutical worries about its pocketbook and the ICC wades into new territory, where a drug that helps men produce and maintain an erection (but, notably, does not increase sexual drive) is likened to the instruments of Rwandan genocide.  I’m not so concerned about Pfizer or Ocampo. I’m concerned about people, and what if means to them to live in fear.  And I’m concerned for the deterrent power of treating rape in war as a crime.

Rape being used as a weapon of war is probably as old as dirt.  It destroys the enemy community from within; a most visceral communication of dominance.  Rape being officially recognized as a weapon of war, though, is in its relative infancy.   Really, only in the late Nineties, for example with the 1998 decision in the Akayesu case before the Int’l Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, finding that mass rape constituted a form of genocide, or its codification as a crime against humanity in the statutes defining the ICC (becoming law in 2002). 

Legalities being what they are, many people still see rape as inevitable in war, like muddy boots or trampled fields.  After all, soldiers are men, and men deprived of female companionship fall prey to their own pent up desires.   Even more shocking is when women themselves feel this way, that rape is a bad but without the conviction that it is wrong.  Rapists akin to locusts rather than criminals.

My concern today is with the future course of the transformation of rape in war from collateral damage to crime.  If charges of mass rape become part of conflict’s landscape, if the propaganda machines of the two sides routinely cry systematic rape, for how much longer will the charge retain its force?  How long before falsified charges of rape give credence to future denials?   To brutal dictators shrugging rape off as the self-serving bleats of politicians like Ocampo and Rice?  So while hoping that nobody has been raped at all, I also have to hope that Ocampo’s charges are based on actual evidence, because victims of rape will be the big losers if the ICC has been chasing a ghost of WMD.

Weapons of Mass Erection

If you managed to snatch some news on Friday not involving the “Kate loves Willy” theme, you might have come across this item:  wartime propaganda took a 21st Century turn when Susan Rice told a room full of UN diplomats that Colonel Gadaffi was supplying his troops with wonderdrug Viagra in order to encourage rape.  In what appears to be an example of the truth catching a break, most of the reporting includes opinions of doubt by experts.  And aside from the well-publicized charges by Iman al-Obaidi, I haven’t seen analysis suggesting that rape by government soldiers is prevalent in the Libyan conflict.

I suppose one could dismiss Rice’s claim as only the most recent example of such fanciful propaganda.  Remember those stories of Iraqi soldiers tossing Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators?  Or the bizarre detail that Uday Houssein’s briefcase contained stacks of money, underwear, a single condom and a vial full of Viagra (not, to my knowledge, a hoax, but still curious for the details released).  The difference is that those stories possessed little potential to cause much harm in and of themselves (even if they indirectly fuelled the war effort). 

Mass rape as a strategy of war is neither fanciful nor joke-worthy, so I apologize for the catchy title of this post.  The Sudanese government’s reaction to MSF’s 2005 report of rapes in Darfur highlights the power of the charge of rape to humiliate and to polarize, even where charges of mass killings do not.  Governments have little trouble explaining major war crimes to their friends – “we bombed base camps of rebels, not villages of people” or “we are fighting a war, so it is inevitable that civilians will be killed accidentally” or “it’s not torture”.  But rape in war is impervious to justification.  It is never accidental and always a violation at the level of religious, community and personal mores.  In short, better to be accused of other war crimes than of rape.

We can only hope that Rice’s comments prove baseless and, almost as importantly, find as little traction among the men and women of Libya as they did among UN diplomats.  As any humanitarian worker in the midst of victims of conflict can explain, the weight of constant, pervasive fear can be as damaging as bombs and bullets.  This then is the true nature of terrorism – to propagate dread and fright far outstripping actual threat of harm. 

Rape is a crime, singular and unparalleled.  Falsely instilling fear of rape is not.  The deliberate manufacture of terror, though, should be.  What is both strange and sad is that this form of terror usually comes from the likes of thug militia groups such as the RUF or the LRA, using fear as a weapon against a population and against their enemies.  In Susan Rice’s accusation we have an example of a politician causing terror on her own side as a sort of collateral damage in the effort to win the battle for public support.   Thankfully, it has caused little stir on the worldwide stage.  I can only hope it has had as little effect in the minds of the people of Libya.