“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 Act™ functions 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.