“Cursory and pedantic”. So says IntLawGrrls’ Fionnuala Ní Aoláin of the just released Human Security Report 2012 (hereafter HSR). You may recall the team behind the HSR from their last intervention, which upset the applecart over the estimate of 5.4 million excess deaths in Congo (DRC) since 1998 and which also claimed a six decade decline in global organised violence. The target this time round is a series of putative myths about wartime sexual violence (those myths being: that extreme sexual violence is the norm in conflict; that sexual violence in conflict is increasing; that strategic rape is the most common – and growing – form of sexual violence in conflict; that domestic sexual violence isn’t an issue; and that only males perpetrate rape and only females are raped), each of which the authors claim to overturn through a more rigorous approach to available evidence. Along the way an account is also given of the source of such myths, which is said to be NGO and international agency funding needs, which lead them to highlight the worst cases and so to perpetuate a commonsense view of war rape that is “both partial and misleading”.
Megan MacKenzie isn’t impressed either, especially by HSR’s take on those who currently study sexual violence:
[HSR's view is] insulting because it assumes that those who work on sexual violence – like me – those who have sat in a room of women, where over 75% of the women have experienced rape – as I have – listening to story after story of rape, forced marriage, and raising children born as a result of rape, it assumes that we are thinking about what would make the best headline, not what are the facts, and not what would help the survivors of sexual violence.
Laura Shepherd (who like Ní Aoláin and Megan has written at some length on these issues) took a slightly different approach: “It makes not one jot of difference whether rates of [incidents of conflict-related sexual violence] are increasing, decreasing or holding entirely steady: as long as there are still incidents of war rape then the issue demands serious scholarly attention rather than soundbites”. Activists are concerned less by what the report says than by how it will be interpreted and the effects this will have on victims and survivors of rape (the danger, in Megan’s words, that “painting rape as random is another means to detach it from politics”). By contrast, Laura Seay (who has previously addressed similar issues in relation to Congo) is very supportive: “it’s hard to find grounds on which to dispute most of these claims. The evidence is solid”. Andrew Mack (who directs the HSR) similarly replied that the data supports HSR’s claims and that, despite criticisms, it had been checked rigorously.
So what is going on here?
Since the report and subsequent debates mash together a whole series of issues, it’s worth untangling them a bit (I’m focusing here only on the wartime sexual violence claims in the report). First, in HSR’s defence, their target appears to be ideas common amongst policy-makers (academics, for example, tend to cite Elisabeth Jean Wood a fair bit). To the extent that the Report stimulates a more careful disbursement of funds, it is of course to be welcomed. I was particularly taken by the idea that there should be an effort at evidence-gathering more in line with that adopted for the Millennium Development Goals. Moreover, there is value in trying to think about global scale and change, even if some of us disagree very strongly indeed with appeals to incontestable facts and law-ish trends, and even if other ways of studying sexual violence are just as important. Any generalisations at this level necessarily swamp a more qualitative approach, but we nevertheless need to be clear about the possible grounds for contestation.
In the case of counter-examples, like that of Libya that Megan raises, caution about the character and extent of sexual violence is indeed in order, and it would not fundamentally challenge the HSR conclusions if there was rape in this and similar conflicts (as there surely is), since their point when it is made most coherently is that the relative number of wars-with-overwhelming-levels-of-rape is not increasing (and may be on the decline). Atrocity ratcheting too is a real dynamic and one that can have all kinds of consequences that do little to ameliorate the effects of sexual violence. These issues are the subject of much controversy, although my own view is that assessments of general scale and severity are pretty much always implicitly present in explanations and ethical claims about violence and so cannot not be addressed (which isn’t the same thing as arguing that the only way to study them is through cod-scientific regression analysis). All that said, the particular claims with which the HSR seeks to challenge supposed conventional wisdom are themselves pretty problematic, as I hope to flesh out.
Second is the question of novelty, the crucial point being that there isn’t actually any new research at all in the HSR (more on which in a moment), and that the main argument offered for any possible ‘decline’ thesis isn’t based on sexual violence data, but on claimed war trends. Moreover, most of the mythological views attacked by the report aren’t actually held by analysts (at least, not by ones I’m familiar with), and many of the critiques (that domestic violence matters, that men are raped too, that interventions can be driven by dynamics other than evidence) have not only been made before, but are common in the rather extensive literature that HSR neglects (particularly ironic given that some HSR advocates are leaving comments basically alleging that academic critics don’t know what we’re talking about). This inevitably results in straw-men arguments: who, after all, really claims that rape in Congo is representative of all violence in all conflict situations since World War II?
The suspicion raised in several places is that the HSR is out for easy publicity, as was the case last time round, when one of those who had produced the disputed International Rescue Committee estimate of excess mortality in the DRC retorted that it was “unbecoming to grab a headline a decade after by tearing down a study with erroneous speculation”. In this case, I think the question of why war rape happens is important, and relatively neglected (although not by everyone). I would probably also agree with HSR’s view that “strategic rape is less common than claimed”, although that phrasing hides a lot, and touting strong conclusions on this quality of evidence probably isn’t wise (nor is it sufficient to implicitly define the two possible kinds of rape as either ‘strategic’ or ‘domestic’ – there is a lot, a lot, of space inbetween).
Third, and most importantly, there is the problem of concepts, and of calculation. The issues here span a spectrum from the minor to the crucial. To take a relatively small example that can nevertheless have considerable consequences, the focus on numbers of cases, or on counting years of violence, is not self-evidently the best way to frame the problem. Some wars are bigger than others and involve more human suffering, however you want to go about estimating that. If war rape declines from levels in the tens of thousands in countries A and B, but increases to levels in the hundreds of thousands in country C, has the problem got worse or not? On the HSR method, this would count as a decline, even if the total number of persons raped (and even the proportion of those raped to those not) increased.
In definitional terms, the HSR also operates with a restrictive conception of gender violence and with an inappropriately stark public/private distinction. The understanding seems to be that paying attention to war rape means not paying attention to domestic violence, and that any rape not carried out by soldiers doesn’t count as war-related. This goes completely against the trend of very almost all feminist and gender research on these issues, which consistently connects war and peace situations, and frequently calls attention to how misleading the label of ‘peace’ can be when considering gendered insecurity. The result for the HSR is a rather flimsy opposition of strategic war rape with domestic rape, the kind of distinction that actually reinforces the problem that it claims to be solving.
At several points, the HSR alights on the relative lack of the ‘most severe’ cases of sexual violence in conflict, and says that they are “far from the norm”. But what is the measure of ‘severity’ here? The categories are borrowed from some work by Dara Kay Cohen, who created a dataset on wartime sexual violence by using the human rights reports of the US State Department. Cohen coded civil wars from 1980 to 2009, with 15 having no rape (level 0), 18 showing isolated reports (level 1), 35 as having ‘numerous’ or ‘many’ rapes (level 2) and 18 with widespread or systematic sexual violence (level 3). Consider that the threshold for a level 2 incidence of sexual violence includes war in which the State Department used words like “widespread”, “common”, “extensive”, “persistent”, “spree”, “routine”, “regular” and similar to refer to rape. To meet the criteria for a level 3 conflict, sexual violence had to be described as “systematic” or “massive”, or the State Department had to invoke phrases suggesting that rape was a weapon, tool or tactic. In other words, 62% of the coded wars on this measure involved very serious and widespread levels of sexual violence. Hardly a minority. The HSR instead claim that Cohen’s statistics show that 56% of conflicts since 2000 had low, or no, rape. The raw data for that period is not in the HSR and is not presented in Cohen’s paper – a footnote suggests HSR got it separately, but it is therefore impossible to adjudicate. But even if it is correct, 44% of cases as having widespread or extreme levels of sexual violence is not a minority in an analytically decisive sense (even if it is in a technical mathematical one).
But there are some other crucial ambiguities here. Coding thresholds are slippery things: is the gap between “widespread and extensive” and “massive and systematic” enough to establish that the two forms of wartime sexual violence are qualitatively different? Cohen herself is cautious on these points, and lists a number of potential problems that are not stressed as strongly in the HSR report (certainly nothing in the below should be taken to mean that I think her work is wrong, only that the questions of calculation and quantification involved are very fraught). State Department researchers may have incomplete data, and indeed they do not appear to have conducted any field research themselves (the reports are summative documents, drawing on reports from various NGOs and embassies: essentially desk research). The State Department also seems to have previous form in terms of neglecting gender violence in these reports. Moreover, report authors would not have known that their choice of words would be taken to eventually reflect major differences across cases, and so may not have been as careful with phrasing as they should have been.
Consider for example the entries for the DRC from the period 2008-2011. Checking each report and applying Cohen’s criteria we find the following. In 2008, there was one term indicating sexual violence at level 3 (‘weapons of war’) but many more indicating level 2 (‘widespread’ was used 6 times, ‘common’ twice, ‘frequent’ twice and ‘often’ 4 times in relation to sexual violence). How are we to code the conflict? Is the single use of a level 3 phrase sufficient, and does it matter that it is conjoined with a level 2 one (the phrase in question is “often a weapon of war”)? In 2009, ‘weapon’ was again used once (in the same cut-and-paste phrase), but level 2 terms were again more common. In 2010, there were some extra uses of ‘systematic’ but still more of the ‘non-extreme’ phrasings. But in 2011 there do not appear to have been any level 3 terms at all. On the HSR model, does that mean that rape got less severe in Eastern DRC from 2010 to 2011? Or does it reflect some other factor (for example an apparently shorter country report)? Certainly it seems a rather flimsy metric for any such conclusion.
So when Andrew Mack writes something like “the countries worst-affected by sexual violence constitute a minority of all war-affected countries” about the general figures for 1980-2009, he includes in the majority of conflict situations (those to be counter-posed to ‘worst case scenarios’) cases where the State Department describes rape as “common”, “a persistent pattern”, “extensive” and “frequent” at levels that are “innumerable”. The distinction between low-to-no cases (levels 0 and 1) and high-to-extreme cases (levels 2 and 3) seems more robust, but these remain measures drawn from a single official source (although with no real sense that the official source did the underlying original research) arrived at by an unclear process. Again, as Cohen herself points out, these reports offer no figures, only summative assessments. They appear comparable with each other, but the extent to which they reflect, or merely select, from the vast array of documents and analyses in existence beyond them, is really quite obscure.
More importantly, some of the distinctions here are not really about scale at all, but about form. The phraseology of ‘weapon of war’ has indeed become common to all kinds of documents and interventions, but for analytical purposes it is a designation of intention, strategy and ends, not of sheer numbers. It is logically conceivable, and may well frequently be the case, that sexual violence is higher in settings where it is not carefully planned and deployed specifically by military or political leaders as a tool. After all, part of the instrumentality of using a weapon is knowing when to stop. Military designs are in this sense as much about restraint as they are about permission. A different kind of account (one stressing, say, levels of rape carried out by civilians, by disaffected soldiers operating outside of a formal military hierarchy, or merely attributing sexual violence to ‘needs’, ‘desires’ or ‘sexuality’) may well suggest very high levels of sexual violence without there being any sense of rape as a coherent tool or as ‘systematic’ (at least not without making ‘systematic’ synonymous with ‘extensive’).
For example, all analysts agree that sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is extremely widespread and very serious (and epidemiological evidence of a much more careful kind than that deployed in the HSR would seem to bear that out). Yet this does not make it synonymous with being a ‘tool’ in the direct, military hierarchy sense that Cohen’s level 3 criteria suggest. Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern (who have done more than anyone to understand the perpetration of rape in Congo) conducted interviews with 226 soldiers and officers from the Congolese army, all of whom were directly asked whether or not they had ever received orders to rape. Not a single one reported receiving such orders. And here’s the twist: the HSR approvingly cites this exact point to illustrate the complexity of rape, and yet still sees the DRC as an example of severe rape, even thought it cannot be on Cohen’s scale if Eriksson Baaz and Stern are right.
Nor is this the only internal tension. The strand of the report that argues that women are more significant perpetrators of rape in war is, for example, somewhat at odds with the stress on non-war rape as being what really matters. Moreover, while a main allegation early in the report is that the UN and others focus too much on strategic rape, the HSR ends up quoting Anne Marie Goetz’s threefold distinction of forms of sexual violence (widespread and systematic, widespread and opportunistic and isolated and random) whilst making a point about domestic violence, despite that typology being more sophisticated than the one deployed in the HSR itself. That’s Goetz as in the Chief Advisor on Governance, Peace and Security at UNIFEM. A self-contradictory tangle transposed into a robust judgement on character and trends.
So, in sum, some valid questions; a possibly useful provocation on strategic rape that is largely squandered; a neglect of existing materials addressing similar concerns; a lack of original research (research which could have been particularly useful on the topic of agency spending priorities and errors); and a complex data measure which doesn’t show what the report thinks it does. War rape matters, and so does being as careful about discussing its details as we can manage, but care and coherence, it seems, can sometimes be in surprisingly short supply.
 This indeed suggests a whole other string of questions. Focusing on the countries where sexual violence is highest is only a problem if your orientating desire is to accurately describe all current violence in all conflict situations. That is an important research agenda, but it is not the only kind of orientating desire. If you were instead interested in learning as much as you could about countries were there was a lot of sexual violence so that you could do something to address that, it would be entirely appropriate to focus on the most severe cases. This is not selection bias. Problems arise only if you start dispensing funds or taking some other policy decision that applies to all countries on the basis of the situation in the worst one. I am not aware of levels of sexual violence in Congo being used as proxies for sexual violence elsewhere, nor or demands that everywhere get the same amount of funding as the worst cases. Nor, despite citing a number of reports that do seem to have made over-broad generalisations, does the HSR show that this is the case. Indeed, Mack and his colleagues say that they are not trying to necessarily reduce funding for sexual violence programmes anyway. So something of a confusion there.
 I would say more about this, but a lot of the discussion is currently embedded in a submitted – but not yet examined – PhD thesis. Some of the relevant arguments are my recent European Journal of International Relations piece (and associated blogpost) but interested parties can look at the full thesis draft, provided they treat it with the appropriate caution.
 As far as I can tell, this work is still in unpublished form, and I am working from the same draft paper (from January 2012) as the HSR cites.