The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and Its Critics

I have a piece out in the latest International Affairs on the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), better recognised as that thing William Hague did with Angelina Jolie(-Pitt) when he was still Foreign Secretary. As well as an important project in its own right, the Initiative might be read as signalling a new front in ethical foreign policy, and another success story in feminist activism around sexual violence (alongside the rise of ‘governance feminism’ and what have been called ‘femocrats’ in the UN and elsewhere). The role of the UK as a diplomatic and political presence becomes more important still against the background of rising attention to gender in global policy discourse in recent decades (conventionally referred to as the ‘Women, Peace and Security’, or WPS, agenda). Alternatively, the PSVI might be understood as a cause without demonstrable success, already fading from the scene along with Hague, its main advocate. And from either a conventionally Realist or a more radical activist perspective, the chances of a Foreign Office-led policy initiative making any feminist ground would seem slim.

Against this background, and building on a few years of following the Initiative’s progress, I stake out a preliminary analysis of three planks of the PSVI’s work. First, its wholesome embrace of ‘weapon of war’ thesis. Second, the great emphasis on ending impunity as the most effective means to reduce atrocity. And third, the repeated foregrounding of men and boys as ignored victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The headline conclusion is that, despite its promise, the initiative has thus far achieved little on its own technical terms, and its underlying approach to gender violence in conflict is in important senses limited. The conceptual bases of this relative failure lie in an unduly simplistic account of where and why such violence happens and an inability to reckon with the lack of evidence for strong deterrence effects or the significant resource challenges involved in supporting local and national justice programmes. By contrast, the PSVI stands as an important moment in the opening out of policy understandings of gender violence, although there nevertheless remain important ambiguities over ‘gender neutrality’ in practice, and therefore a likelihood of disputes over resources.

Missouri Emancipation Ordinance

The arrival of the Hague-Jolie Initiative onto the WPS scene was unexpected. The Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election made no mention of wartime sexual atrocity, and was utterly conventional in its references to human rights. UK support for Security Council resolutions aside, activities on sexual violence have historically come from the Department for International Development (DFID), and with the exception of the attention generated during the London summit, the UK government has not made much of the initiative in its public relations since. The PSVI is thus heavily identified with William Hague personally, and can be traced to his epiphany over the role of genocidal rape in Bosnia. Hague, who is also the biographer of William Wilberforce, has framed war rape as similar to slavery in its immorality and argued for the role of the UK as an abolitionist force, repurposing standard diplomatic practice to progressive ends. This is to seek nothing less, in his words, than “the eradication of rape as a weapon of war, through a global campaign to end impunity for perpetrators, to deter and prevent sexual violence, to support and recognise survivors, and to change global attitudes that fuel these crimes”.

As a contribution to the WPS agenda, the UK initiative has also inherited its constitutive tensions, the principal one being between ‘protection’ and ‘participation’. Sexual violence was not the sole concern of Security Council Resolution 1325 (conventionally seen as inaugurating the WPS agenda), which also included an emphasis on gender equality and political participation in all societies (what we might single out as the ‘women’ element), the inclusion of those women in negotiations and post-conflict processes (the ‘peace’ bit) and action against wartime gender violence (a reformed vision of ‘security’). While compatible in principle, in practice these elements have diverged, with more conservative states seeking to confine the agenda to traditional security concerns and to avoid a more systematic politics of gender equality. It is the peace-time and broadly political dimensions of 1325 that make it such an unusual resolution, and have led to its celebration among activists. While the UK has stressed its appreciation of the totality of WPS commitments, PSVI activities have also been seen in civil society circles as limiting in their approach to ‘security’. Given both past arguments over the meaning of 1325 and more immediate responses, the PSVI approach is best characterised as a relatively conservative rendition of WPS, with the partial exception of the stress on men and boys. These conflicts over the meaning and future of the WPS agenda turn on differing visions of who perpetrates sexual violence and why, who experiences it, and how to respond to it.

Take the ‘weapon of war’ claim, which is a recurrent strand in PSVI declarations, reflecting its more general hegemony in policy discourse. The language of strategy and calculation foregrounds military hierarchy, and thus also emphasises the legal obligations of states and armies. But an exclusive focus on military actors has as its corollary the neglect of high levels of civilian and intimate partner violence in conflict settings. Although data are often selective, prone to error and sometimes distorted by advocacy, it is clear that rape in conflict settings is not practised exclusively, perhaps not even principally, by armed groups. Human rights reporting in the aftermath of violent clashes systematically overstates the role of militaries and militias, and dangerous conditions deter researchers from robust, nationally representative surveys. Where comprehensive studies have been carried out, they reveal a more complex assembly of perpetrators than the ‘weapon of war’ narrative allows. For example, in the eastern DRC, household survey data reveal extremely high levels of intimate partner sexual violence, despite the general fixation on atrocities by armed groups (so, in the Kivu regions, the total estimate for lifetime intimate partner violence surpasses 400,000 incidents). Certainly, rates of intimate partner violence are high in many cases of conflict.

The emphasis in military hierarchy implicit in the ‘weapon of war’ narrative oversimplifies the causes and dynamics of sexual violence—in terms of both the chain of command and the foregrounding of organised violence itself. On the question of whether soldiers are instructed to commit sexual violence by their superiors, the evidence is decidedly mixed. Most notoriously, Serbian psychological operations units concluded that acts of rape (including against children) would have a deleterious effect on enemy morale during the Bosnian war, and adopted a rape policy accordingly. But in other contexts, military planning is a retrospective explanation, unproven by documentation or testimony. Combatants themselves offer a range of explanations for sexual violence, often removed from strategic or tactical considerations. Even where combatants are clearly implicated, their actions may just as easily be the consequence of a break-down in hierarchy as its enforcement.

Where the continuum of gender violence is reduced to strategic military rape alone, many (perhaps most) incidents will fall outside the purview of public policy. To be sure, the fact that interstate diplomacy cannot end all gender violence should not mean that it tackles none. But a fixation on rape as a weapon of war nevertheless perpetuates a certain narrow interpretation of gender violence – as exceptional, extreme and largely conflict-specific – against alternatives That is, a political project to foreground sexual violence mainly when it is perpetrated by certain kinds of people must, if successful, have the corresponding political effect of directing material resources to those acts. This, as many have rightly warned, is to establish a hierarchy of harm both within gender-based violence, and between gender-based violence and other human rights abuses. In the former case, military rape is given most attention, and in the latter, acts of sexual violence come to matter more than the violence of torture, displacement, expropriation or death.

Witch Trial

The foundational premise of PSVI discourse to date is that conflict-related sexual violence flourishes where there is impunity, and that ending impunity will therefore radically alter the war zone calculus for perpetrators. This seems obvious enough, which is to say a little too obvious. The logic of deterrence is straightforward: potential aggressors are less likely to commit atrocities where there are clear and effective mechanisms for the investigation and punishment of crimes. But the evidence for a deterrent effect in cases of mass atrocity, including for conflict-related sexual violence, is weak.

This in part reflects a conceptual problem: how can we prove that events which would otherwise have occurred were prevented, and moreover prevented by a specific deterrent signal? But for all the progress in prosecuting sexual violence as a grave crime, the chances of perpetrators appearing before an international tribunal remain slight. As a way to influence behaviour, deterrence relies on the example of regular domestic processes that produce clear expectations for would-be criminals. As Mark Drumbl has argued, this gives rise to something of a paradox in the application of international law to atrocities, since the response to ‘extraordinary’ crimes conforms to the same general mode of punishment and model of evidence and sentencing that applies to ‘ordinary’ crimes.

Where the stakes are high and the motivation is political or ideological – as is the case in many situations of conflict – perpetrators are also unlikely to be deterred by the chance of future prosecutions. On the one hand, the distant prospect of a trial in The Hague is easily outweighed by immediate military concerns. Where sexual violence can be said to be a tactical choice, this will by definition be in a situation perceived to require it. The prospect of prosecution may figure in such a calculus, but will be heavily discounted in favour of immediate success, and in the hope that military triumph will itself dispel legal/political threats. For victors and the vanquished are not equal before the law. On the other hand, it is not settled that the commissioning of atrocity stems from a balancing of probabilities in the way suggested by deterrence theory. Instead, as distinctly political violence, rape is ordered on the basis of ideological assessments, not merely the cost–benefit ratio of self-interest. That is, those who command grave political crimes do not recognise their actions as morally prohibited, and are unlikely to respond to legal instruction to the contrary. They are more likely to see their violence as necessary, existentially so, and thus above considerations of formal rules.

The legal precursor to expected deterrence is also expensive. Ad hoc tribunals and the ICC have established important precedents on sexual violence through major trials. The price tag varies by case, but the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) averaged $39 million per conviction, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) $35 million. Trials are also achingly slow. The ICTY began its work in 1993 and is not expected to conclude it until 2017. The extent of both time and cost is best explained by the gravity of the charges. The ICTY has indeed been described as ‘the most complex set of related criminal cases that has ever been tried by any court anywhere’, outstripping even the Nuremberg Tribunal. The financial burden of justice is not, in other words, a question of inefficient process (even if greater efficiencies are possible), but a question of the nature of grave international crimes themselves.

Part of the reason for the lack of a convincing story around impunity is the multiple ends of justice. As Martti Koskenniemi has convincingly argued, trials of the most serious crimes are often expected to fulfil a number of functions which are poorly distinguished from one another. Perhaps most classically, the desire might be for retribution, to inflict a punishment appropriate to the character of the crime. Alternatively, the purpose of punishment might be directly consequentialist regarding behaviours to be produced, as in the logic of deterrence reducing the incidence of sexual assault. Similarly, it may be expected to promote the rule of law itself. Finally, the purpose might be to tell, or construct, a truth. In that case, the trial is a way to write the historical record, and to gain recognition that crimes took place. These four differing rationales (moral–retributive; instrumentalist; expressive; and didactic respectively) pull in different directions, and the fight against impunity might be undertaken with any of them as reasons. To expect courts to furnish a set narrative for a given conflict, or to assess their judgments not by the rules of procedure but by their subsequent effects, is to see them in part as the setting for show trials, in the sense that the correct judgement, and its political import, is known by all parties in advance; in which case the accused might also be expected to play for political truth and the judgement of history. These purposes have long stood in tension with each other, and the PSVI confronts them as much as any other enterprise would. Yet contrasting modes of justice have to date not nuanced the question of deterrence in UK government policy. And if the case for deterrence is less robust than currently assumed, privileging it, and legal redress in general, in dealing with sexual violence in conflict will have major consequences.

In addition to working within weapon of war and impunity paradigms, the Hague–Jolie project has also been an innovator in attention to sexual and gender-based violence against men and boys. From his earliest speeches on the theme, Hague emphasised that male adults and children could also be targets for rape and sexual torture. At the London summit and in other PSVI events, men and boys have been explicitly mentioned as in need of recognition as survivors in policy and practice. When viewed as a political project, the PSVI has thus expanded the visibility of men as also subject to gender violence. In this sense, it has somewhat inverted the usual relationship between evidence and policy. The evidence base on conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys is suggestive but nascent, and there is not yet any general consensus on incidence, specific risk factors or appropriate explanation. The PSVI’s attention to the issue might then be read as a case of political pressure opening up the space for further research, rather than merely responding to (or ignoring) a pre-existing field of scholarship.

Certainly in the field of policy, the assumptions underlying discussion of sexual violence have frequently excluded men by definitional fiat. It is only in recent years that many countries have codified rape in ‘gender-neutral’ terms – as something that can happen to men at all – and so begun to make male survivors legally visible. Where legal systems prohibit sodomy, announcing oneself the survivor of rape is to invite de facto criminalisation. Although technical definitions adopted by international bodies such as the ICC tend to state clearly that men can experience rape, the general rhetoric has exhibited, and paradoxically reinforced, a binary portrayal of men as secure from gender violence and women and girls as perpetual victims. Where UN resolutions have previously acknowledged men and boys, they have slipped out of view in operative paragraphs which mention programming for ‘women and girls’ or name experts deployed to peacekeeping missions as ‘women protection advisers’.

The diplomatic capital expended in recognising men and boys as victims of sexual violence has produced resistance, but it is too simple to interpret this as a counter-pressure from those preferring to work only with female survivors, or otherwise ideologically unwilling to define men as potential victims. The notion that feminist analysis is condemned to ignore male suffering is similarly overplayed, given that much feminist scholarship has emphasised the complexity of gender relations. Rather, it is institutional inertia that slows shifts in the language of recognition. The codification of ‘violence against women’ in global policy has its roots in the original political argument for a WPS agenda, and funding follows the bureaucratic logic put in place around it.

Against this background, the language of ‘gender neutrality’ is importantly ambiguous. If it is interpreted to mean only that men and boys can experience sexual violence, and that this should be admitted in law and policy (and provided for in dedicated services), recognition is unlikely to meet much serious opposition. However, ‘gender neutrality’ can also be taken to imply both a depoliticisation of the WPS agenda and an additional pressure on resources. In the first case, when neutrality assumes not just definitional reform but a stronger claim of actual parity in gender suffering, the implication is that the UN and contributing states will now be less forceful in diagnosing and responding to patriarchal power relations and hierarchical gender orders. In the second, where a concern with men and boys results not in the provision of new funds but in the expectation that existing programmes halve (or significantly decrease) the resources devoted to women and girls, the practical effect of the recognition is likely to be seen as regressive. Thus, we might conclude the PSVI has expanded policy conceptions of gender and victimhood, without yet having been able to resolve this recognition into a clear and legitimate architecture for bringing men and boys within its purview.

The future course of the PSVI is undecided. At the time of writing, it is unknown whether there will still be a Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (a role held by Hague after he stopped being foreign secretary). The completion of the UK’s national action plan, and its endorsement by the FCO, DFID and Ministry of Defence at the London summit, signals a certain institutionalisation of the initiative across government, and a consequent longevity to PSVI themes, even if they come to be pursued under a different name. There is the potential for the focus to become embedded, and even celebrated, as an aspect of the UK’s normative power, perhaps in a similar way to the (currently unfashionable) discussion of an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy.

The UK’s impact on global policy will further depend on what resources the government devotes to it in future, and how closely their policy continues to cleave to the tendencies analysed above. But the prospects for producing a major shift in state action on sexual violence in conflict are not promising. The commitments declared at the London summit were largely rhetorical or repetitions of existing obligations. In each area of PSVI emphasis, UK foreign policy has furthered the case for action on sexual violence in conflict, but in ways that promise mixed fruit. The normative example of leadership, although surely appealing in its own way, must be judged against an analysis of just how gender and violence are being conceived. The narrow focus on individual criminal responsibility for crimes undertaken for military purposes so far in evidence comes at the expense of a more wide-ranging account of how rape works. So it will take a markedly different orientation from the community of states for the end of sexual violence in conflict to move from promissory note to programme of action.


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