The Cursory Pedant: War Rape, the Human Security Report and the Calculation of Violence

“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?

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