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”.

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Acting Time; Or, Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

Pitt Jolie ESVC Pictures

The attention lavished on sexual violence in conflict last week was in many ways unprecedented. As well as convening the largest ever gathering of officials, NGOs and other experts for the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-chairs William Hague (Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and Angelina Jolie (Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) also generated very many pages – both print and digital – of commentary. In some myopic quarters, that achievement was in itself a distraction from the really important politics of blossoming conflict in Iraq. Such views should remind us that there are still those who insist on seeing gender violence as marginal to international peace and security. Worthy, yes, “no doubt important”, obviously a cause for concern, and so on, but naturally not the real deal.

Since the Summit’s close on Friday, there have also been criticisms of a different sort. A protest on the first day drew attention to the asylum and refugee policies of Her Majesty’s Government, and the ways in which survivors of sexual violence were being mistreated on the British mainland. The Foreign Office raised awareness in part through one-dimensional stories of crazy monsters in the hinterlands of barbarism. The “weapon of war” framework was ubiquitous, but no less problematic for that (see also). Although the Summit made space for youth delegates, UN entities, amateur hackers, foreign ministers, survivors, doctors, lawyers, celebrities, military officers and the odd NGO, academics (and our directly relevant research) were barely at the table. Some myths were therefore recycled. Delegates insisted on using rape survivors as props for their own journeys of self-discovery. I met a women in Panzi Hospital and what she told me broke my heart, etcetera. Some national representatives seemed only just to have discovered the existence of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which urged the participation of women in military and political settings at all levels. That was, um, 14 years ago. John Kerry, amongst others, appeared to believe that rape in war was not yet illegal, but that we could make it so if we really put our minds to it.

The Fringe events were themselves a source of considerable disappointment. Angelina opened proceedings by assuring us that “our” institutions protected us from rape, and prosecuted it ably when it did occur, whilst “they” (we all know who) need our help because they are confined to refugee camps. There was a staged ‘trial’ of the afore-mentioned Resolution 1325, in which an all-white panel of lawyers and faux-judges, including Cherie Booth QC, took the testimony of African witnesses. You could buy various goods made by (or meant to help) rape survivors in the “bustling” Fringe marketplace, and the official programme recommended that you “treat yourself” by doing so. All of this (including the less appalling and more considered exhibits) seemed removed from the set piece debates upstairs. If the Foreign Secretary really did refuse to meet with four Nobel Laureates – some of whom are themselves survivors of political rape – then clearly civil society (that vague but essential category) was being neglected.

Those accumulated complaints can be dismissed as relatively trivial if the Summit gets even some way to achieving its stated aim of ending sexual violence in conflict.[1]  Continue reading

Addressing Wartime Sexual Violence at the United Nations Security Council

A mural at UN HQ by José Vela Zanetti, via Robin Stevens.

Detail from a José Vela Zanetti mural at the United Nations, New York (original image via Robin Stevens)

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council met to vote on a new resolution on wartime sexual violence (under the more general rubric of ‘women, peace and security’). Resolution 2106, as it now is, was passed unanimously, and so joins those other numerical signifiers in the chain of gender mainstreaming: 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1960. The session had been convened by William Hague (the UK holds the Security Council chair for June), and the presence of Angelina Jolie (or ‘Angelina Jolly’, as more than one state representative called her) brought obvious publicity advantages, although that in itself is not so surprising both given her close work with Hague on the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and her role as Special Envoy for the UN High Commission for Refugees.

UNSCR 2106 seems designed mainly as a political symbol that the Council “remains actively seized” of the importance of conflict-related sexual violence, and essentially extends a number of themes already in play (there’s a whole bunch of urges, calls for, recognizes, requests in the text). It seeks the expanded use of targeted sanctions against perpetrators and commanders involved in sexual violence and reiterates the connection of that thing called ‘gender’ to DDR, security sector and justice reforms. It repeats the ‘zero tolerance policy’ on sexual violence and abuse by UN forces, requests further reports on progress to the Council, and so on. There were some other points of note, partly in the mention of men and boys as victims, and partly in some puzzling recessive points such as the Resolution’s demand (its word) that women and children abducted into armed forces be released (given that they are especially vulnerable), with no concomitant mention of kidnapped men.

The resolution also called for sexual and gender-based violence training for all pre-deployment and ‘in-mission’ peacekeeper training, and it is here that perhaps the biggest substantive contribution lies. Numerous references were made in the debate to an expanded role for Women Protection Advisers. Like the discussion of targeted sanctions (mentioned first in UNSCR 1820) this is not brand new, since Women Protection Advisers were themselves an innovation of 1888, which upgraded them from existing gender and human rights advisers. The exact nature of the new role is as yet unclear, but it seems to involve an expansion of their mandate to apply to all UN deployments, since they are currently active in just eight peacekeeping missions (which is just over half).

A few other quick observations on the text and the debate.  Continue reading

Serious Obstacles; Or, Why Is The UK Government Undermining International Protections Against Gendered Violence?

Today is the 100th International Women’s Day. The Government has been announcing its latest action plan on violence against women and girls (including some bold promises for increased funding for rape crisis centres) accordingly. But The Times reports that British officials have, in the same moment, been deliberately undermining a draft convention against violence against women at the Council of Europe. Specifically:

Britain objects to the words, “violence against women is understood as a violation of human rights”. Instead, it wants “violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights”.

Even more damningly, our representatives apparently want the convention to apply only to gendered violence carried out in ‘peacetime’ and not to violations in war. Today’s Home Office announcements make reference to various avenues and promises of international ‘co-operation’, but say nothing about this specific charge. Media reports are similarly silent so far.

This is extraordinary. The timing is brutally ironic, although that is likely down to the Editors at The Times. But why would William Hague and co., newly championing freedoms elsewhere, suddenly seek to undermine international cooperation on this front?

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