Sex, Security and Foreign Policy Priorities

The Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict took place in London June 10-12, co-chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  It was a high-profile and high media blitz event with an outsize inter-governmental meeting, a day-long expert meeting and a large fringe gathering of activists from around the globe.  

A core part of the summit’s business was to advance agreement of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Protocol, which has now been endorsed by over 150 states, provides a set of “basic standards” for documentation, collection of evidence, and witness protection when dealing with suspected cases of sexual violence in war. The Summit builds on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, first launched by William Hague in 2012. All governments who had endorsed the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict were invited.  125 appeared, including a large US delegation led by Secretary of State John Kerry.  Secretary Kerry closed out the conference, saying we “will not tolerate rape as a tactic of war and intimidation”. 

The UK Initiative takes its cue from fifteen years of United Nations Security Council mobilization around sexual violence which has produced multiple UNSC Resolutions on gender, peace and security. These include UNSC resolutions 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008) and 1889 (2009), 1960 and 2122 (2013).  All resolutions bear the motif of acknowledging sexual harms, promoting criminal accountability, and creating incentives for states to include women in accountability conversations. High profile pronouncements by Security Council veto states have made sexual violence in conflict a highly visible agenda item for the P5  in the past few years.  In all these sites, I emphasize that the core regulatory preoccupation by states has been with sexual violence, and in particular with rape. Any discussion of gender inequality has been distinctly cut off from rape discourses, and impunity analysis bears no connection to advocacy around advancing economic and political equality for women. Notably it is rape that has garnered the most international legal and policy ‘action’.

On one view,  the emphasis on criminal accountability and Security Council engagement for sexual harms has borne extraordinary fruit for feminist advocates. There are however, costs to this strategy. One of these costs in simple terms is that the sites of conflict that most often engage our conscience are the exotic other of locales, subjects, conflicts and repressions elsewhere (never in the western ‘here’). Notably, the UK’s conservative government has weakened support to domestic women’s shelters through budgetary tightening in the past three years, in marked contrast to the £6 million budgetary commitment made by Secretary Hague to preventing conflict related sexual violence outside the United Kingdom.  The same kind of media and political attention is not garnered by attending to the sustained patterns and practices of violence against women in routine ways at home. There is a real danger that we ‘see’ the conflict related harms that happen to women ‘there’ but with little connection to understanding the global phenomena of violence against women including in western rule of law based states.

Another decided challenge is the process of slicing and dicing gender based violence into ‘conflict’ and ‘non-conflict’ boxes.  Thus, what is named as violence and what gets counted as ‘conflict-related’ violence, ‘ordinary’ criminal violence, and intimate/family violence has significant downstream consequences for engaging support to women and men who experience continuums of harms. The counting is not incidental and not merely about adding a particular label, but is central to what issues gain elevated status as serious human rights violations, what kinds of harms count for the purposes of intervention or military action, and what kinds of violations will be remedied by criminal accountability and by symbolic or monetary reparations. The challenge of ‘counting’ and ‘categorization’ is obviously not unique to sites of conflict but self-evidently have profound effects in sites of extremity in determining the legitimacy of force, breaches of the law of armed conflict, international criminal law and domestic legal norms as applicable. Thus, the agreement on a non-binding Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict elevates fact-finding itself as part of the discourse and trade in marking out sexual harms in conflict and post-conflict settings. It also reflects a technocratic response to addressing sexual violence, accompanied by a plethora of gender advisors, rapid response deployment teams to measure and evidence gather on sexual violence, and an overall emphasis on ‘gender’ projects rather than gendered transformation.

It may appear churlish to point out that the political deployment of ‘brown’ othered women has played a role in engaging intervention forces and providing justification for the use of force in responsibility to protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention doctrines.  From the high-point of Laura Bush’s invocation of the need to protect Afghani women from the extremist forces of the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11, to contemporary seepage in Libya, Mali and Nigeria, harm to women’s bodes provides an increasingly loud deployment signal for legitimizing the use of force.  I am not suggesting that the crisis of human rights violations and humanitarian needs in these settings does not merit the attention of the international community.  Nor am I suggesting that the international community and security discourses should not be concerned about rape and sexual violence.  Rather, I point out that the strategic hoisting of the battered female body for international consumption is often distinctly instrumentalist.  Its preoccupation barely lasts beyond boots on the ground or the enthusiasm of the media for movie stars in humanitarian mode.  In these settings, the interventionist goal is not to uncover and address the pervasive institutional disadvantages and discrimination that creates bodily vulnerability. Rarely is the gendered cost of intervention (including in ongoing and new sources of violence) to women counted.  Thus, closer attention to the justification for jus ad bellum shifting to include gender-based violence should not be read as a uniformly liberalizing move.  It may encapsulate precisely the opposite intention and effect.  It is in these more broadly framed contexts that we must be aware of how the language of sex and sexual harm plays out in the policies of states.  We should also be wary when attention to female harm excludes fundamental engagement with the causes of such harm, and when the focus is on the short-term immediate ‘fix’ and not the cause.

[Editor’s Note: This post has been revised to include attributions for certain factual statements to Stephen Castle, Kerry Joins Envoys to Deplore Sexual Violence in War, NY Times, June 13, 2014.] 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).