Armchair or action? : the question posed by the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit

11 Jun

In all the hype surrounding this week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit it’s not surprising that the significance of the event has been questioned. From accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ in the Guardian – centring on the poor treatment of refugees on our own doorstep, whilst William Hague and Angelina Jolie highlight the plight of victims in far-flung fragile states – to Jeremy Paxman’s sceptical tone on Newsnight when he remarked that the perpetrators ‘wouldn’t be there’, dissenting voices have been heard, amidst cautious optimism from the organisers, NGOs and rape victims themselves.

It is important to accept that such an event cannot do everything to solve complex and often intractable problems: critics point out that there is rape and sexual violence in all cultures, not just ‘over there’; that misogynist attitudes occur globally and are hard to change; that establishing a rule of law on sexual violence in conflict does not mean that such laws are upheld, or that victims routinely get justice for the crimes meted out against them – crimes often perpetrated by authority figures. Others ask, why not seek to stop the wars themselves instead?

However, in spite of logic, these can all end up being arguments against doing anything at all. What’s the point if wider issues in sexual violence and conflict are not addressed? And in doing so these arguments miss some important points: to see perpetrators as absent from the scene is not quite accurate – they are there in victims’ testimony, and, according to the Independent, interviewed in a documentary screened at the summit. Representatives of governments and agencies worldwide are attending the event, and have the power to influence the training and behaviour of both military and peacekeeping forces, so that the idea of impunity is made increasingly unacceptable, and sensitive treatment of victims encouraged. Laws and UN declarations may not in themselves eliminate sexual violence, but they do send out a strong signal that such behaviour should be brought to account through justice systems. Surely the message counts for something?

Ever in search of some evidence, I looked at a Briefing from the Institute of Development Studies which neither shies away from the complexities, nor absolves the situation of hope. Since the Bosnian war there has been recourse in humanitarian law for victims of sexual violence in conflicts, but the researchers recognise that there are particular problems faced by displaced populations, who may or may not be in official camps – if not in camps they are less likely to see humanitarian laws against sexual violence enforced. Documenting experiences of displaced people and of vulnerable populations over time – after wars have ended but sexual violence still occurs – means that much more is known about the magnitude of the problem and about what potentially helps.

Meanwhile in the Washington Post, researchers note that not all conflicts are associated with widespread sexual violence. This means that we can learn about the particular factors which escalate its risk, and this opens up the possibility of preventive strategies. And States which tolerate sexual violence perpetrated by their armies can be named and shamed. So, shall we sit in our armchairs, critiquing from the sidelines, or join the trending opinion on Twitter that says ‘Time to Act’? Change will not occur overnight, but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing at all.


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