Angelina Jolie cried yesterday as she listened to victims of sexual assault speak about their experiences, the Daily Mail reports. The actress, in her capacity as Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is co-hosting a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict which is the outcome of two years work alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The summit aims to end impunity, prevent the use of mass rape as a weapon of war and transfer the stigma of crimes of sexual violence from the survivors to the perpetrators.
Rape is a horrible crime, even more so with the added violence that often occurs in the context of war, and listening to women who have experienced it would be harrowing indeed. Tears are appropriate, especially since there is little else in concrete terms that the world is ready to offer its victims, who include an estimated 50,000 women who were raped in Bosnia two decades ago, virtually none of whom have received justice, according to Mr Hague. How many of the estimated 100,000 to 250,000 women raped during the 1994 Rwanda genocide feel justice has been done for them is anybody’s guess.
And that is without mentioning the boys and men who also suffer this fate in war zones.
Meanwhile, new perpetrators arise. In a piece in the New York Times today Mary Robinson says:
These days, the Democratic Republic of Congo makes headlines with reports of rape on an alarming scale, much of which is connected to the conflict in the eastern regions. The UN reports more than200,000 cases of rape in the country since 1998. In April this year, a detailed report by the UN human rights office in Congo provided evidence based on over 3,600 cases in the past three years– a conservative figure based on registered cases only. The oldest victim was 80 years old. The youngest was two.
The United Nations Security Council has been working on the problem for well over a decade and what UN resolutions have not achieved – political commitment — celebrity diplomacy may yet bring about. In the two years since Mr Hague and Ms Jolie launched their campaign, a Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has been endorsed by 141 countries. Some 70 ministers were expected to turn up in London, including US Secretary of State John Kerry; about 1000 experts and more than 100 NGO participants, while light relief is provided by a fringe festival.
Everything has to be tried, of course, and the summit may well build a popular awareness that puts pressure on governments to pay more attention to victims and to punish and stigmatise what they cannot or will not prevent. This is what the International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict aims at. (See video below)
But there is a large flaw in this campaign, and it starts with United Nations itself. Since the 1990s there have been allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping forces . Although the UN has condemned the behaviour and insisted on “zero tolerance”, only last year a report said that “little appears to have changed: accountability remains the exception to the rule, new abuses continue to be reported, and the business of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping continues.”
How can the UN challenge the government of Congo when it can’t keep its own house in order?
Then there’s Europe. A report issued earlier this year, “Violence against women: an EU-wide survey”, found that one in three women in the European Union has been physically or sexually abused; one in 10 has experienced sexual violence and one in 20 has been raped. And one of the worst records was that of the UK, William Hague’s country. Another case of “physician, heal thyself”.
What about Angelina Jolie’s home patch, the United States? Sadly, things are no better there. The Obama administration has found it necessary to launch a taskforce against sexual violence on college campuses. Moreover the Pentagon reported in April that service members who reported being sexually assaulted (79 percent of them women) surged by 50 percent last year.
And the US is not the only Western power dealing with this problem in the military. This week Australia is in the news again because of allegations by four former female cadets of sexual abuse by their superiors in the Australian Defence Force Academy. Following a notorious incident in 2011 the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce was set up and has since assessed more than 2,400 complaints of abuse, paid $28 million in compensation and referred 63 matters to police. DART’s chairman said in a TV interview that the problem of abuse in the military is bigger than has been publicly acknowledged.
If sexual abuse and violence is widespread in the world’s homes, universities, military training institutions and even among the international troops who are meant to be preventing it these days, what hope is there for preventing it in the collective madness of a war?
It would be easier to take this week’s global summit seriously if the leading lights had the humility to acknowledge what’s going on at home – and admit that they don’t really have a clue how to stop it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.