Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict: What Can UK Efforts Tell Us?

Then-UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and US actress Angelina Jolie speak at a Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative news conference. London, April 11, 2013 (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Recent reports from countries such as Myanmar and South Sudan confirm the ongoing prevalence of sexual assault in global conflict zones. This is despite the 1998 Rome Statute and 2000’s United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 both recognizing sexual violence in conflict as a war crime, crime against humanity, and act of genocide more than 15 years ago. Though women and human rights groups successfully generated the attention necessary to implement these prohibitions, action and commitment from recalcitrant states to implement them has fallen short.

Perhaps the most significant recent state-based effort to address this shortcoming has been the United Kingdom’s Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and former Secretary William Hague (2010-2015) devoted significant attention and resources. In a recent publication, we examine Hague’s attempts to advance the norm of prevention of sexual violence in conflict and the state of the international campaign.

Hague consciously developed PSVI in a manner strongly associated with his gender, his power as a member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet, and his bureaucratic position as foreign minister. He deployed a purposeful narrative as a white, male Conservative Party member to talk about a crime rooted in deep-seated structural gender inequalities. PSVI thus represents an important example of state-led “norm entrepreneurship,” whereby a foreign policy leader choses to leverage their identity and position to reframe the perceived national interest, as a means of advancing recognition and diffusion of an already established norm.

Crucially, the UK’s position as one of the five permanent members (P5) on the UN Security Council helped create a new understanding of threats to international peace and security, by promoting a norm that was until then most commonly associated with the Council’s women, peace, and security (WPS) thematic agenda.

Hague stepped down as foreign secretary, and politics in general, following the UK’s 2015 national election, to be replaced by Baroness Joyce Anelay as PSVI head. Yet his and the program’s norm entrepreneurship has continued to engender significant new awareness and change. Most recently, its work has focused on tackling the stigma related to sexual violence, and especially attached to its victims/survivors. In 2016, PSVI provided financial support to Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda for projects that “have helped identify the political, social and economic consequences of the stigma that survivors and victims of sexual violence suffer.”

In the same year, PSVI hosted workshops in Myanmar, Colombia, Iraq, Kosovo, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Uganda tackling stigma, especially for survivors. As PSVI’s official literature recognizes, “problematic norms relating to women, men, girls and boys permeate societies, producing harmful effects upon individual survivors/victims.” Addressing stigmatization and changing the culture of impunity around sexual violence aims to increase the likelihood that conflict resolution, peace processes, legal proceedings, and economic reforms are able to address the consequences of such crimes.

During fieldwork conducted in 2016 in post-conflict Sri Lanka—a dedicated focus country for PSVI—we saw how stigma does indeed remain a potent force. For those who speak of, officially report on, or live with the consequences of sexual violence in their private lives, stigma is inseparable from experiences of ethnic, gender, class, and caste oppression.

Workers dealing with populations affected by Sri Lanka’s civil war explained the silence of those who are known to have suffered sexual violence with reference to these intersectional inequalities. The “victorious soldier,” whether a Tamil Tiger or a member of the national armed forces, cannot admit the crimes they may have suffered while a prisoner of war. The prospective Muslim bride, with only her virginity as guarantee of dowry, and respect for her family, cannot speak of the violence she may have been subjected to when her community was expelled from Tamil-held regions.

Rather than refer to this scourge of sexual violence explicitly, the government and NGOs active in Sri Lanka prefer to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence across the country, and the high rates of gender-based attacks in the Northern and Eastern provinces. To this day, there has been no government-appointed independent investigation into sexual violence during the civil war. Nor is there yet a transitional justice mechanism in place to provide gender-sensitive justice for survivors. Addressing violence against women in general terms is considered a safe alternative that does not open up or challenge the narrative of the government militarily defeating the Tamils.

Breaking the official silence, Sri Lankan advocates continue to call on the government and the international donor community to support their work on gender, peace, and security matters, and engage with the widest range of institutions and actors to do so. Evidence of this can be found in reports by civil society organizations on Sri Lanka’s progress on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. These were issued alongside the official government response in Geneva last month.

Advocates make claims for compensation for war widows both Sinhalese and Tamil, recognition of the land rights of returned displaced persons (the majority of whom are women), and services to support single-headed female households based on the gendered violence and injustice perpetrated during and after the war’s end in 2009. PSVI has in many contexts enabled these claims to continue to be made and legitimized them among the considerable political turmoil since the civil war ended.

Despite this, PSVI has been criticized as representing a narrowing of the WPS agenda and of inherently depoliticizing women as agents of addressing these crimes. In response, proponents of the campaign have consistently argued that the great difficulty of dealing with mass rape—and knowing how to prevent it—stems from patterns of non-reporting and impunity for sexual and gender-based violence (as we witnessed in Sri Lanka).

The culture of stigma attaching to victim and not perpetrator is precisely why this form of violence has proliferated. It is so powerful that it affects not only selection of who is able to participate in the war, but also in the peace, and in advocating for subsequent social and political change. The challenge of prosecuting sexual violence perpetrators is increased by the fact that they are often still in the victim’s life—as a neighbor, soldier, administrator, or even a family member. The reluctance of victims and survivors to report is further entrenched if there is no likelihood of justice, no compensation, and no social stigma. Stigma and impunity in turn shape which perpetrators emerge from the conflict unblemished and free to sit in parliament or other areas of society.

As we argue in our recent article, PSVI has set in motion an immense change in the lives of women, men, girls, and boys who have experienced sexual violence in conflict and political upheaval, or may be targeted for these crimes in the future. Its contribution is threefold.

First, it has been built on a high-profile campaign with globally recognized individuals, such as actress and UN Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who co-led the initiative. This media-savvy profile served to increase the visibility of the countless acts of war perpetrated through sexual violence and demand more international action on this topic between 2010 and 2015. The campaign included discussion at a G7 Summit, the hosting of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in War, a related UN General Assembly declaration, and impact on the annual reports of the UN’s secretary-general’s special representative on conflict-related sexual violence.

Second, PSVI has made the public aware of the effects this violence has on survivors and communities well after conflict is over, including through targeted workshops in post-conflict societies around the world.

And, third, it has exposed the flawed premise that the P5 great powers cannot be “distracted” by so-called soft security issues. Hague chose to devote significant UK resources to a UN Security Council thematic agenda and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office met this demand with apparent enthusiasm and pride.

Following the success of PSVI, similar campaigns are now being developed or implemented in other nations, offering hope of further effective norm entrepreneurship to address the stigma of sexual violence in conflict and the important task of ending the problem itself.

Sara E. Davies is Associate Professor in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University. Jacqui True is Professor of Politics & International Relations at Monash University.