5 Ways the UK Government Undermined the Wartime Sexual Violence Summit

by Heather McRobie

16 June 2014

Last week’s London conference on wartime sexual violence was urgent and important. Sexual violence in war is epidemic, the invisible frontline of war; in the case of genocidal rape as seen in Bosnia and Rwanda, wartime sexual violence is used specifically to assault and wipe out communities. As the Women Under Siege project has documented, the record of complicity of peacekeepers in wartime sexual violence, and the lack of efforts by governments and intergovernmental organisations to address such acts, has led to virtual impunity for wartime sexual violence, as in the present, urgent case of Syria and sexual violence in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Globally, wartime sexual violence is a humanitarian catastrophe and a mass violation of human rights, as grassroots campaigners and researchers on the issue have long argued. A global conference should have been a positive step, and discussions on the conference’s #TimetoAct twitter hashtag expressed a widespread sense of urgency in addressing the issue. However, here are five ways the summit was undermined by its hosts:

1. The UK government, who hosted the conference, fuels and funds wars – the site of wartime rape.

The involvement of the UK government in the London conference posed numerous problems, from the policing of the event itself to its complicity in wartime sexual violence. The UK government’s involvement in perpetuating global war is obvious – from the ‘war on terror’ to its role in the global arms trade. Yet wartime sexual violence has specific dynamics related to its particular situation in wartime – it is a type of mass human rights violation that occurs in conflict, due variously to the rigid identities demarcating others as ‘enemies’ or through the chaos in civilians’ lives of a war and post-war period. This cannot be credibly addressed by a government such as the UK’s where militarism and perpetual conflict is stitched into the logic of the state.
Not only does this include the last decade of ongoing overseas wars, drone strikes, rendition flights and ‘anti-terrorist operations’, but also epidemic levels of sexual violence within the US military, and how the militarisation of US and UK life under the ‘war on terror’ has fed back into the ‘homeland’.

2. The ‘war on terror’ militarised both ‘homeland’ and ‘abroad’, and sexual violence in the US military is epidemic.

There have been shocking cases of sexual violence perpetrated against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq by UK and US troops over the last decade, which undermines the credibility of the UK government to ‘tackle’ wartime rape. The abuse of prisoners in Abu Graib (warning: graphic images) by occupying soldiers was sexualised, the infamous photographs themselves taken to dehumanise and degrade the Iraqi prisoners by documenting their forced sexual humiliation.

These acts of sexual humiliation perpetrated by invading troops on Iraqi bodies aligns with the epidemic levels of sexual violence and sexual harassment within the US military itself: in 2012, a female American soldier was more likely to be sexually assaulted by another US soldier than die by enemy fire. Reported sexual assaults in the US military increased by 50% in 2013; the lack of adequate recourse to justice for sexual assault survivors within the military not only re-traumatises survivors but works to the benefit of perpetrators.

The sexual violence festering through the ranks of the US military, and the established tropes of sexualised humiliation perpetuated against Iraqis in Abu Graib and elsewhere against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror’ are metastases of the same constructions of militarism and militarised gender roles. Both are stitched into modern conflict, and the rigid roles conflict creates of combatants, civilians and enemies. Wartime rape cannot be tackled without dismantling the war context from which it arises, and yet this context – perpetual war and dehumanised enemies framed through a ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative – is intrinsic to the UK’s foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

3. The UK brutalises asylum seekers who have fled wartime sexual violence.

In the run-up to the conference in London, activists and organisations working on the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at the hands of the UK government called on Angelina Jolie – the iconic ‘figurehead’ of the conference – to meet with asylum seekers who have fled sexual violence or experienced sexual violence within the asylum system. Not only is the UK government’s mistreatment of detained asylum seekers an experience likely to re-traumatise people who have fled wartime sexual violence, but asylum seekers have also been subject to sexual violence in detention. There is an obvious cognitive dissonance between William Hague’s promises at the London wartime sexual violence conference and the UK’s brutalisation and re-traumatisation of asylum-seekers in detention centres. ‘Wartime sexual violence is bad when it happens over there, but if you flee and seek asylum we will detain you in traumatic conditions’ is hardly a coherent position, and exposes the subtler, structural violence of the British criminal justice system and detention policies.

4. And what about peacetime sexual violence? The UK government doesn’t seem to care about that.

The conference’s focus on wartime sexual violence can be justified: although it differs significantly in different places and times, wartime sexual violence has its own disturbing internal logic in which rape functions as a weapon of war – literally, the body is weaponised. However, there is increasing evidence that the prevalence and nature of sexual violence in ‘peacetime’ colours the severity of wartime sexual violence when conflict then occurs — Kirthi Jayakumar, an expert in International Humanitarian Law, has developed a conceptual model of a ‘wartime-peacetime sexual violence continuum’, in which pre-existing rigid gender roles and ‘peacetime’ gender violence lays the foundations for wartime rape. In ethnic conflicts wartime sexual violence can draw upon ‘peacetime’ conceptions of ‘good women’ and ‘bad women’, the classic patriarchal virgin/whore dichotomy, whilst imbuing it with racist overtones in which, for instance, the women of the ‘enemy’ side are ‘dirty’ or subhuman; similarly, patriarchal restrictions on male behaviour are both drawn upon to humiliate the ‘enemy’ and create specific stigmas for male sexual assault survivors in the aftermath of their assault.

In other words, a comprehensive approach to addressing wartime sexual violence would have to address sexual violence as a whole, whilst recognising the specific militarised dynamics of sexual violence when it occurs in war. Yet the UK’s shockingly low conviction rape conviction rate is mirrored in the UK government’s cuts to domestic violence shelters and rape crisis shelters, leaving those traumatised by sexual violence with little support. Such cuts were introduced in the UK under the guise of austerity, itself a gendered and ideologically-driven programme that disproportionately harms the poorest and most marginalised in society, including working-class women. William Hague’s focus solely on wartime sexual violence ‘abroad’ – outside of the island of the (historical) colonial centre – falsely situated violence against women as something that happens ‘over there’, in the periphery, rather than an injustice that is also endemic in the UK homeland, with the policies of the Conservative government making it harder for sexual violence survivors in the UK to receive both care and justice.

5. The role of G4S in the conference underlined the UK’s complicity in sexual violence and brutality.

Activist and Nobel Laureate Jody Williams criticised how grassroots activists and long-term campaigners on wartime sexual violence were on the ‘fringe’ of the conference, literally a level below the ministerial tier, despite the fact these activists are the ones with the expertise and longstanding tireless commitment to justice for survivors of wartime rape. Even more concerning was how notorious private security organisation G4S provided ‘security’ for the London event – even aside from the fact that asylum seekers have suspiciously died in G4S custody, the symbolism was that activists and researchers attending the conference were at the mercy of G4S ‘permitting’ them to enter the building, which entailed locking out Congolese sexual violence survivors.

The unnerving involvement of G4S at the conference played out in physical space the wider power-imbalance of the UK’s appropriation of wartime violence against women to further its foreign policy agenda: who was allowed to speak on the subject of wartime rape, and who was allowed to be present, was being policed by the same powers that have themselves colluded in and directly perpetrated violence against women and violence against civilians, through structural violence in the homeland and brutalising military invasions abroad.

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