Ending sexual violence in conflict: rhetoric and reality

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Sexual violence in war affects hundreds of millions of people around the world, accompanying the wars waged by the imperialist powers and their regional proxies. This is one brutal part of the wider violence against women under capitalism, with women making up the majority of those in poverty and – with children and young people – 80% of those made refugees. The bank accounts of the ruling classes are built on war and poverty. So when then Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie led a ‘Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’ in London in June 2014, it was clear it was going to be nothing but a slick public relations exercise for imperialism.

Imperialist intervention brings with it sexual violence. In Iraq, the number of women facing sexual violence increased dramatically following the 2003 occupation. According to local women’s groups, in two years over 2,000 women were raped by occupying forces, and 500 children suffered sexual violence. A 2013 Oxfam survey found that 55% of respondents had faced sexual violence, and 22% faced domestic violence. This is set against everyday violence, the legacy of occupation; increased poverty, a lack of sanitation and health facilities and high rates of maternal and child mortality.

Phoney concern for the rights of women has been used to justify intervention again and again. Malalai Joya, a former Afghan politician, explains: ‘The catastrophic situation of women was a very good excuse for the US and NATO to justify their criminal war in Afghanistan. They misuse the miseries of Afghan women for their propaganda machine…[Now] self-immolation in Afghanistan is skyrocketing. We’ve seen rape cases, acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, beating women with lashes in public, executing them in public, accusing them of adultery without even bringing them to the symbolic courts that we have’ (The Nation, 2013). The US’ rhetoric of ‘bringing civilisation’ falls flat. There were 5,061 reported cases of sexual assault within the US military in the last year alone. More female soldiers in Iraq were raped by colleagues than injured in combat.

The summit used sexual violence to justify current and future interventions, and perpetuate racism. Supported by a wide range of non-governmental organisations, the drive for resources and control was brazen. US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of ‘failed’ states and of the benefits to the US of intervening on the issue of sexual violence: ‘we have to help countries to strengthen their domestic justice systems so that they have the infrastructure...[to] prosecute sexual violence effectively. And I might add doing so would build the capacity for those governments to survive and also to fight back against a wave of radical extremism and terror which is consuming some fragile governments today’. Countries brimming with natural resources – Nigeria, Somalia and the Central African Republic, amongst others – took prominence at the summit.

The summit’s protocol to prevent sexual violence was designed by those with power and will be implemented by the same people, affording them impunity. Recently the UN special rapporteur investigating Britain’s response to violence against women was prevented entry into Serco-managed Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre by the Home Office. Earlier this year, Hague himself dismissed calls for the brutal treatment of detainees, including allegations of sexual violence, in Iraq to be brought before the International Criminal Court, arguing that the issue had already been dealt with.

Despite attempts to silence dissent, the summit’s hypocrisy did not go unchallenged. Attendees objected to the silence on Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kashmir and the North of Ireland. Black Women’s Rape Action Project and All African Women’s Group protested. Women spoke about their treatment upon arrival in Britain; their experiences of disbelief, detention and deportation, as well as racism and sexual violence within Yarl’s Wood, were initially censored. Security guards, paid for by the Foreign Office and provided by G4S – a company infamous for racism and the death of Jimmy Mubenga – attempted to remove protestors.

Women from the Bradford Congo Campaign were refused entry to even the summit’s fringe events. Their open letter responds: ‘To our dismay we were not welcome by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as we were carrying postcards asking you to listen to the voices of Congolese women and civil society who repeatedly say the main cause of sexual violence in DR Congo is the economic war for illegal exploitation of its wealth...we found a space so controlled by the government that issues of UK support for repressive regimes in DR Congo, Uganda and Rwanda (all with heads of state that are former armed rebels) and multinational corporation’s direct or indirect sponsorship of armed rebel groups accused of mass rape, were marginalised to such an extent that these key issues were not heard by us or visible to us at all.’

At the summit, those calling for an end to sexual violence in conflict were the very same that are fuelling war for plunder, profit and control. Imperialism causes and exacerbates the problem; it cannot be the solution. Interventionist, racist arguments must not be accepted. Change must be made by all those uniting to oppose imperialist war around the world and the racist British state at home.

Rachel Francis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014