By Marie-Eve Hamel (Staff Writer)
Sexual violence as a weapon of war has been used in a myriad of conflicts throughout history. For example, it is estimated that the Soviet Army raped around 2 million women in Germany during World War II.[i] More recently, around 500,000 women were raped during the Rwandan genocide of 1994[ii], and around 20,000-60,000 women were raped during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995[iii]. Now, sexual violence as a weapon of war is currently perpetrated in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Wartime sexual violence is a complex phenomenon that is committed for various purposed, and by a variety of actors.[iv] Its consequences on the men, women and children who experienced this type of abuse are long-lasting, and often extend to the family and community members of its survivors. I have spent the last four years researching and writing on these long-term consequences, and I think that everyone working or researching this topic will agree that the fight against sexual violence in armed conflicts needs to be a priority in conflict societies. While a lot of policy and media attention has been geared towards preventing sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflicts over the past few years, other important steps remain to be achieved, such as putting a stop to impunity for perpetrators. However, recently, an event took place, which I believe represents an important setback in our fight against sexual violence in armed conflicts, and which shook me to my core.
Last July, South Sudanese forces entered a hotel popular with foreign aid workers, murdered a local journalist working for Internews and gang raped the women who were hiding in the bathroom. It was a horrifying attack that shook the aid world, for whilst humanitarian workers have increasingly been the targets of attacks in certain contexts (for example the attacks on Doctors without Borders’ medical facilities in Afghanistan and Yemen), violence against aid workers remains a breach of International Law and mostly rare in conflict zones. These crimes have been called an attack on humanitarianism, and made aid organisations operating in South Sudan reconsider their involvement and the safety of their staff.[v] The victims’ accounts of these crimes are difficult to hear, but what angered me was not necessarily the nature of these crimes. Yes, I was greatly upset to hear what these women went through, but I knew about the thousands of South Sudanese men, women and children who have also been victims of sexual violence since the beginning of the conflict. This event wasn’t therefore an eye-opener for me on the use of sexual violence in South Sudan, but what I found unbearable was to hear that UN forces refused to provide assistance. Indeed, the UN peacekeeping forces mandated to protect the civilian population in South Sudan ignored repeated calls for help and remained in the UN compound, less than a mile from the hotel.
The UN is currently investigating why its troops did not respond to calls for help, but regardless of the results of this investigation, this failure by the peacekeeping forces to act is a massive hindrance to the prevention of wartime sexual violence and only adds to their poor resume of fighting sexual violence in armed conflicts. Indeed, the involvement of international peacekeeping forces in perpetuating these crimes, and their inability (or perhaps unwillingness?) to act upon these crimes has been a topic of discussion for decades.
I heard first-hand about the abuse by peacekeepers when I was on fieldwork in Kigali. There, I met some peacekeepers working in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were coming back from a two-weeks leave. One of them told me of a specific night in Goma, when he received a call on his radio asking him to deal with a sensitive situation: a soldier under his orders had killed a Congolese woman in an internally displaced camp who refused to have sex with him. The man mentioned that he made a report to his superiors, but since they needed soldiers on the ground, no sanctions had been imposed on the perpetrator.
This is just the story of one man, however there have been recent reports of abuse by peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic[vi], but also in other contexts over the past decades: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Haiti, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, to name a few.[vii] These demonstrate a more systematic record of sexual abuse by peacekeeping forces in conflict and post-conflict societies. Of course, I am not arguing here that all peacekeeping soldiers engage in sexual abuse, far from it, and I recognise that these forces will have made significant contributions in other aspects of war. However, sexual exploitation by international forces is not rare, and impunity for UN soldiers who commit these crimes remains the norm.
And this is what shook me from the July’s events in South Sudan. Until the results of the investigation are published, we cannot know why the UN peacekeepers refused to provide assistance. But how can we fight against the use of sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflicts if, for example, those forces that are mandated to protect the civilian population continue to perpetuate these crimes in one context and passively witness these crimes being committed in another one? I will be closely watching how the UN responds over the next few months, and years, because I still have hope that peacekeeping forces could become an important and powerful ally against the use of sexual violence in armed conflicts. At the moment I am, however, saddened by the shadow that this powerful institution casts on our fight against gender and sexual violence in armed conflicts.
[i] Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
[ii] Hudson, H. (2010). ‘Peace building through a gender lens and the challenges of implementation in Rwanda and Côte d’Ivoire’ in L. Sjoberg (Ed.). Gender and International Security. New York: Routledge.
[iii] Skjelsbaek, I. and Smith, D. (2001). Gender, Peace & Conflict. London: Sage Publications.
[iv] Wartime rape is currently explained by four leading theories: the feminist theory, the cultural pathology theory, the biosocial theory and the strategic rape theory. First, the feminist theory was developed by scholars such as Susan Brownmiller (1975), who suggested that wartime rape is a crime perpetuated by men against women in order to keep women in a state of fear and subordination. Second, the cultural pathology theory, proposed by scholars such as Chang (1997), MacKinnon (1994) and Rosenman (2000), argues that wartime rape can be understood by looking at the development of the nation’s culture throughout history in order to determine the factors that lead to a culture of violence against women. The biosocial theory by Ghiglieri (2000) and Thornhill and Palmer (2000), in contrast, moves away from cultural factors to argue that wartime rape is motivated by individual sexual desire. According to this latter theory, soldiers engage in acts of sexual violence to respond to their individual needs or as a reward for their acts. Finally, the strategic rape theory by Allen (1996), Littlewood (1997), Thomas and Regan (1994) suggests that sexual violence is used as a weapon of war to accomplish certain objectives in armed conflicts, such as humiliating and destroying the culture of the enemy group by targeting the victim’s identity.
[v] Beaubien, J. (23 August 2016). ‘Gang Rape of Aid Workers in South Sudan is a Turning Point’, Accessed from http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/08/23/491057541/gang-rape-of-aid-workers-in-south-sudan-is-a-turning-point.
[vi] One of such report comes from Human Rights Watch (2016). ‘Central African Republic: Rape by Peacekeepers’, Accessed from https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/02/04/central-african-republic-rape-peacekeepers.
[vii] Human Rights Watch (2016). ‘UN : Stop Sexual Abuse by Peacekeepers’, Accessed from https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/03/04/un-stop-sexual-abuse-peacekeepers