When the Defenders are the Perpetrators - the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

by Sheena Vasani // 21 June 2014, 21:24

Tags: international, sexual violence, UN

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With 151 countries signing a protocol to end sexual violence in conflict-affected countries and the introduction of a new UN policy to help do so, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London was a fantastic step forward.

The Summit's aims were many, with much noise made about holding governments accountable, better training for peacekeepers, and supporting women human rights defenders.

Yet what to do when the very defenders are also the perpetrators - such as the United Nations itself? Unfortunately, the Summit did not provide much of an answer.

UN peacekeepers have repeatedly committed acts of sexual violence in many of the same countries the summit highlighted, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. How can we forget the 2005 revelation that UN peacekeepers were paying young girls in the Congo food for sex? Indeed, according to reports by Cornell constitutional law scholar Muna Ndulo, "UN peacekeepers have fathered an estimated 24,500 babies in Cambodia and 6,600 in Liberia."

While the UN has condemned these actions and taken steps towards reform, the organisation has been criticised for not taking sexual violence seriously enough - partly because it does not even have the power to do so. It is the UN's structure that largely enables this abuse; peacekeepers are only contracted to the UN, and thus are subject to their individual countries' laws. Thus, UN policy enforcement on tackling violence against women is as problematic as the policy enforcement on tackling violence against women is in every country.

While the Summit addressed strengthening domestic laws so that prosecution can occur, still, it did not address this in reference to the UN's peacekeeping failures - one almost wonders if to avoid touching on the UN's embarrassing history. It also did not address how the UN keeps knowingly hiring peacekeeping troops from countries that do not adequately prosecute their soldiers for rape, and even keeps the identities of these individuals anonymous.

It is disappointing that at the largest summit of its kind, the media and government representatives at the Summit remained curiously silent about the United Nations' own contribution to the problem. It would have been the ideal platform to speak up, but then perhaps given the UN's large presence at the event, it would have hit too close to home.

This inconvenient truth and its omission from the discussions at the Summit offer an important warning: when it comes to ending sexual violence in war, everybody needs to be held accountable for genuine progress to occur. In many ways, some of the factors that have allowed sexual violence in conflict-affected countries to continue without adequate punishment mirror some of the reasons why sexual violence worldwide is so rampant.

To an extent, both are largely fueled by a global culture that perpetuates rape and gender inequality. It's a culture that often either victim-blames or simply does not take rape seriously enough. Thus sexual violence is not simply the problem of certain countries, but reflective of a worldwide systemic issue all countries contribute to. Even the Summit's host - the UK government - has failed to protect refugees victimised by sexual violence in war, causing further trauma by refusing to even believe them. And let's not even get started on how often rape in general occurs every hour in every country, from the US to the Congo, and yet how poorly politicians sometimes respond towards these cases thus perpetuating the problem. For example, the US - despite its large presence in the Summit and the UN - has neglected its own college campus sexual assault survivors.

Ending sexual violence in conflict-affected countries will require more than just 151 signatures. It will require everybody - countries, the UN, individuals - to take an honest look at itself and take responsibility for its own part in this larger problem. The Summit was a wonderful move in the right direction, but until each country and organisation does so, real change will not be possible.

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Photo of a poster about the Summit in numbers, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shared under a Creative Commons license. Poster reads: #TIMETOACT to end sexual violence in conflict. 1 global summit. 113 countries. 4 days. 84 hours of global action. 100+ NGOs & international partners. 48 foreign ministers. 140 free public events in London. 630+ government delegates. 950+ registered experts, including health, legal, military and academic professions. 6,000 m2 of interactive exhibitions, cinema, performance and marketplace. And you? ExCel London 10-13 June. Get inspired, get involved, have your say. gov.uk/endsexualviolenceinconflict2014

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