Somebody once said, “To write well, you have to write what you know.” Well, here is what I know.
– Josie Geller, Never Been Kissed (1999)
“Sexual violence in conflict destroys lives and damages communities” – the opening statement on the website of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Ending sexual violence in conflict is one of those ideas that is impossible for any rational being to oppose. But is a conflict free of sexual violence something we should all clamour for? Am I the only one to spot the darkly comic irony inherent in this notion?
Let us firstly understand the nature of conflict. Conflict is a part of life, a healthy catalyst of change when managed effectively. Sadly, conflicts around the world invariably erupt into open violence. Modern conflicts take the form of a grotesque free-for-all; a sprawling arena of bloodshed, physical and emotional trauma and destruction of lives and livelihoods that appears to know no bounds. Civilians and combatants blur into a nebulous mass; humanitarians and military actors, preservers and destroyers of life, converge intermittently; and institutions of governance have frequently collapsed, leaving in their wake a power vacuum that militias scramble fiercely to fill. And yes, one factor that is discernible as a symptom and consequence of numerous violent conflicts is sexual violence. Do I detect a rather conspicuous elephant in the room?
Enter stage right Angelina Jolie and William Hague. Their message is unifying and morally irreproachable: let us end sexual violence in conflict. Their strategy, however, leaves rather more to be desired. They talk of supporting victims, ending stigma and putting a stop to impunity – factors that have nothing to do with ‘ending’ sexual violence in conflict. These are merely obvious ways to mitigate the effects. This is the same story, the same sticking plaster that is applied to so many aspects of global conflict, addressing the symptoms and paying scant attention to the underlying condition. Moreover, this sticking plaster is intended for application to an already gangrenous wound – the festering, chaotic, fragmented moral and legal sinkhole of modern conflict. The NGO Action on Armed Violence has berated the repetitive rhetoric and “lack of meaningful discussion” found to characterise the summit. My question is, what kind of meaningful discussion could ever have taken place when no-one appears to be giving a second thought to the presence of violent conflict as an urgent issue in and of itself? If you choose to ignore the substantive issue, the only approach left is one of lip service and damage limitation after the fact.
They say: End sexual violence in conflict.
I say: End violent conflict. End deeply entrenched systems of governance that stymie legitimate, non-violent channels for addressing public grievances, and thus feed conflict. End systems of power that sustain the interests of elites in engaging in corruption, thus distorting the distribution of wealth and resources and generating grievances. End systems of power that permit the misuse of natural resource revenues, thus distorting the distribution of wealth and resources and generating grievances. End the instrumentalisation of all forms of collective identity by political elites, serving their own ends by precipitating grievances. End Western ignorance of the historical dynamics that have often contributed to protracted instability and cycles of violence in the post-colonial world.
I would actually prefer to speak of more than merely ‘ending’ something. Ending conflict – that is to say, its absence – can be referred to as negative peace. Johan Galtung’s concept of positive peace goes beyond this, incorporating reconciliation and social justice as additional requirements for positive peace. It is a long and arduous process, and there are no shortcuts, so why do we keep trying to take them?
In a world of positive peace, as if by magic, the agonies of sexual violence in conflict may just begin to subside.
I published this note to Facebook on 23 May 2013, in response to the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich the previous day. I return to it now as I grapple with events surrounding the abduction of two hundred girls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram militant group.
Yesterday’s events in Woolwich were horrifying and appalling. Human life and dignity destroyed in the most barbaric of ways. I am perplexed by numerous reactions, because they seem to be rooted in assumptions that fundamentalist/extremist religious terrorism is some kind of discrete, independent phenomenon, separated in time and space from any sort of causal chain. The first questions in my mind are always questions of why: what is it that drives someone so far from rational thought and conscience that they can unleash this heinous violence on a fellow human? Now I am certainly no expert in these matters, but literature from political science, international relations and sociology underscores the prominence of fundamentalist religious movements as a reactionary occurrence. The movements are able to gain adherents and power as a result of crises in their countries of origin. These crises tend to be one of two things in the Muslim world (likely not to be confined to the Muslim world, but taking this as a case study in relation to yesterday): weak governance, creating a power vacuum and opening space for religious movements to accrue influence, such as by delivering essential services that a government is unwilling or unable to provide (health, education, etc); or despotic regimes, which can cause religion to be a ‘sanctuary’ for those under oppressive rule, or which have been seen to engender a process of ‘religious outbidding’, which means that political elites instrumentalise religion (more specifically, religious discourse) in an attempt to augment or consolidate their legitimacy. They are able to do this partly because of the structure of Islam and its lack of centralised authority (again, it is not the only religion with a decentralised structure), making it susceptible to manipulation.
The reasons for the governance crises themselves are complex interactions of events and circumstances, going back hundreds of years. By way of a crudely simplified, extremely brief and in places, rather vague (forgive me but I am not fully acquainted with certain details and cannot recall some of the finer points of what I have read) summary, the Crusades are material to this, when countries of Western Europe engaged in ‘holy wars’ of their own, against followers of Islam, focused on the city of Jerusalem (holy wars are not exclusive to Islam; also, incidentally, the concept of jihad means ‘struggle’ rather than war, and has four interpretations, three of which are non-violent). Christian states felt that it was appropriate to invade foreign lands and use violence against their Muslim inhabitants because Jerusalem was a holy site for them. We did not stop at Islam, either, but fought to gain Christian influence in North Africa and Eastern Europe as well. The Crusades increased our wealth and power, but have left a lasting legacy on how the West is perceived by those lands that were invaded. Additionally, Western Europe was embroiled in conflict for many years during the seventeenth century, and it was ended with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, treaties which entrenched the separation of religion and state in our countries. Events have never unfolded in the same way elsewhere, meaning that Europe, or the ‘West’, has followed a different developmental trajectory, proceeding on the basis of secularism. The lack of separation of church and state is, according to my understanding, an intrinsic feature of Islam (again not necessarily confined to Islam, but using this specific case study), which is why it can be instrumentalised by unscrupulous leaders.
The development trajectory of the Arab Muslim world has been hampered by colonisation, and also exploitation, by the West, of oil resources, which are the most accessible in the world in Saudi Arabia, and have provided that country (and others with oil resources, like Iraq and Iran, but Saudi Arabia is most notable) with enormous financial income, which has given it considerable influence over other Muslim nations. When a country is rich in natural resources, its leadership tends to be less accountable to the public because it does not have to rely on revenue from taxation, and thus does not have to bargain with its population with regard to those taxes. The West continues to exploit the resources to the present day, and by doing so, is jeopardising progress in accountable governance, as well as providing income with which these countries are able to purchase weapons and train soldiers. As I have stated above, governance issues can promote the rise of religious movements. Furthermore, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, in close proximity to key sites of religious significance for Muslims, bears similarities to the Crusades, and Israel’s victory in the 1967 war created something of an existential crisis in the Arab Muslim world and led to a great deal of ‘soul-searching’ to try to determine how they might find a way of existing in the modern world. Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq, all subject to colonial rule by the West, attempted to operationalise secular ideology after independence, but it could not work because of weak governance. Secular Arab nationalism was seen to have failed, and this precipitated recourse to religion, which I believe was set in motion by the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Add to this the events of the Cold War, when The Soviet Union and the US and its allies were pitted against each other in seeking to gain or maintain ideological influence over other nations of the world. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, to take one example, and at this time, the US backed Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, because they were seen as a force of resistance against the spread of Communism. This is the very thing that led to the Taliban takeover – the force that we are now engaged in fighting against, in a highly intrusive nation-building project. For the same reasons, huge aid (and also arms) flows from both the Soviet Union and the US and its allies went to all sorts of regimes, including authoritarian and oppressive governments in Africa (the Cold War is partly the reason why apartheid persisted for so long in South Africa), in efforts to win or maintain their allegiance. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and the threat of Communism disappeared, the US and its allies cut these aid flows, leaving numerous countries with proliferations of small arms and a sudden collapse in state institutions that had relied on the aid. These events have, together, created strong feelings of victimisation and anger, leading to the growth of anti-Western sentiment, which has seemingly reached its zenith in recent years because the Western powers have intervened with military force in Iraq and Afghanistan, having contributed to the issues that necessitated the interventions in the first place.
I do not write this to be conceited or provocative. I felt compelled to offer up this information, which of course is based on my own understanding, is highly imperfect, contains gaps and no doubt inaccuracies, and is capable of being interpreted differently. What I am essentially saying is that when these awful tragedies occur, it is vital to situate them within the huge and complex political, historical, geographical and cultural contexts that have shaped them, and for which we, as the people of today’s ‘West’, cannot eschew responsibility. We have had involvement in causal events. Terrorism is no accident. I have shared this in the hope that it might shed some light on why awful things like this rear their ugly heads in our messed up world, and that it might underline the urgent necessity for us all to pursue the path of peace. We are all in a position to educate ourselves and to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. The only way forward as I see it, is to use these historical lessons as a point of departure, from which we are able to strengthen accountable governance in countries where crises open paths to extremism, so that we do not just treat the symptoms, but address the root causes for taking ‘refuge’ in, or resorting to movements that inculcate terrorist mindsets.
My first OnDev page features my final blog post for Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO), an American development NGO working in the West Bank. The post opens with an expression of admiration for Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, and his vision of development as the enlargement of human choices. I was subsequently pleased to see David Mepham’s reference to the very same idea little more than a week later, in a blog post for the Guardian in which he advocates for development policy to be predicated upon respect for human rights.
The desirability of these ideas has long been recognised. UNDP’s Human Development Report 1990 explicitly considers, like Mepham, augmented human choices and respect for human rights as both routes to, and indicators of, human development. UNDG concretized this idea with the launch of its mainstreaming mechanism for a human rights based approach to development programming, in 2009. The humanitarian field began a transition from needs-based to rights-based approaches some thirty or more years ago. The World Bankhas also shown support for the inclusion of human rights considerations in its work,but, as Mepham points out, the organisation has been criticised for failing to safeguard human rights at the programme implementation stage. The norms are thus well-established; the issue that warrants serious consideration is how to fully and meaningfully implement and safeguard them on the ground.
Believing in the ‘unseen’, or rather, funding it, logically raises questions for donors and practitioners in the development and humanitarian fields. Let us consider what rights and choices have in common. Firstly, both are required to be exercised or realised, over and above their mere existence, if they are to mean anything. Constitutions, treaty ratifications and peace agreements are nominal; it is the active protection or exercise of their provisions on the ground thatbrings them to life. The presence of rights and choices may be possible to delineate on paper, but their fulfilment and unfettered exercise may effectively remain ‘unseen’ in the absence of qualitative accounts from numerous individuals to evidence their use- presumably highly impracticable, time-intense and costly for practitioners to undertake. An increase in voters at the polls in a state, for example, may point to an increased realisation of civil and political rights, with self-evident choices in whom to elect. However, no quantitative scorecard can capture the pressures that may have been exerted on voters, limiting their free exercise of the rights and choices that we may believe have been conferred upon them. They may have been coerced into voting; others may have been intimidated into staying away. The direction of voting may have been influenced in any number of ways. Likewise, the existence of a choice of service providers or products cannot be freely exercised if many of them are somehow inaccessible, either economically, geographically or otherwise.
In this way, rights and choices are, secondly, not fully tangible resources. They are often more conspicuous by their absence. This is a critical limitation in the age of results-driven programming and evidence-based policy. No pre- or post-evaluation mechanism can reasonably account for an individual’s on-going life experiences and myriad daily encounters with opportunities or barriers concerning their enjoyment of human rights and free exercise of choices. Moreover, a significant amount of time may elapse between the provision of a right or a choice in theory, and its execution in practice. A donor should not, in my opinion, be persuaded of the viability or success of an intervention purely on the basis of a tick-list of rights and choices that beneficiaries have supposedly gained, because this is not a reliable indication of their ability to freely exercise or access them in the future. At the same time, I appreciate that donors cannot wait for a decade or so after the fact for a blow-by-blow portrayal of the trajectory of each and every beneficiary’s life. This could not accurately pinpoint the chain of causation, in any case. Thirdly, rights and choices are invariably subjective. Whether we possess them, and in sufficient measure to enhance our lives, is decision reserved only for each of us as individuals, and again, can be tricky for third parties to discern, let alone enumerate in sufficient detail to satisfy donors.
Mepham’s ‘naysayer’ alludes to these sorts of dilemmas. Her reasoning that technical development activity largely fails to take account of “domestic and institutional dynamics that determine development outcomes” is, in my view, a more compelling reason than any to engage fully with the complexities of implications of development work for the future exercise of rights and choices, no matter how arduous this may be. States may be the official duty-bearers when it comes to the fulfilment of human rights obligations, but as Mepham points out, this does not give the rest of us permission to sit back and forget about them, especially when dealing with grassroots initiatives. Yes, human rights are a “global political agenda” – and so is development. We may not like it, but we must accept that those who profit from human rights abuses and underdevelopment are probably the same people. I certainly do not agree with the claim that the Millennium Development Goals “paid no attention to human rights and political freedoms”. If eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and achieving universal primary education do not embody the realisation of economic and social rights, for example, then I do not know what does. Believing in the unseen is a tremendous ask, but believe in it we must. Settling for tick-box results concerning the mere presence of rights and choices is like celebrating winning a race on hearing the starting pistol. I fail to see a more pertinent raison d’être for doing development than the practical realisation of human rights and the de facto exercise of choices, regardless of whether we work top-down or invest in grassroots movements. They do not have to be the explicit objectives of development and humanitarian programmes, but there is no logical or practical way of skirting their presence, absence or significance when engaging in development work, and nor should there be.