“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.