Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
With the focus on Ukraine since February, it has been easy to overlook the world’s 17 other active conflicts.
Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Mali… Current and recent wars usually occur in faraway countries of which most of us in Britain know nothing. This perhaps explains the shock at the outbreak of state-on-state conflict in Europe.
A month after the invasion of Ukraine, rebels from the March 27 Movement (M27) launched an offensive in North Kivu, attacking forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and United Nations peacekeepers.
Last week the DRC’s Dr Denis Mukwege shared a platform with his fellow 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the Yadizi campaigner Nadia Murad. Along with delegates from 70 countries, they were attending a two-day conference organised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to bolster a UK-led initiative to outlaw sexual violence in conflict.
Launched in 2012 by William Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, with high-profile support from Angelina Jolie, the campaign is surely the most tangible realisation of Britain’s longstanding ambition to be a force for good in the world.
The conference focused on the survivors: the accounts of what many had suffered was harrowing. Arrested, sexually assaulted and tortured by members of government militias in 2016 during Syria’s civil war, one woman said she had “lost her soul”. Acid was poured onto an open wound caused by torture with red-hot metal.
Millions of victims – overwhelmingly but not exclusively women – who have experienced conflict-related sexual violence suffer in silence because of shame and stigma. The SEMA network, comprising survivors from more than 20 countries, including Bosnia, Colombia, Kosovo, Iraq and Nepal, calls for greater international effort to punish perpetrators.
As Dr Mukwege stated: “Suffering is universal: justice should be universal.”
A framework of international humanitarian law governs many aspects of the conduct of war, including the Geneva Conventions and treaties outlawing chemical weapons. Such law reinforces “just war” norms, those ancient traditions such as not poisoning enemy wells.
In 1998 the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court. With its focus on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, The Hague-based court has prosecuted the former leaders of Serbia and Liberia. It is also often criticised for being inefficient and ineffective.
Although sexual violence is an international weapon of war, a culture of impunity currently surrounds it. Recent initiatives have attempted to make up for this global lack of political will to bring perpetrators to justice.
The Murad Code, for example, sets out standards for the collection of evidence from survivors and witnesses as part of documenting sexual crimes, and the recently updated Istanbul Protocol establishes international standards for the investigation and recording of torture and other inhuman treatment.
Both James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord (Tariq) Ahmad, a Foreign Minister, made it clear that, like the use of chemical weapons, sexual violence in conflict should become a red line that is never crossed.
From April 2013, ISIS terrorists (the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) launched a genocide against the Yazidi community of north-west Iraq. Not only were men murdered or forcibly converted to Islam, extensive acts of violence against women were carried out. The Yazidi Justice Committee claims they included ‘sexual slavery, forced marriage, enforced pregnancy, rape and sexual assault.’
The ICC has yet to act in the context of Yazidi-related war crimes. But more positively, the International Bar Association reports that in March 2021 the Higher Regional Court in Hamburg convicted a German ISIS member for aiding crimes against humanity.
The sexual violence against Yazidi women, including Nadia Murad, echoes the experience of Moslem women in Bosnia who were forced into “rape houses” by Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s. A decade later in Darfur, Sudan, the “mass rape of civilians was used as a strategy to displace entire villages”, notes the Amnesty International report, Women, War and Peace.
Whether in civil war or state-on-state conflict, rape and enforced pregnancy are often part of a pre-meditated strategy of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative (PSVI) reflects the best aspirations of global Britain. The Government has backed it with £12.5 million of new funding, aimed not least at building capacity for prosecutions. Other measures include promoting changes to the law in individual countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to ensure the children born of conflict rape are recognised as civilian victims of war.
While any funding is welcome, the PSVI is surely a deserving recipient of more of Britain’s overseas aid. Last year, China reportedly received £51.7 million from taxpayers, despite reports about the mass detention of the Uighur people – and the rape and sterilisation of Uighur women. The misguided largesse going to China and all the other dubious recipients could be better directed to PSVI projects around the world.
Today’s wars are not only fought by uniformed members of state armies: civilian casualties usually outnumber armed combatants. In the context of international humanitarian law, the recognition of women’s experience in armed conflict is recent. As Murad observed, ending the status quo of impunity is essential to prevent people suffering in the way she did.
At last week’s conference, some 40 countries committed to do more to end the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence and to punish perpetrators. Concurrently, Ukraine’s First Lady addressed members of both Houses of Parliament.
Olena Zelenska detailed how Russian occupiers were targeting her country’s female population. Of the rape cases documented, the youngest victim is four years old, the eldest 85. She called for international efforts to punish Russian aggression: “Justice, like victory, is not possible without allies.”