At a London conference Friday on ending sexual violence in conflict, Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to call for five concrete steps to end a weapon of war so common it has its own catchphrase: rape, pillage and plunder.
That Kerry is attending amid the crisis in Iraq says the United States does not consider this “pandemic” of rape, as he described it, a secondary issue, or some narrow concern.
In a phone interview ahead of the conference, he said we can make rape as an instrument of war as unacceptable as mustard gas became after World War I.
Is it a war crime, then? “It should be,’’ Kerry said. “And as far as we’re concerned, it is.” In February, the State Department announced that it would issue no visa to anyone accused of committing such acts. “We’ve made it clear we’d bar anyone who’s enabled’’ the practice, he said.
However, “in some parts of the world, people encourage the ethic that [rape] is the spoils of war.’’ Or, “they think it’s inevitable,” a practice so ingrained it can’t be stopped. And “not everybody relates” to the issue at all.
Bosnia, Congo, Rwanda and Syria are among the places where sexual violence has been systematically used to terrorize and control or drive out the population. Reporting and collecting data on such attacks in war time are incredibly difficult, but human rights groups say that more people in war zones and refugee camps experience sexual violence every year than are injured by land mines and bombs. Many victims are children.
The four-day conference, which ends on Friday, was organized by Angelina Jolie, special envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague. In an interview with the BBC, Hague called sexual violence in war “one of the great mass crimes of the 20th century and 21st century.”
Ambassador Catherine M. Russell, who heads the U.S. Office of Global Women’s Issues, was already in London for the conference, and said in a phone interview how inspiring it was to see so many people there — 1,200 of them, from 140 countries. They included a group of Syrian women reporting that sexual violence was rampant in detention centers “as a tactic to terrorize people,’’ she said. The perpetrators “want it to get back to the families [of victims] that that’s what happened,’’ hoping to demoralize the opposition.
Russell said Kerry will announce plans to:
●Expand the use of a “mobile court,’’ which has been used in Congo to prosecute these crimes of sexual violence. Although the ideal would be to try the accused in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, she said, it’s hard to get witnesses to the Netherlands, especially in a timely way. “Right now women suffer these terrible crimes and don’t believe anybody’s going to pay for it,’’ Russell said. The idea is that countries in conflict could apply for money to fund such courts, although the details have not been worked out.
●Increase funding for a program called “Safe From the Start,” which began in September. “In conflict and disasters, gender-based violence tends to happen,’’ Russell said, and sometimes “administrators of refugee camps wind up having to say, ‘Oops, we put the latrines in the wrong place and now women are being attacked.’ ” The program educates refugee workers and others on how to prevent violence.
●Expand a private-public partnership called “Together for Girls” to do research-and-develop programs in schools worldwide.
●Double to $1 million an emergency fund that U.S. embassies can use to help get people out of emergencies.
●Challenge other countries to stop issuing visas to those accused of perpetrating or enabling such crimes, as the United States has.
“I want to prove you don’t have to be a female secretary of state to advance this issue,’’ Kerry said, referring in particular to predecessor Hillary Rodham Clinton’s work in highlighting the issue of the treatment of women and girls around the world. “Throughout my career, I’ve been, I hope, a male who has tried to break new ground with regards to women’s issues,” said Kerry, who as a Massachusetts prosecutor created one of the first counseling units for women who had been raped.
Sexual violence should never be viewed as a men-vs.-women issue, because the attitudes that lead to that behavior and the damage it causes hurts all of society. Until more men on all levels, in war and peacetime, recognize that, we’ll never change opinions on the scale Kerry is talking about. Maybe someday you won’t even have to be a female journalist to write about sexual violence in a way that takes the issue seriously.