Ignoring the Evidence at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Foreign Secretary William Hague address the media at ExCel London ahead of the opening of the Summit Fringe
UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Foreign Secretary William Hague address the media at ExCel London ahead of the opening of the Summit Fringe

By Amelia Hoover-Green, PhD

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict ended, for me, not with a bang but with a tiny symbol of my irrelevance. As I stood, furiously tweeting, after the summit’s closing plenary, I was literally pushed aside by a bodyguard to Angelina Jolie. (Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Jolie was a co-host of the summit, with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.)

The brush-off wasn’t troubling in itself. She is a movie star, and I am an assistant professor—that’s how it works. But it represented a more important inequity: The world’s largest-ever gathering on sexualized violence in conflict systematically disregarded social science researchers and social science research findings.

Ahead of the summit, Jolie and Hague wrote, “We refuse to accept that sexual violence [in conflict] is too vast and complex a problem to be tackled.” It’s true that the summit demonstrated a remarkable commitment of energy and attention by the more than 100 country delegations in attendance, as well as a remarkably hopeful outlook on a tough policy problem.

But Jolie and Hague’s statement also foreshadowed a deep problem with the summit. Refusing to accept that a problem is too complex to tackle is one thing; refusing to accept the reality of complexity is quite another.

Lieutenant General David Morrison, chief of army in Australia, spoke at the summit about using recruitment and training as tools to prevent sexualized violence. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The summit steadfastly refused to admit complexity. In particular, its guiding sentiment was a dangerous oversimplification: that all sexualized violence during war is sexualized violence as a weapon of war. That is, when sexualized violence occurs in conflict, it occurs as a systematic tactic in service of a strategic goal. Hundreds of times during the summit, key figures in the international community—Hague, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Jolie, and many others—spoke of wartime sexualized violence as a “weapon of war,” a “tactic,” or a “strategy.”

The “weapon of war” assumption is incredibly appealing, both logistically and emotionally. If it were true—if all episodes of sexualized violence in conflict were strategic—then raising the cost of perpetration would alter calculations about the costs and benefits of sexualized violence as a tactic. Raising costs sufficiently, via prosecution and punishment, would (as the summit’s title has it) End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Thinking of sexualized violence as a rational evil also allows us the luxury of obvious villains: people so coldly immoral that punishment is the only language they speak.

Unfortunately, the “weapon of war” assumption, while appealing, is also incorrect. Punishing perpetrators is necessary, important, and politically popular. Nevertheless, deterrence is no more a solution to this violent crime than it is to any other. (If deterrence worked, the mass-incarcerated US would be the safest place on earth.)

Like many of my colleagues, I found the summit’s singular focus on sexualized violence as a weapon of war disrespectful and depressing. It disrespects the majority of victims of wartime sexualized violence, whose perpetrators were not acting strategically. It disrespects the facts. And, in this case, disrespect for the facts is depressing to witness, because research suggests that concrete, comprehensive, evidence-based solutions do exist—if only the international community were willing to acknowledge the evidence.

Social scientists generally reject the idea that there is a single cause of sexualized violence in conflict, but agree on a limited set of potential explanations. Military strategy plays a role in some cases, but so do group characteristics, within-unit social dynamics, and individual-level factors like opportunism or trauma.

Of particular importance is the emerging area of research on the institutions and practices of armed organizations (including both state and non-state militaries). Elisabeth Wood’s research implies that groups with strong internal hierarchies and communication systems, like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, may also be less likely to commit sexualized violence. Dara Kay Cohen found that, across 85 civil wars, groups using abduction or pressganging as recruiting tools also used significantly higher levels of rape. (Importantly, Cohen’s work finds that this is true for both state and non-state forces, and that state forces are more likely than rebel groups to commit rape.) My own work describes how rebels in El Salvador worked to limit sexualized violence committed by combatants and suggests that combatants are less likely to commit sexualized violence when their training emphasizes the connections between civilian protection and long-term group goals.

Clearly, these findings suggest policy solutions radically different from those discussed at the summit. In particular, research points toward prevention policies that target the internal institutions and practices of military groups: recruitment, training, socialization, and discipline. (At the summit, the lone plenary speaker to consider recruitment and training as prevention tools was Lieutenant General David Morrison, Australia’s chief of army, who spoke eloquently about efforts toward a force whose values reflect and reinforce international human rights norms.)

However, as researchers Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern have argued, the policy tools supported by empirical evidence—those operating at the level of the military organization—are not the international community’s usual tools. Diplomats and international organizations have G8 initiatives, framework documents, UN Security Council resolutions, and prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Small wonder, then, that the summit focused so tightly on the “weapon of war” assumption and its corollary, punishment as prevention: When you have a hammer, the optics are better when everything is made to look like a nail.

Yet, as Jolie, Hague, and all summit participants agreed, words and ideas, resolutions and initiatives have so far failed to solve the problem. Survivors of conflict-related sexualized violence need and deserve provably effective prevention policies, even if effectiveness ultimately requires acknowledging uncomfortable complexities, crafting new tools, or working in ways that are less politically appealing. Even if building and testing such policies means inviting social scientists to speak—rather than brushing them aside.Amelia Hoover-Green, PhD, is an assistant professor in Drexel's College of Arts and Sciences

Amelia Hoover-Green is an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History and Politics. Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with her can contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215-895-2705.

This opinion piece originally ran on WomenUnderSiegeProject.org.