Rape is a weapon of war. In the past, women were carried away as booty, along with the loser’s gold and silver reserves. Occasionally, they became the subject of great theatre, as in Euripides’s still-raw drama of grief, The Trojan Women. Over the centuries, the wartime abuse of women has been considered inevitable, and thus secondary, to the story of conflict and conflict resolution.
Since the Bosnian wars of the 1990s, sexual violence has become so widespread and brutal that world leaders have finally begun to notice. Impunity has escalated this savagery. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim women were raped in a campaign of terror, but, since 1995, there have been only 40 prosecutions and 30 convictions. The United Nations estimates that, in recent years, at least 200,000 women and girls have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (The details shock: In one Congolese village, 11 infants between six months and a year old were raped by soldiers.)
The G8 nations are at last trying to right these wrongs. At a meeting in London this month, the G8’s foreign ministers agreed to highlight rape. British Foreign Secretary William Hague likened ending sexual assaults on women during conflict to the 19th-century offensive against the slave trade. “The moment has come to shatter the myths about sexual violence,” he said. “We know that this violence inflicts unimaginable suffering, destroys families and communities, and fuels conflict.”
The G8 declaration says sexual assaults during wartime are breaches of the Geneva Conventions, as well as war crimes, thereby incurring the responsibility of all nations to facilitate the prosecution of perpetrators. It obliges its member states to develop a comprehensive protocol for investigations, and says amnesties for sexual violence must be excluded from all peace agreements. It promises to review the training provided to national armies, police forces and peacekeepers to ensure that those deployed to war zones can respond adequately, and supports the employment of international experts to help build judicial capacities in countries that request help. The declaration also calls for enhanced support for the victims of rape and the inclusion of women in peace negotiations.
Not all of this is new. In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court codified rape during wartime as a war crime and a crime against humanity. Its drafters worked from the legal precedents that were being established by the UN courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, including defining rape as genocide when specifically employed to destroy a national ethnic, racial or religious group through pregnancies, as happened in Bosnia.
Mr. Hague’s initiative translates law into progressive international policy one hopes will succeed, but this won’t happen easily in a world where the objectification of women still permeates so many societies. Yes, we’re shocked when a teenager commits suicide after putative rapists post a video of the assault on the Internet. Yes, we’re shocked when an Indian woman is gang-raped on a bus. But when a New Hampshire state representative refers to women as “vaginas,” that story is barely reported in the mainstream press.
Given the scope of the crisis, the G8 foreign ministers will have hard work ahead. Mr. Hague was right to compare his campaign to eliminate rape in conflict zones to the abolition of slavery. The eventual success in ending slavery was founded on new ways of thinking. The G8 commitments will require nothing less.
Erna Paris is an author and the 2012 recipient of the World Federalist Movement-Canada World Peace Award.