Moral activists often look back in history for role models of those who have changed world thinking about a specific type of atrocity. For British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has now achieved some success against the use of rape as a weapon of war, the model is William Wilberforce. He was the 19th-century campaigner who challenged the assumption that the global slave trade was a permanent fixture of human existence.
A better model for Mr. Hague might be Henry Dunant. As the founder of the Red Cross, he persuaded the great powers to set up rules for conduct during war. On Thursday, Hague himself was able to persuade the Group of Eight, whose members are the most powerful nations in the world, that the time has come to set up methods to deter and investigate wartime sexual atrocities.
In the past few years, the United Nations Security Council and other world bodies have tried to tackle this abuse in conflict zones, such as in Congo, Colombia, and South Sudan. Little has been done to alter the behavior of rebels and troops who often rape women and children with impunity. Now the British foreign secretary has won over the United States, France, Canada, Japan, Germany, Russia, and Italy to take specific steps.
First, the G8 countries stated that such crimes are a “grave breach” of the Geneva Convention. This requires these countries to find and prosecute perpetrators.
Second, the G8 will improve training for military and police sent into conflicts, enabling the security forces to support survivors of rape and assist them in seeking justice by collecting evidence.
Third, the group said any future peace pacts should not include amnesty for combatants who commit sexual violence.
The amount of money that the G8 will spend on this project – $36 million – is only a start. Britain plans to rally for more funds when it takes over as president of the Security Council in June.
“Our goal must be a world in which it is inconceivable that thousands of women, children, and men can be raped in the course of a conflict, because an international framework of deterrence and accountability makes it impossible,” Hague told the G8 foreign ministers.
He’s been working for a year with Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood actress and a United Nations special envoy, to focus on this issue. Ms. Jolie recently produced a film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” about rape camps during the Bosnia conflict.
As exposure of these atrocities continues to increase, so will political momentum to end them. More groups are highlighting the problem. The charity Save the Children, for example, recently released a report showing that children under the age of 18 make up most of the rape victims in war zones or in countries still recovering from a conflict.
Aid groups are also developing new ways to prevent rape. A few African countries with recent wars have trained men who have overcome their history of violence against women to speak to other men. Uganda has an organized women’s peace campaign and spreads ideas on how to keep children safe from rapists.
Ending conflicts, of course, would be the best solution. Also needed are more women at the front line of delivering justice, such as having more women police, and providing counseling and legal aid to rape victims.
“Now that we have put war-zone rape on the international agenda, it must never slip off it again,” Hague said. Perhaps someday he might become a role model for another moral activist.