Rape in wartime: A plan to end it

Angelina Jolie and Britain's top diplomat, William Hague, are dashing myths about the use of rape as a war tool. The world can work to end this crime, as seen in a summit in London this week.

AP Photo
Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress Angelina Jolie arrive at the 'End Sexual Violence in Conflict' summit in London June 10. They are hosting a four-day summit on sexual violence in war zones, attended by officials from over 100 countries.

Angelina Jolie and William Hague are an unlikely team. Yet for two years the Hollywood star and the British foreign secretary have worked together to create a radical shift in worldwide thinking. They want an end to the common assumption that mass rape will take place in any war.

On Tuesday, they opened the first global summit on the issue with representatives from more than 100 countries in attendance at a London venue. Like any reformer who takes on a seemingly impossible goal, their first task has been to challenge an unexamined assumption about sexual violence during wartime.  

“It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict,” Ms. Jolie stated at the London conference. “There’s nothing inevitable about it."

Her assertion is not mere words. For two decades, ever since an estimated 50,000 women were raped during the war in Bosnia, many global institutions have begun to condemn wartime rape and seek ways to prevent it. The United Nations Security Council put a spotlight on the issue in 2000 and then later acknowledged that rape had become a tool of warfare. That helped the International Criminal Court to prosecute such crimes.

But it is Jolie and Mr. Hague who have provided the tightest and most consistent focus by working toward a global shift in attitudes that will “consign this vile abuse to history,” as Hague says, in much the same way that the transatlantic slave trade was ended during the 19th century. They hope to keep a harsh spotlight on the use of rape in conflicts from Congo to Syria to Colombia.

The London summit has practical aims, such as devising a common method for investigating and documenting cases of sexual violence in a conflict. Organizers also hope to push countries to train soldiers and peacekeepers to prevent sexual violence. Britain already has a unique team of more than 70 experts who can be quickly deployed to trouble spots to deal with mass rape.

“We need to shatter the culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes,” says Jolie, who took up this cause after producing a film, “The Land of Blood and Honey,” about sexual violence during the Bosnian conflict. She also serves as a special envoy for the UN commissioner for refugees.

Her second most important message during the summit was aimed at women who have been raped during war. She wants them to help end the culture of shame that surrounds such an act. “We must send a message around the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence – that the shame is on the aggressor,” she said.

Taking an absolutist stance against rape is an important way to help abolish it. In India on Monday, the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised “zero tolerance” toward violence against women, a policy prompted by several recent rape-murders. Earlier this year, top generals in the American military announced a similar policy after fresh scrutiny of sexual assaults in the armed forces.

Over the past century, more nations have adopted policies to avoid the abuse of civilians during conflicts. Now may be an ideal time to make one of the worst abuses, rape, a relic of humanity’s barbarous past.

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