Last week, John Kerry and William Hague, the foreign ministers of the US and the UK, met to discuss the scourge of sexual violence. Their discussion led to the publication of an article for the Huffington Post titled ‘Preventing Sexual Violence is a National Security Imperative’. In parallel, the United States announced a measure to prevent anyone who has ‘presided over or engaged in or knew of or conducted these kinds of attacks’ from receiving an entry visa to the USA. This June, London will host a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, where the world will seek to ‘shatter the culture of impunity for these crimes’. In theory, most countries are already on board, with 140 of them having signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, put forward last September at the General Assembly.
Sexual violence is a scourge – something that humanity should not allow – yet it is ongoing and shockingly prevalent. Messrs Hague and Kerry should be commended for shining a bright light on the issue and the June conference in London will ideally be but a first step in changing norms, legislation, and practice.
But why did Hague and Kerry feel the need to use the rhetoric of ‘national security’ to galvanise action? Do we live in a world today where only ‘national security imperatives’ are worthy of consideration? Tangentially, the Federal Bureau of Investigations recently changed its ‘primary mission’ from ‘law-enforcement’ to ‘national security’ – perhaps because it, too, felt that national security is where it’s at. This obsession with national security risks not only blurring lines but banalising a term with great utility and whose use demands extreme clarity and care.
Ultimately, claims about ‘national security imperatives’ risk disappointment and distraction from a fundamentally important endeavour. The overview of current practice, bleak as it is, makes it quite clear that preventing sexual violence does not feature very high among states’ typical national security concerns. What tends to receive priority are those threats and dangers that affect negatively the wellbeing of a nation-state or its citizens. To frame sexual violence in such terms, it would be necessary to demonstrate how it, in a general sense and internationally, affects the security of all those states expected to act. On this front, though mass violence, whether sexual or otherwise, certainly has ripple effects regionally, or in the immediate neighbourhood, their implications for national security greatly diminishes for countries further afield. This is, after all, why the scourge of sexual violence has been allowed to persist: isolation, indifference, inactivity.
Given the nature and scale of the problem, it would be far wiser and more accurate to frame the prevention of sexual violence in moral terms: such violence is a crime against the values espoused by the international community, it is ethically and legally spurned and condemned through instruments of law, and structures are set up – or should be created – to prosecute this crime in particular so as to emphasise its seriousness and intolerability across the globe. The moral force of the argument should, on its own merits, be sufficient to advocate, convince, and generate change. A ‘name-and-shame’ mechanism could even be constructed to highlight the worst transgressors – those states (and non-state actors) whose security forces are the worst culprits. All of this and more could posit sexual violence within the realm of jus cogens, where it rightly belongs.
Most fundamentally, the moral argument is superior because states should respond to sexual violence not because it challenges their ‘interests’ but because it is anathema and cannot be tolerated. That in itself is, or should be, the most realistic foundation for action and if we fail on this count, appeals to national interest will likely fail too.
A final point is worth making. Hague and Kerry do not really talk about sexual violence ‘at home’: both frame the issue as something that occurs in other peoples’ countries, particularly in the Third World. The article cites the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and their prepared comments those of Sudan and Bosnia, Colombia, Guatemala, and Liberia. Their point is well taken – war and instability usually provide the setting for the most grievous episodes of sexual violence. But while the US, the UK and other likeminded nations look overseas for change, might it not be worth noting also the very real problems with rape and and sexual violence that these very same countries face at home?
Two years ago, in 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that there may have been as many as 19,000 rapes in the US military over the course of the previous year. Even if this number is off by some margin, the overall picture is still entirely unacceptable. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2012 that ‘nearly 1 in 5’ women in the US reported having experienced rape at some point in their life. As concerns Hague and Kerry’s efforts abroad, there is in other words a risk, particularly given the sensitivity about sovereignty, neo-colonialism and meddling in much of the developing world, that their drive to prevent sexual violence comes to be seen, much like human rights, as an instrument of Western interference. Perhaps a more inclusive, de-securitized approach is needed, one that looks inwards as well as abroad, and is fuelled by moral outrage rather than purported security concerns.