Kicking off what is guaranteed to be a watershed year for British foreign policy, an event held in the British Parliament on Wednesday revealed a glimmer of hope that amidst Brexit chaos, the government may still move forward on tackling other serious issues, including the use of sexual violence in conflict.
Led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, activist organisation Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH) and former British foreign secretaries Jack Straw and Lord William Hague, the evening brought campaigners for the eradication of wartime sexual violence alongside key parliamentarians, and featured the voices of victims from all over the world— including Murad and Vietnamese women assaulted during the Vietnam War.
Growing spotlight on the scourge of wartime sexual violence
The trauma endured by these women is as varied as it is horrifying, but their experiences are bound by one common thread: the violence of war always spills far beyond the frontlines, with armed forces inflicting conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) on women, children and men with grim predictability. Worse still, the prevalence of CRSV means that the psychological and societal damage done to communities remains long after peace agreements have been signed, leaving scars across generations.
Long brushed under the carpet in the name of diplomatic peace, the scourge of sexual violence during conflict is finally forcing its way into international discourse thanks to the tireless efforts of activists like Murad. “My story, told honestly and matter-of-factly, is the best weapon I have against terrorism,” declared Murad, one of about 7,000 Yazidi survivors of CRSV at the hands of Islamic State combatants.
Murad’s message is being taken up by a number of well-known policymakers and activists. American actress Angelina Jolie, a long-time advocate against sexual violence, partnered with the British government to broadcast survivors’ stories at the British Film Institute in November last year. Meanwhile, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, has pledged to support victims to the tune of £500,000 in additional aid, and a non-partisan campaign to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI) will meet for an international conference in Sussex this November.
A chance for Britain to shine in the foreign policy sphere
At a time when the Brexit stalemate is throwing Britain’s once-dominant place in the world into doubt, cross-party action on CRSV is an encouraging sign that Parliament still has its eye on broader global issues. Still, while the aforementioned steps are carving an important path toward global stewardship, Britain can—and should—do more.
For one thing, the international community must take a more holistic view of CRSV and all its victims. To date, certain conflicts have enjoyed a far brighter global spotlight than others, with many victims bearing the weight of their stories with next to no international recognition.
Absent from Vietnam War narratives
The Lai Dai Han featured at Wednesday’s event, for example, are all but forgotten in narratives of the Vietnam War. The children of Vietnamese women raped by Korean soldiers during the war, the Lai Dai Han—who may number as many as 30,000— have been shamed by both the South Koreans and the Vietnamese for their mothers’ ordeals and for their mixed ancestry.
“Your father was a dog, boy,” a Vietnamese soldier once taunted Tran Dai Nhat, then five years old, “Now run!” The incident was hardly an isolated one; Nhat was bullied repeatedly after the war. “I knew I was dangerously different,” he recalls, “I was 18 when my mother finally sat me down and told me she had been raped by Korean soldiers – not once but three times.” The South Korean government has never acknowledged the ageing survivors’ claims, leaving the burden of the fight for justice on the Lai Dai Han as they reach adulthood.
The silencing of male survivors
The Lai Dai Han and their mothers have been sidelined, but so have many other groups of CRSV survivors: in particular, men and boys subjected to sexual violence are often ignored, or have their testimony written off. In many cases, the language of policy responses is woefully inadequate to handle this specific branch of CRSV, despite the fact that wartime sexual violence against males is rampant. Indeed, 54% of victims of sexual violence in the U.S. military are men, while in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as many as a quarter of men and boys have experienced CRSV.
Male survivors of CRSV face particular challenges, as well as especially potent stigma. Partly due to the fact that attacks against men often occur under different circumstances—in detention facilities, for example, rather than during raids on villages—institutions such as the International Criminal Court euphemistically refer to CRSV against males as “torture” or “inhumane acts”. In countries like Uganda, male survivors of wartime rape are afraid that they will put themselves in legal jeopardy by coming forward, as authorities may prosecute them under draconian anti-homosexuality laws. Tackling this taboo, as well as these legal and cultural barriers, will be an essential part of ensuring that all CRSV survivors receive adequate assistance.
To take leadership on the issue of CRSV, the British government should also throw its full backing behind the international institutions that provide accountability where national authorities often cannot. Bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ), while far from perfect, are tribunals of last resort for victims seeking accountability. Better yet, such courts symbolize accountability without regard to borders—or to intimidation by powerful governments—making them a vital tool in curbing CRSV.
Parliament’s ability to keep this type of issue on the docket even as Brexit dominates MPs’ attention is important in and of itself, since individual events like Wednesday night’s conference help generate momentum for broader action. Most importantly, they make sure victims’ voices are heard loud and clear—particularly those who have been heretofore sidelined.