G8 on rape in DRC – what effect?

15 Apr

The G8 usually meets to discuss international politics and economics – or more precisely, how the most powerful nations can maintain a stranglehold on the world’s resources, international trade and dictate other relations among nations. Their meetings are all about power.

Rarely do we associate the G8 with concern for social issues, especially in the third world. Certainly not with sex crimes such as rape in conflict situations. Nothing could be further from power politics at the meetings.

But strange as it seems, rape was on the agenda at the G8 foreign ministers meeting in London last week. They even agreed to put up US$350 million to help fight the vice.

And the champion of international action against war zone sex crimes is Mr William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary.

Now, it is very difficult to think of a more unlikely defender of the cause than William Hague. He comes across as a cold, uncaring figure both in appearance and speech. You cannot, with all the generosity in the world, associate him with compassion. Hague is cut in the same mould as the late Margaret Thatcher (bless her soul. No? Some would beg to differ insisting she had none). Still, being African, we must be respectful to the dead. They have a knack for visiting misfortune on the living, and if what she did in life is any indication, what she could do from the afterlife is terrifying.

Anyhow, Hague wants to reinvent himself as a compassionate man. No one seems to have told him that part of that might include smoothing the hard edges on his face, softening his speech and occasionally allowing a smile on his lips.

He is trying nonetheless. And as part of reconstructing his image, he recently came visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the American actress Angelina Jolie in tow. He even made a brief stopover in Rwanda.  Her superstar status would presumably soften his uncaring reputation and advance his cause.

DRC is a good choice for Hague’s reincarnation. Everything that takes place in that much abused country happens in excess – including sex crimes.

Rape of even one individual is, of course, a most reprehensible crime. It is infinitely worse when done indiscriminately on a mass scale as regularly happens in DRC and other conflict areas.

Sexual violence must therefore be condemned in all its forms, wherever it occurs and for whatever reason. That is why the initiative of William Hague and the G8 is a good thing and deserves the support of all people of goodwill.

However, I am sceptical about whether the approach they have adopted will end sexual violence.

First of all, they are treating sex violence in conflict situations in purely legalistic terms – of trial and punishment. It is more than that.

Why would ordinarily decent people commit mass rape? It is not because of the absence of sanctions against the crime or because the perpetrators do not know it is wrong and that their actions have consequences. They know all that and yet go ahead and do the most horrible things.

The cause lies in the nature of conflict. People live under the illusion that the anonymity of belonging to a large group – army or militia – removes individual responsibility from them. And the power that bearing arms gives them adds another dimension to the illusion – no accountability.

This is what happens when ordinary social and moral restraints no longer apply as in most conflict situations.

And so Congolese soldiers will rape hundreds of women and feel no remorse. American and British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan will urinate on dead bodies of enemy soldiers or even civilians, force prisoners to perform unnatural sex acts and commit other acts that humiliate and debase fellow human beings and laugh about it.

If Hague and the G8 want to end sexual violence in war zones, they should address the root cause of the conflict and not simply its symptoms or consequences.

In the DRC as we have argued in this column many times before, the problem is the absence of the state in large parts of the country. Ending conflict and crimes that arise from it requires extending governance to the entire territory. It is that simple. Hague and co. should spend their time, energy and money in more useful ways by helping the Congolese and other conflict-prone areas exercise more effective control over their countries. The rest will fall in place

The G8 has allocated 435 million to fight sexual violence in war zones. Again I am not sure that money will be effective – not because it is little but the way it will be used. Most likely it will be channelled through western NGOs, who will spend most of it on administration, luxury cars and on other indulgences of lavish living. Little will go to hunting the perpetrators of the crimes or their victims. They will probably introduce alien and strange sexual behaviour that will compound the existing problem.

The G8 needs to get to the roots of conflict, otherwise their current initiative, though perhaps well-intentioned, will be viewed as mere moral posturing.


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