Politics & Law

An Open Letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie

Kim Thuy Seelinger

Dear Foreign Secretary Hague and Special Envoy Jolie:

We congratulate the UK Government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative for convening the historic Global Summit in London.

We are members of the Missing Peace Young Scholars Network: early-career researchers from a wide range of academic backgrounds, committed to understanding and ending sexual violence in war. The Network was created in 2013 by The United States Institute of Peace (USIP); The Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO); and Women In International Security (WIIS).

We were first convened in Washington, D.C., at the Missing Peace Symposium in February 2013, then again in May 2014.

Many of us were fortunate enough to attend the summit, as well.

Heartened to see the energetic dialogue and political participation you have facilitated, we offer some thoughts about the state of our knowledge regarding the patterns, causes and consequences of sexual violence in war. We do so to highlight the need for evidence-based policy and programming on such a complex issue as conflict-related sexual violence.

Myths about sexual violence in conflict are prevalent in policy discourse. Three stand out:

Myth 1: Sexual violence in conflict is ubiquitous and inevitable.
Research shows that sexual violence is neither ubiquitous nor inevitable. Over 40 percent of conflicts during 1989-2010 had no reports of sexual violence by any group. Several armed groups, including the Salvadoran rebels and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, have avoided sexual violence almost completely. In addition, we recognize that sexual violence involves more than rape. We see variation including sexual torture, sexual humiliation and harassment, and forced marriage.

Myth 2: Sexual violence is a weapon of war.
Our research shows that sexual violence in conflict has many causes, from individual opportunism to malignant socialization practices to military strategy. We strongly urge policy-makers not to assume that wartime sexual violence is always a “weapon of war” that can be solved with increased prosecutions and harsher punishments. We understand the importance of accountability and consequences. However, policies that seek to prevent such behavior must look beyond punishing sexual violence; we must address the root causes of such violence. In truth, much sexual violence is a symptom of larger structural issues in society such as gender inequality.

This variation of form and motive may be due to the fact that there is no single profile of perpetrators, or of victims. Women and men of all backgrounds perpetrate, and suffer, sexual violence. Both rebel groups and government militaries are guilty. Notably, even in wartime, intimate partners—not fighters—are the most common perpetrators of sexual violence.

Myth 3: Sexual violence is a product of war and will end when peace arrives.
Research has shown that sexual violence has deep roots in the pre-conflict phase that are intensified during conflict and perpetuated in the post-conflict phase. Similarly, research has indicated a strong correlation between domestic violence and violence within societies.

We have also identified a number of gaps and challenges in our research:

Challenge 1: Underreporting
All gender-based violence, including sexual violence in conflict, is vastly underreported. Across several surveys, at least a fifth of women in conflict-affected populations reported having suffered sexual violence—and an unknown, but potentially large, proportion of victims chose not to report their experiences due to significant barriers to disclosure. Official sources are even less complete: across both conflict and non-conflict settings, only 7 percent of women who reported experiencing sexual violence on a survey said that they had also told an official source (police/legal, medical, or social services) about it.

Challenge 2: Causes and patterns
There are notable differences in patterns of sexual violence across conflict settings, suggesting that the motivations and disincentives for this abuse vary significantly throughout the world. We study how the motivations of state and non-state armed groups vary across contexts because we need to understand the motivations for violence before we can prevent it.

Further, sexual abuse of men and boys often occurs in the context of armed groups as well as in detention, prisons, and many other conflict and civilian settings. While awareness of these nuances has increased, existing data are woefully inadequate.

Challenge 3: Services for survivors
Health services are essential for the well-being of sexual assault survivors. Health services are also key entry points for other essential services, including psychosocial services and legal aid. Unfortunately, in most conflict-affected settings, even minimal health services for sexual violence survivors are absent. Research can illuminate how to maximize provision of care by identifying barriers to access; it can also illuminate which services are the most urgent, where.

Finally, we have identified three key research priorities moving forward:

Priority 1: Data
Without reliable, accurate data on patterns of sexual violence, we cannot determine when policies for prevention and treatment are effective. Improvements in baseline data can be partly achieved by using clear, shared definitions, implementing confidential screening processes to identify and refer survivors of violence to essential treatment and counseling where services exist, and increasing deployment of population-based survey methods.

Priority 2: Evaluations
We need rigorous evaluations of existing and new programs to establish what works in prevention and response, properly allocate resources, and to avoid unintended harms. To this end, shared definitions are crucial in reporting the incidence of sexual violence and in evaluating programs’ effectiveness. The UK Department for International Development’s current commitment to supporting research in this area is encouraging, but more can be done.

Priority 3: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325
Mainstreaming the principles of UN Security Council 1325 is one key pathway to help end sexual violence. For example, our research has shown that peace operations are a key venue for prevention efforts. Indeed, peacekeepers from troop contributor countries that have endorsed UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and its follow-on resolutions are less likely to engage in sexual exploitation and abuse than peacekeepers from countries who have not.

Research has also shown that the greater the number of female peacekeepers, the greater the number of people willing to report sexual abuse. In this regard, adequate training for all security forces, the presence of women in leadership roles, and increased contact between women in security forces and local communities can improve services and prevention efforts.

We sincerely applaud the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative for tackling these difficult issues, and we look forward to working with policy-makers to support efforts that will go beyond punishment and retribution to effectively treat, prevent, and ultimately end sexual violence in conflict. We only hope that this critical action is evidence-based.

Respectfully,

Members of the Missing Peace Young Scholars Network
• Renata Avelar Giannini
Research Associate, Igarapé Institute, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
• Amelia Hoover Green
Assistant Professor, Drexel University, Pennsylvania, USA
• Sabrina Karim
Ph.D. Candidate, Emory University, Georgia, USA
• Paul Kirby
Lecturer, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
• Jocelyn Kelly
Ph.D. Candidate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, USA
• Michele Leiby
Assistant Professor, College of Wooster, Ohio, USA
• Tia Palermo
Assistant Professor, Stony Brook University, New York, USA
• Chen Reis
Clinical Associate Professor, University of Denver, Colorado, USA
• Alexander Vu
Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, USA
Members of the Missing Peace Initiative Steering Committee
• Kathleen Kuehnast
Director, Center for Gender and Peacebuilding, USIP
• Chantal de Jonge Oudraat
President, Women in International Security (WIIS)
• Kim Thuy Slinger
Director, Sexual Violence Program, Human Rights Center University of California, Berkeley
• Inger Skjelsbæk
Deputy Director, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

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Comments to "An Open Letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie":
    • Anthony St. John '63

      Berkeley Law is to be congratulated for informing and motivating us to meet two of the greatest challenges that face our civilization today, as documented in the Berkeley Blog by Director Kim Seelinger on Violence and Professor Dan Farber on Global Warming.

      If we are going to overcome these most important challenges, we must first overcome our greatest biological challenge as documented in California Magazine’s September October 2006 feature story “Can We Adapt in Time?”

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      Director Seelinger, I have commented many times on the Berkeley and CALIFORNIA alumni magazine blogs over the last few year trying to learn about solutions that will produce and perpetuate an acceptable long-term quality of life for the human race, especially for our newest generations.

      My continual question is do you know of any academic group united in an effort that is implementing a successful plan of action to produce and perpetuate long-term quality of life for the human race? Now that I have read your most profound post, I believe that you and your colleagues are that group.

      [Report abuse]

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