It was probably the high point of the year on Tuesday for Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague when he greeted Angelina Jolie at the beginning of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict being chaired by the Hollywood star and the Foreign Secretary in London. The Secretary looked distinctly pleased and said it was Jolie’s 2011 film In the Land of Blood and Honey, about a rape victim from Bosnia, which alerted him to the importance and desperate need for a global forum and protocol on ending the use of rape as a weapon of war. Ms Jolie has been an advocate of human rights for many years and was made a Goodwill Ambassador in 2001 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. An unusual celebrity, she has since travelled to different conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bosnia where rape was used as a weapon of war against embattled communities and as a tactic of terror. She explained that she she wrote and directed her film to rekindle attention towards the survivors of a war that took place in recent history. Rape was widely used to terrorise communities during the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Serb nationalists in the war that lasted between 1991 and 1995, but thousands of cases remain unsolved, with the perpetrators walking free and the victims living in fear and shame. Ms Jolie mentioned specifically the case of a woman from Bosnia who was too ashamed to let her adult children know she had been raped. Her statement, “It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict” will strike many people as idealistic, but given that humanity has progressed to a degree in codifying acceptable behaviour in war, it is possible that this initiative may have long-lasting repercussions.
The purpose of the summit is to garner international support and funding for a documentation and rehabilitation process, so that survivors can tell their stories and pinpoint the perpetrators of weaponised rape. The incidence of this practice is nauseating in its scale. In west and central Africa in particular, the brutality of rape as a wartime weapon is known mostly through the traumatic stories of survivors and the documentation of observers after the fact. The summit then is about creating institutional and immediate support for war-rape victims and prioritising the capture and prosecution of perpetrators, particularly the leaders responsible for ordering it. Men like former Liberian president Charles Taylor, whose brutal regime institutionalised rape by military forces, or Sierra Leone’s rebel leader Issa Sesay, have been prosecuted for war crimes, but rarely is the use of war-rape an indictment against them. The summit’s aim is making the use of rape in conflict punishable at the same level as other war crimes. This is an important initiative and one the global community should fully support. *