In this week’s Sunday Times, Adam Boulton described the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which was co-chaired by William Hague and Angelina Jolie last week, as ‘a little bit trivial’ in comparison to the most recent crisis in Iraq. He argued that the Foreign Secretary had been wrong to allow himself to be distracted by Angelina Jolie (and it was specifically her, it seems, that caused him to take his eye of the ball – not the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, which was the actual subject of the conference) in the same week as northern Iraq was being commandeered by Islamist militants.
Boulton’s argument was so fundamentally flawed – in so many ways – that it seems almost impossible to know where to begin with a reaction but let’s start with his fixation on Angelina Jolie, whom he describes as ‘soft power incarnate’. In doing so, not only does he ignore the actress’s role as Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but he also fails to acknowledge the many hundreds of expert delegates in attendance from all over the world, who really do have the power to make a difference. In arguing that the summit was all about Jolie (the headline instructs William Hague to ‘look away from Angelina’), Boulton denies its huge historic significance, as well as the serious nature of the matter at hand. That’s a lot of birds with one stone.
Beyond this, of course, Boulton’s article shows the utmost scorn for the experience of rape victims. The figures provided by the UN regarding the number of women raped in conflict are devastating: 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995; at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998; between 100,000 and 250,000 in Rwanda in just three months in 1994. (And that's just the women – this is an issue with thousands of male victims, as well.) These are not ‘trivial’ statistics: they are hugely significant and deserve not only our attention but our anger, too.
In his article, Boulton seems to have fallen into the all-to-common trap of underestimating rape, purely because it is notoriously difficult (although by no means impossible) to prove and goes largely unreported. If the figures above were referring to murders, I imagine his feelings might be slightly different. After all, genocide leaves bodies: physical manifestations of the crime, which cannot be ignored or disparaged. But what does a rape victim look like? The problem for people like Boulton is that, unlike murder victims, there is no way of telling a rape victim just by looking at them so the issue seems to assume a certain degree of invisibility.
The problem for everyone else, however, is that this simply isn't good enough. The consequences of rape go far beyond physical injuries, as awful as they often are: victims risk stigmatisation for something out of their control; they feel humiliation and shame, even though they have done nothing wrong; they may contract a number of different sexually transmitted infections, which may put an end to life as they know it; and women may fall pregnant with a child which, despite its innocence, will serve as a constant and painful reminder of its mother’s attack. There is no one-size-fits-all identikit for someone like this but that doesn't make the crime any less horrific, it shouldn't make its victims invisible and it certainly shouldn't make any attempts to eradicate it ‘trivial’.
If all this is a bit too human for Boulton, let me turn to the pragmatics of the situation. Sexual violence is like an open wound in the side of a war-torn country, even once conflict has ended: the costs of medical care, psychological support and legal redress as a consequence of rape put enormous pressure on countries which must as-good-as start again, politically, economically and structurally.
What I find most odd about Boulton’s point of view, however, is his suggestion that the threat of war should make discussing sexual violence in conflict less important. As far as I can see, these concepts are two sides of the same coin. In fact, far from making it less relevant, the former should, surely, make the latter more so, especially since there have been many reports of rape being used as a means of torture in Iraqi prisons since the western invasion.
With conflict stirring in Iraq once again – and already raging in many other countries – this seems to me to be the ideal time to finally set out measures to eradicate sexual violence in war. Besides, Boulton, rather worryingly, seems to be implying that William Hague should only pay attention to one issue at a time. Given the fact that the world, by its very nature, tends to have quite a lot going on in it, the idea that a foreign secretary should concentrate on only one matter at a time seems rather troubling.
Finally, just in case the reader was under any kind of illusion that he had some tact, Boulton concluded his Sunday Times article with the dangerous suggestion that, as nobody actually advocates rape, we’re better off focusing our efforts elsewhere. I feel like the idiocy of this idea is obvious but I'll spell it out anyway: if we take this attitude, we allow all sorts of evil to take root in this world. Because who advocates paedophilia or human trafficking but the perpetrators themselves? No-one. And that is precisely why we do everything in our power to eradicate these crimes: because they keep on happening, even though most of us know that they're wrong.
By calling the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict ‘trivial’, Adam Boulton trivialised the entire concept of systematic rape in war – an issue which affects men, women and children all over the world – and, in turn, the experience of every individual rape victim. If that's not rape culture, I don't know what is.
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