In War, Not All Violence is Equal

The use of military force may reduce killings, but not necessarily sexual violence.

On 19 June this year, the UN marked the very first International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Meanwhile, women and men continue to be subjected to sexual violence on a daily basis in several of the wars taking place today, for example in Syria and South Sudan.

A grieving family during the Bosnian War. PHOTO: Creative Commons

A symbolic day

The day is in many ways symbolic in relation to the use of sexual violence in war. Prior to the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, sexual violence was an often-overlooked aspect of war, and was frequently seen as unavoidable. More than 20 years later, the use of sexual violence in war is now recognized as an international security problem. Unfortunately, little has happened on the ground during the past 20 years. People who were victims of sexual violence during the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda continue to be stigmatized, and thousands of women and men are being subjected to sexual violence in wars being fought today.

The establishment of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict reflects this pattern. There is far more talk about conflict-related sexual violence than there are attempts actually to do anything about it.

Not only sexual violence, but also killings

Although we are a long way from eliminating the use of sexual violence in wars today, we have made far more progress in understanding how sexual violence is used in such situations. Recent research shows, among other things, that sexual violence is not necessarily used as a strategic weapon, even though mass rapes do take place, and that government forces are more frequent perpetrators of war-related sexual violence than rebel groups.

Research also shows significant variations in the use of sexual violence in different conflicts and by different parties. In some conflicts there is widespread use of sexual violence. In others there are widespread killings of civilians, but little sexual violence. In other conflicts, civilians are the victims of both killings and sexual violence.

We still know little about the similarities and differences between sexual violence and other types of war-related violence, such as, for example, killings. We cannot take it for granted, however, that war-related violence is simply violence, and that sexual violence and killings will follow the same pattern even when both types of violence occur within a single conflict.

Mass killings and mass rapes followed different patterns in the war in Bosnia

One of the wars that put conflict-related sexual violence onto the international agenda was the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995). The most recently available documentation suggests that at least 100,000 people died as a direct result of military action. It is estimated that at least 20,000 women were subjected to sexual violence.

The resources required to commit mass killings are quite different to those required for mass rape. Killing civilians requires weapons and ammunition. Raping civilians requires only soldiers. Violence is not simply violence in a war situation, and the war in Bosnia is a good example of this.

An interesting finding from my own master’s thesis on the war in Bosnia, which sheds light on the distinction between killing and sexual violence, is that lower levels of territorial control coincided with a significant fall in the incidence of mass killings. The numbers of people killed fell from several thousand within a single municipality to a couple of hundred or fewer in municipalities with a lower level of territorial control. In contrast, mass rapes were widespread in municipalities regardless of the level of territorial control.

Military force may reduce killings, but not necessarily sexual violence

In practice this may mean that if one succeeds by military means in reducing a party’s control over territory, this may potentially reduce the number of killings. The reason may be that military forces are forced to attack their opponents with weapons and ammunition, rather than using them to attack the civilian population.

In this case, the use of military power will not contribute to reducing the amount of sexual violence in the area. This may be because the use of sexual violence does not take place at the expense of equipment, such as ammunition and weapons, that is needed for fighting the adversary. If ammunition and weapons are used to kill the civilian population, there will be less equipment left to fight the adversary.

Victims of killing or rape: do we have to choose whom to protect?

Appeals to the international community to “do something” often come in the wake of reports about mass killings of civilians. International interventions are often justified with reference to a civilian population’s need for protection. In practice, the results mean that military interventions may limit mass killings of civilians, but are not significant for victims of sexual violence.

ISIL’s brutal and extensive use of sexual violence, including the use of sex slaves, triggered reactions from the international community and civil society, and reactivated the debate about the use of military force. The problem is that we do not know whether the use of military force will protect victims of sexual violence at all.

Negotiations about war and peace are mainly concerned with the laying down of arms. But when a large proportion of the violence in a conflict is not committed with weapons, as is the case with sexual violence, such negotiations, regardless of how successful they are, will likely have no significance for victims of sexual violence. Another interesting finding from recent research is that sexual violence often continues even after a ceasefire.

If we are to make a real attempt to fulfil the many promises made by the world community about protecting civilians in war situations, we must take take on board a more complete picture and a broader understanding of the different types of violence to which civilians are subjected. This is because civilians in war situations have a right to protection regardless of the type of violence to which they are being subjected.

In light of the adoption of an International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, it is also important to emphasize that it is not enough simply to document the fact that sexual violence takes place in war situations. In the case of the war in Bosnia, the use of mass rapes was already documented at the time the war broke out. In 1994, while the war was still continuing, the UN published a comprehensive report specifically about the use of sexual violence – which unfortunately was of no benefit to the thousands of women and men who for several years were held prisoner and subjected to sexual violence.

It is high time to integrate the issue of sexual violence into the whole peace process, including negotiations in respect of current conflicts.

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