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International law can be deployed to tackle rape in war


Rape – it is all too easy to say – goes hand in hand with war. Conventional wisdom notes that, for as long as wars have been fought, sexual violence has featured in them. Men with guns are hard to control. That the level of rape in conflict zones does not appear to have fallen since 1945, when the Nuremberg trials labelled it a crime against humanity, points to the stubborn depravity of man, and the difficulty of bringing perpetrators to justice.

Yesterday a global summit began in London with the aim of changing that narrative. The task is unquestionably a steep one. Within the last two decades alone hundreds of thousands of women have been victims of sexual violence. Foreign Secretary William Hague, a leading figure at the summit, acknowledges it is an uphill struggle: “If anything, this is getting worse.”

Yet in the belief that measures can be taken to limit the scourge of sexual violence, Mr Hague is not mistaken. It will, of course, never be eradicated. But recent studies paint a more nuanced picture of rape’s prevalence in times of war. Not all military forces commit such crimes. Though levels of rape are staggeringly high in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, a survey of all African conflicts between 1989 and 2009 concluded that only 26 per cent of armed groups were reported to have engaged in sexual violence. So what can be done to make soldiers on the front lines think twice?

An International Protocol is to be launched to standardise the kind of evidence needed for a case to be brought to court. This will lead to more convictions. So too would a proposal to hold commanders legally responsible for the behaviour of their troops. The law can – and must – make it harder to get away with rape.