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William Hague: It is time to tackle this intolerable injustice

14 July 2017

The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war should be treated as an issue of global peace and security, says William Hague

THE pursuit of policies that bring stability in the world and the moral authority for them are inseparable. Any idea that we should retrench, withdraw, or turn away from these issues is misguided and wrong for two reasons.

First, the world is becoming sys­temically less stable. This is due to many different factors: the dispersal of power amongst a wider group of nations, many of whom do not fully share our values and our objectives in foreign policy; the diffusion of power away from governments, ac­­celerated by technology; the glo­balisation of ideas and ability of people to organise themselves into leaderless movements and spread ideas around the world within min­utes; our interconnectedness, a boon for development but also a major vulnerability to threats, from terror­ism and cyber crime to the spread of diseases like the Ebola virus; the grow­ing global middle class, which is driving demand for greater ac­­countability and more freedom within states designed to suppress such instincts; and the rise of reli­gious intolerance in the Middle East.

Second, the pursuit of sound development, inclusive politics, and the rule of law is essential to our moral standing in the world, which is in turn an important factor in our international influence. We are strongest when we act with moral authority, and that means being the strongest champions of our values.

Thus, neither as a matter of wise policy nor as a matter of conscience can Britain ever afford to turn aside from a global role. We have to con­tinue to be restless advocates for improving the condition of human­ity. This means continuing to forge new alliances, reforming the UN and other global insti­tutions, and enforcing the rules that govern international rela­tions. But that will never be enough by itself; so we also have to retain the ambi­tion to influ­ence not just the resolutions that are passed and the treaties that are signed up to, but also the beliefs in the world about what is acceptable and what is not.


A POWERFUL example of an issue on which we need to apply such leadership is the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. I have been surprised by how deeply ingrained and passive attitudes to this subject often are. Because history is full of accounts of the mass abuse of women and cap­tives, and because there is so much do­mestic violence in all societies, it is a widely held view that violence against women and girls is inevit­able in peacetime and in conflict.

But when we see IS foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria selling women as slaves, and glorifying rape and sexual slavery; when we hear of refugees, who have already lost everything, being raped in camps for want of basic protection; when we see leaders exhorting their fighters to go out and rape their opponents, specifically to inflict terror, to make women pregnant, to force people to flee their homes, and to destroy their families and com­munities, then we are clearly dealing with injustice on a scale that is simply intolerable, as well as dam­aging to the stability of those countries and the peace of the wider world.

It is often said to me that without war there would be no war-zone rape, as if that were the only way to address the problem. While, of course, our goal is always to prevent conflict, we cannot simply consign millions of women, men, girls, and boys to the suffering of rape while we seek a way to put an end to all conflict, since this goal is one we should always strive for but may often not attain.

We have shown that we can put restraints on the way war is con­ducted. We have put beyond the pale the use of poison gas or torture, and devised the Arms Trade Treaty for the trade in illegal weapons. It is time to address this aspect of con­flict and to treat sexual violence as an issue of global peace and security.


THE biggest obstacle we face in this campaign is the idea that you can­not do anything about it — that you cannot humanise hell, that there is nothing we can do to end war-zone rape. But there is hope, and we must dispel this pessimism. Over the past two years, working with NGOs, the UN, and faith groups, we have brought the weight and influence of Britain to bear globally as no coun­try ever has done before on this subject.

More than 150 countries have joined our campaign and endorsed a global declaration of commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict. We brought together more than 120 governments and thousands of people at a Global Summit in London, the first of its kind, in June 2014 (News, 13 June 2014). And in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Colombia, we are seeing signs of governments’ being prepared to ad­­dress this issue by passing laws and reforming their militaries.

Sexual violence is often designed to make peace impossible to achieve and create the bitterness and incent­ive for future conflict. Dealing with it is not a luxury to be added on: it is an integral part of conflict preven­tion, a crucial part of breaking a cycle of war. And it has to go hand in hand with seeking the full politi­cal, social, and economic em­­­­power­ment of women every­where, the greatest strategic prize of all for our century.


Lord Hague of Richmond is a former Foreign Secretary.

This is an edited extract from a chap­ter in The Moral Heart of Public Service, edited by Claire Foster-Gilbert, published by Jessica Kingsley at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.09).

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