The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Press Conference to Launch 2012 Human Security Report

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

10 October 2012

Recent data now contradicted several long-held beliefs about wartime sexual violence, including the assumption that rape was widely used as a strategic weapon of war, experts said today as they introduced the 2012 Human Security Report at a Headquarters press conference.

The report, this year focusing on “Sexual Violence, Education, and War: Beyond the Mainstream Narrative”, was produced by a research team at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. It critically appraised that “narrative” on wartime sexual violence, which assumed, among other things, that conflict-related sexual violence was on the rise.

That mainstream view also suggested that the experience of the small number of countries afflicted by extreme levels of sexual violence was the norm for all war-affected countries. However, the report challenged such assumptions, stressing that, in many cases, wartime sexual violence tended to be opportunistic and was not a strategic policy pursued by the top leaders of combatant groups.

Sebastian Merz, Associate Director of the Human Security Report Project, told correspondents that even as the issue of sexual violence in conflicts had increasingly drawn worldwide attention over the last two decades, data was still largely lacking and the crime continued to be vastly underreported. In that context, however, the report reviewed the best available evidence on the nature and extent of sexual violence in wartime, and presented several major challenges to the present narrative.

“Two things became very clear in our analysis,” said Mr. Merz, who was joined today by the Project’s director, Andrew Mack. First was that the international community must be more serious about collecting and using evidence on sexual violence in wartime, and second was that the current narrative on the subject could, in fact, be misleading to policymakers.

Among the challenges posed by the Report was the fact that there was a huge variation in sexual violence from country to country and from conflict to conflict and that the highest level of sexual violence — on which many common assumptions were based — occurred in only 9 per cent of the years in which countries experienced active conflict. Treating those cases as the norm had, inadvertently, created a one-sided narrative on wartime sexual violence.

Continuing, Mr. Merz said the Report found that there was no compelling evidence to show that wartime sexual violence was on the rise, as was often claimed. In fact, the Report revealed that the number of conflicts worldwide was dropping. There were major policy implications associated with that finding, he stressed. Indeed, ignoring low levels of sexual violence in some countries — and its decline in others — meant missing opportunities to understand the reason for those low numbers. Moreover, if sexual violence was, in fact, declining, then understanding why could help build better prevention policies.

There was also no evidence that the use of rape as a weapon of war was widespread or increasing, said Mr. Mack. While the political use of rape had certainly been seen in past conflicts — most notably, in Bosnia in the 1990s — “rape is rarely a top-down strategy.” Therefore, basing policies on threatening leaders with prosecution was unlikely to effectively reduce the levels of sexual violence in conflicts.

In addition, he said, the report found that domestic violence was, in fact, much more pervasive than violence conducted by combatants. By ignoring domestic violence in conflicts and post-conflict settings, the international community was also ignoring the largest number of victims. Further, while men made up the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence, and women the majority of victims, the present narrative also largely ignored the impact of wartime sexual violence against males. It also failed completely to acknowledge female perpetration of sexual violence.

Mr. Merz emphasized that the findings of the Report, while questioning common assumptions, did not call into question the salience of the issue or in any way advocate for reducing resources devoted to tackling it. Instead, it made clear that a better understanding was urgently needed.

The second part of the Report focused on education in conflict settings, he continued, and had found, counter-intuitively, that more often than not, educational outcomes improved over time despite fighting. Data from 25 countries surveyed in one study showed that education outcomes were almost four times more likely to improve in periods of conflict than to deteriorate. Education outcomes had increased in countries ranging from Senegal — which was experiencing a low-intensity conflict — to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which suffered from a high-intensity conflict, said Mr. Merz.

With regard to trends in organized violence, armed conflict and attacks on civilians, he said that new data confirmed previous assertions that wars had become less frequent and less deadly in recent decades. The average number of high-intensity conflicts per year — defined as conflicts that reached 1,000 or more battle deaths annually — had been halved since 1980, and 2009 had seen the lowest number of deadly campaigns against civilians since 1989.

In addition to those updates, the Report analysed the impact of foreign intervention in civil wars, and revealed that civil wars in which forces from outside countries were fighting in support of one of the warring parties were twice as deadly as other intra-State conflicts. Intervention on the side of one party or another should, therefore, “be viewed with caution”, warned Mr. Merz.

During a brief round of questions, one correspondent asked specifically if the Report had found that domestic sexual violence increased during times of war. Responding, Mr. Mack warned that available data was extremely “fragmentary”, and that “we have to be very, very careful when interpreting it.” There was, however, some evidence that levels of domestic sexual violence might well increase during conflicts and, in particular, in post-conflict settings.

Asked about the media’s role in the issue of wartime sexual violence, Mr. Mack cited the old newspaper adage that “if it bleeds, it leads”. Media tended to create an impression that the level of sexual violence in armed conflict was much greater than it was. In that vein, he said that journalist Nicholas Kirstof had famously claimed that, according to one study, 75 per cent of women in Liberia had been raped in their lifetime. In fact, he had misinterpreted the study, and the number was actually 18 per cent.

* *** *
For information media • not an official record

Join the mailing list