The 2012 Human Security Report made some provocative claims that will be used (and taken as fact) by experts, students, policymakers, and other interested individuals. My aim is to address the flaws in the argument in a way that all interested parties can understand the issues and implications of these conclusions.

I. Key Area of Agreement

Despite the flaws it is useful to address the key area where in fact there is widespread expert agreement about the assertions in the report: the fact that there is not enough information on and attention to men as victims of sexual violence. For all of the criticism the report has received (and deserved) this central claim may be its redeeming factor. The Report notes that a small number of population surveys addressing sexual violence ask about male victims. It also acknowledges that men may be even more hesitant to discuss this topic than women. The Report could have taken this debate further and examined the complexities of sexual violence against men specifically by discussing in detail the many reasons men feel they cannot report the abuse. Even if every population survey asked about sexual violence perpetrated against men, it is crucial to consider the cultural reasons most men still might not answer honestly.

The stigma related to reporting sexual violence is an enormous problem, yet it takes different forms for women and men. Men feel shame about being victims of sexual violence because they might see it as a challenge to their masculinity and sexuality. If men do feel comfortable speaking about being a victim of sexual violence there is a dilemma in finding the correct language to explain what happened to them, as there are not terms in the English language that accurately describe this crime.[i]

Sexual violence may have been one of many abuses a man in conflict may have suffered so they may classify it as part of the other forms of violence or torture they experienced.[ii] Sexual violence for men and women may be linked with other crimes, but often for men it has been seen as primarily a tactic that is used as part of other violent acts, like torture. Torture, sexual violence, and physical abuse are different tactics chosen for different reasons and it is important to understand the way these crimes interact, but also acknowledge that they are different tactics used for different reasons. Sexual abuse, whether in a torture environment or on its own, is about an assertion of power and often is used to invoke humiliation or feelings of powerlessness. Physical abuse and torture are often viewed as having a more direct connection to the objectives of the perpetrator’s group than sexual violence. Sexual violence against women has typically been seen as a “by-product” of war historically, but only recently as a tactic, like physical abuse and torture, to accomplish objectives in war. As already discussed sexual abuse has an added stigma and is seen as something private and well, sexualized, but like physical abuse and torture, it is not about sex. Sexual violence is used specifically to invoke shame so by linking it with other “less shameful” tactics it creates further stigma and inhibits us from understanding why it was used in specific context.

Many researchers on sexual violence would like to include data on men, but face tremendous challenges in finding the appropriate way to get this information. It would have been valuable if the Human Security Report drew attention to these complexities and suggested ways to remedy certain obstacles. For those researchers who did not see the importance of addressing sexual violence against men, the report could have highlighted, as argued by Sandesh Sivakumaran, the fact that sexual violence against males is inextricably linked to sexual violence against females.[iii] Sivakumaran explains for both forms of sexual violence, “the dynamics are similar, the constructions of masculinity and femininity and the stereotypes involved are similar.”[iv] Often times, sexual violence against both women and men are used to challenge masculinity, so it is important to understand both the dynamics of femininity and masculinity. This is all part of a gender analysis of this crime that is crucial to understanding its complexities. Instead of dividing these issues in an either or framework of focusing on sexual violence against women vs. sexual violence against men, we need to recognize that research on sexual violence against men can improve our understanding and legal response to sexual violence in general.

II. Is Wartime Sexual Violence Decreasing?

The key area of disagreement and debate has been related to the central claim of the report, which argues that the “mainstream narrative” on sexual violence exaggerates the “prevalence and intensity of wartime sexual violence.”[v] Scholars, including Amelia Hoover Green, Dara Kay Cohen, and Elisabeth Wood, have debated the veracity of this claim, specifically in terms of data. [vi] This approach and debate is important for the academic community, but the specifics on the data are not as relevant for the policy community or average person who hears the claim that sexual violence in war is decreasing. Instead of rehashing the “great data debate” I would like to examine the assumptions and ideas behind the data and question whether the data is what we really should be focusing on.

A key assumption the authors of the report make is that because the number and severity of conflicts have decreased the level of conflict-related sexual violence will decrease. Basically they equate death tolls with sexual violence. This may or may not be true in each specific conflict, but sexual violence is a different tactic from the use of lethal violence and a decline in one does not automatically lead to a decline in the other. In the next section of the report the authors acknowledge the point that sexual violence does not exactly correlate to the level of overall violence. The Report asserts that domestic violence may increase once the fighting officially stops.[vii] This may also be true with “conflict-related sexual violence,” or that waged by members of the military and combatants, even if fighting is officially over and death tolls decrease, this does not mean that sexual violence by these forces decreases.

Instead of adding to the detailed data analysis that has already made it to the blogosphere, I argue that there is still clearly a problem with the reliability of data related to sexual violence in conflict. While the authors of the Report claim the data improved in the 2000s due to increased attention to sexual violence, increased attention does not minimize the difficulties and stigma both women and men face in reporting these crimes. To make a claim with such wide-ranging ramifications as sexual violence is decreasing, one should be relying on a wealth of reliable quantitative and qualitative data.

Megan MacKenzie addresses the data issue in a different way by claiming that sexual violence has been a part of most recent conflicts (she cites Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq). [viii]  Therefore cases like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Bosnia, which the Report claims are exceptions, in fact represent one extreme end of the spectrum in terms of the scale of sexual violence, but they still fit in with the general trend of sexual violence being used as a tactic in conflict.

III. Objectives and Damage from Claim that Sexual Violence is Decreasing

The Report made an eye-catching claim to gain attention without considering the harm this attention could cause to the study and advocacy towards sexual violence in wartime. The Report could have made a more nuanced argument that certain phenomena in war need to be examined or that scholars, advocacy organizations, and journalists, need to be more careful with the data they use. It is unclear what positive objectives could come by making this provocative conclusion supported by questionable evidence.

The broad claim that sexual violence is decreasing raises a whole host of questions about what the next analytical and policy steps should be. If the DRC and Sierra Leone were extreme cases does that mean they have received too much attention? Even if sexual violence is decreasing in conflict shouldn’t we still be examining these cases that do not fit within this pattern the Report claims exists? If there was some overall trend does it matter to the vulnerable male or female who lives in the region that has not seen a decrease in sexual violence (for example, the DRC)?

After years of being considered just another cost of war people have finally started paying attention to sexual violence. What is the point of the Human Security Report reversing that trend with data that no one is confident in? More specifically, what kind of implications would the authors of the Report like this argument to have? Asserting that sexual violence is decreasing or increasing in conflict has serious policy implications for how the issue is addressed, so scholars must be careful about these types of claims. For example, if as the Report asserts sexual violence has been decreasing in the last decade, what has caused this trend? Is this a sign that warfare is changing or that the UN or NGOs are doing a better job in the field? Does this mean the international community can leave the funding and attention at the status quo? Don’t we still need to be alert to a reversal in trends?

IV. What Could Data Miss?

Scholars on both sides of this debate agree that the majority of data available is problematic, but they do not discuss the key cases of sexual violence that might not be captured in data. There are several ongoing conflicts in which women or girls (primarily) may join or be forced into joining a non-state armed group where they are currently facing sexual violence on a continuous basis. Groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army or the FARC in Colombia use sexual violence against members of their own group or in the instance of Sierra Leone to coerce members to become part of a group.[ix] Data on sexual violence experienced by former combats is now emerging (for instance in the case of Sierra Leone[x]), but there are still many victims who may not be included in traditional surveys. This could include forced wives who were coerced into a relationship and remain married to their rapist.

The data most commonly used in determining levels of sexual violence does not capture situations in which women, men, girls, and boys are subject to ongoing sexual violence. In the domestic violence section of the Report, the authors note that incidence data provides information on the total number of incidences of sexual violence in a population, but it is rarely collected. They use this fact to support the point that if incidence data were collected it would reveal that the levels of domestic sexual violence are even higher. Unfortunately, the authors do not extend this analysis to examine whether if incidence data was collected for “conflict-related sexual violence” whether those levels might be much higher than reported. This again captures some of the problems with making claims based on data about increasing or decreasing “levels of sexual violence.”

V. Domestic Violence

The assertion made in the Report about the lack of attention given to domestic sexual violence in wartime is a muddled argument. For clarity I will reiterate the definitions the authors use in the Report. “Conflict-related sexual violence” is perpetrated by combatants and government forces. “Domestic sexual violence” is perpetrated by intimate partners or other family household members. The Report first needs to make a clear argument about whether they view domestic violence as separate from “conflict-related sexual violence.” They provide different categories for these crimes, yet seem to advocate for them being dealt with through the same mechanisms. The authors use research on domestic sexual violence from “war-affected” countries (Uganda and Ethiopia) so are specifically looking at domestic violence linked to conflict, but differentiating between this type of sexual violence and sexual violence by combatants. The Report also notes that they are not arguing that domestic sexual violence is ignored in general, but that the attention to this issue takes place primarily in peacetime.[xi] They note that they are concerned because it is absent from the “mainstream narrative” related to conflict and is “invisible politically in wartime.”[xii] It is therefore unclear what exactly the authors are arguing for. It does not seem that they are actually concerned that the issue is getting enough attention on the ground, but that it is part of some sort of political narrative.

Another key point here is that these forms of violence can be different, depending on what kind of cases we are examining. At times, it may be appropriate to expand the definition of “conflict-related sexual violence” to not include just violence perpetrated by combatants, but also violence by former combatants or members of the military, whether the victim is a family member or stranger. “Conflict-related sexual violence” and “domestic violence” both deserve attention and are problematic, but the responses to them will vary. For example, studying “conflict-related sexual violence,” strictly by combatants, would lead to a different line of inquiry into the causes of this violence. One would question how this helps an army or non-state group accomplish its objectives. In contrast, in examining domestic violence, there is a host of different questions, which might be geared at the individual level. Additionally, sexual violence during conflict and post-conflict sexual violence, also lend themselves to different analyses and implications. Perhaps, post-conflict sexual violence could be an indicator that it is not really a “post-conflict” environment.

There is likely a specific reason that scholars or activists who address sexual violence in conflict are not focusing on domestic violence as much as “conflict-related sexual violence.” As the Report accurately claims countering domestic sexual violence is a “challenge that is both complex and lacking in any obvious short-term solutions.”[xiii] Scholars or activists focusing on “conflict-related sexual violence,” may feel they can have more of an effect by focusing on sexual violence by combatants. Additionally, since these are different issues and require different frameworks of analysis, someone who is an expert on conflict-related sexual violence may not know how to approach the issue of domestic violence.

The Report could call for more attention to domestic violence, but it is unclear why this has to be seen in opposition to “conflict-related sexual violence.” For example, the authors state that attention to “conflict-related sexual violence” has “marginalized domestic sexual violence in war-affected countries still further.”[xiv] They provide no evidence to support this contradictory claim! It is equally plausible that increased attention to “conflict-related sexual violence” could eventually lead to domestic violence being taken more seriously. It might be that conflict-related sexual violence is the most reasonable starting point for international organizations, especially when they are providing funding through the “international peace and security” framework of the UN Security Council. Additionally, domestic violence is a problem in several countries not just war-affected countries, so are the authors concerned with this problem in general or just whether it is part of the conflict narrative?

The Report concludes the section on domestic violence in conflict-affected areas by advocating for domestic sexual violence to be part of the larger international peace and security agenda. If this is the authors’ goal, perhaps they should have considered how the central claim of the Report, that sexual violence in conflict is decreasing, would affect how organizations would feel about adding another item related to sexual violence to the Security Council agenda.

VI. Strategic Rape

This section of the Report in which the authors claim that strategic rape is less common demonstrates a real lack of understanding about sexual violence in conflict. Initially the authors define “strategic rape” as “the use of rape as a weapon of war.”[xv] They then clarify that using rape as a weapon of war means “a tactic that involves selective targeting of victims.”[xvi] Without getting too caught up in definitions it might be helpful to examine what these terms are actually saying. Strategic tends to imply that an act is part of some broader plan, whereas tactical describes a “small-scale action serving a larger purpose.”[xvii] The authors misunderstand the use of tactical sexual violence in warfare by claiming that just because violence is indiscriminate means that it is not part of an overall strategy. The strategy might not appear to be a clearly organized plan, but it is part of the plan to accomplish whatever a party’s objectives in the conflict might be. The use of violence indiscriminately can be a tactic, despite the fact that it is not as easy to understand what exactly the larger plan is. The authors seem to believe that strategic rape only occurs in cases like Bosnia and Rwanda when it is targeted at a specific ethnic group. Even these cases, which seem to clearly be about ethnicity, might be more complicated than they appear.[xviii] In fact in these instances of widespread mass rape the group identity of the perpetrators might be more useful in explaining the violence than the ethnic identity of the victims.[xix]

The authors of the Report claim that other forms of rape in wartime, for example what occurred in Liberia, are not strategic because the sexual violence is targeted against “any woman, regardless of political or ethnic affinity with the perpetrator.”[xx] Sexual violence can be used as a tactic in a way that has nothing to do with political or ethnic affiliations. Combatants could target family members of the military to rape as a way to demonstrate power or humiliate the opposing side. Individuals in a war could use sexual violence as a way to demonstrate that no one in the society is safe and to represent an upheaval of norms or standards. The narrow understanding of how sexual violence can be used in warfare represents a lack of knowledge on the topic by the authors of this Report.

Based on this limited understanding of sexual violence, the authors come to the conclusion that in cases like the DRC, sexual violence was so prevalent, simply because commanders could not control their troops. They claim that there were no direct orders to use sexual violence in DRC and while they acknowledge that there may be approval despite direct orders, they still claim that this is not strategic use of sexual violence and insinuate that this is “opportunistic behavior.”[xxi] The Report does not provide suggestions as to why this opportunistic behavior would come about in such large numbers in this case and what motivations combatants would have in suddenly deciding to become rapists. If combatants were going on widespread random killing sprees scholars would not simply call this “opportunistic behavior,” but would question what was motivating this sporadic violence. Most likely it would be seen as part of the group’s tactics. For some reason, sexual violence is considered differently. One might argue this is because “opportunistic behavior” in the terms of sexual behavior seems to be more understandable to some. This could be because some people view this behavior as part of a natural sexual instinct.

VII. Conclusion

The Human Security Report should stop trying to get attention by coming up with eye-catching headlines and instead represent an educated analysis of crucial issues in conflict. They should be the source that breaks with the “mainstream narrative,” by presenting more serious and nuanced data and observations. In an attempt to get attention this Report could be used as an excuse for people to stop giving sexual violence the attention it rightly deserves.





[i] Sandesh Sivakumaran,“Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict.” The European Journal of International Law 18, no. 2 (2007), 256.

[ii] Sivakumaran, “Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict,” 256.

[iii] Sivakumaran, “Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict,” 260.

[iv] Sivakumaran, “Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict,” 260.

[v] Human Security Report 2012, 20.


[vii] Human Security Report 2012, 37.


[ix] See e.g., Chris Coulter, Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers: Women’s Lives Through War and Peace in Sierra Leone (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 129.

[x] See e.g., Meghan MacKenzie, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security, and Post-Conflict Development (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

[xi] Human Security Report 2012, 51.

[xii] Human Security Report 2012, 51.

[xiii] Human Security Report 2012, 45.

[xiv] Human Security Report 2012, 35.

[xv] Human Security Report 2012, 20.

[xvi] Human Security Report 2012, 29.

[xvii] Webster Dictionary Definitions

[xviii] See e.g., Lee Ann Fuji, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

[xix] Fuji, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda.

[xx] Human Security Report 2012, 30.

[xxi] Human Security Report 2012, 30.

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