William Hague: “It is the work of a lifetime to comprehensively deal with sexual violence in conflict”

Posted On: 
11th January 2019

William Hague shocked some of his fellow foreign ministers when he put combatting sexual violence on the international agenda in 2012. Since he co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, the issue has been discussed much more widely across the globe. But with reports from countries including South Sudan, Myanmar and Iraq continuing to reveal harrowing crimes, has much progress been made? He talks to Sebastian Whale 

William Hague with John Kerry and Angelina Jolie
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PA Images

John Bercow is busy fielding points of order from irate MPs when I walk into William Hague’s Millbank office. The Conservative peer quit the House of Commons at the 2015 election after nearly three decades as MP for Richmond in Yorkshire. He lets out his patented chortle when I ask, given the furore going on in the Chamber, whether he misses life on the green benches.

“No… I’m really delighted!” he says enthusiastically in his distinct Yorkshire accent. “I deliberately left three and a half years ago, and I haven’t regretted it for a day.”

Despite his relief at no longer being in office, the former foreign secretary still champions the causes associated with his successful parliamentary career. In 2012 Hague co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) with Angelina Jolie. The campaign is focused on ending wartime rape and has been endorsed by 156 countries around the world. The organisation’s work has focused on countries such as Burma, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan and the DRC. To date, PSVI has trained more than 17,000 military and police officers on how to prevent and respond to sexual violence. In 2014 he hosted the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is an atrocity that has been around for time immemorial. And yet Hague says that the awareness of what was happening was “pretty low” in the international community. When he put tackling CRSV on the agenda at a G8 meeting of foreign ministers in 2013, there was shock among his contemporaries. “Some of them – particularly the foreign minister of Russia – were not amused that we were discussing this, as if this is not foreign policy,” he says.

CRSV is not only a manifestation of conflict, Hague continues, but also a major source of it. He argues that the crimes committed are designed to make it more difficult to maintain international peace and security by creating a flow of refugees and panic in a population, and by making reconciliation more challenging. “This is why it’s a foreign policy issue, not just a separate thing that’s just a luxury to address,” he explains.

Hague also talks of CRSV being viewed previously as a “taboo subject” that was not soluble. Some considered it to be a women’s issue, and therefore something for men not to deal with. “Since men are almost exclusively the people who commit crimes of sexual violence, then men have got to be involved in solving it – men are 99% of the problem so they have to be at least 50% of the solution,” he says.

Hague was first exposed to the appalling nature of the crimes being committed during a visit to Darfur in 2006, where he heard women were being raped when they went out for firewood. Jolie captured the devastation of the war in Bosnia in her 2011 film In the Land of Blood and Honey. The pair teamed up to create PSVI a year later.

The unlikely double act is partly why the launch of PSVI made an impact, Hague argues. “It needed to involve a man in this issue, it needed to involve somebody global in there like her, and it needed a government to get behind it.”

Nearly seven years since its inception, and five years on from the global summit, Hague says there have been some “incremental improvements” to the culture of impunity that persisted. He cites prosecutions taking place in Bosnia, and changes to military doctrine in the DRC and Colombia.

“There are things happening that didn’t happen before. But they are only scratching the surface. We have to be realistic that in recent years we have seen a whole new range of conflicts in Burma, in Syria, Iraq, and in South Sudan, where crimes of sexual violence have been committed again on a vast scale. We should not delude ourselves that we’ve remotely solved the problem,” he says.

He adds: “It is the work of a lifetime to really deal with it comprehensively.”

Despite this, Hague argues that governments now feel more responsibility to act. There is greater recognition of the efforts made to combat sexual violence, he adds, referring to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 to ISIS rape survivor and activist Nadia Murad and gynaecologist Denis Mukwege.

To crack down on CRSV, Hague advocates a variety of approaches. They include international efforts to encourage countries to change their domestic law and peace settlements so there is no amnesty for crimes of sexual violence. With the UK due to host a conference on CRSV later this year, he wants to ensure the event “takes stock of what’s been achieved” but also puts pressure on countries to enact changes to legislation and their military.

Along with Jolie, Hague has called for a new independent international mechanism, similar to the OPCW on chemical weapons, to investigate when alleged crimes of sexual violence have been committed. “Such a mechanism, if it could be established, could administer a fund for victims to support survivors,” he adds.

Hague also calls for humanitarian donors, such as the UK, to allocate a specific portion of their aid budget towards tackling sexual violence in conflict. “It’s a bit arbitrary to choose a figure. But there would be a very good case for saying one per cent of development funds. Start there for this purpose, to encourage other countries to do the same,” he says.

The international landscape is vastly different to the one in which the PSVI was set up. How much of a challenge is the rise of nationalism and populism in keeping the issue on the global agenda?

“If the rise of nationalism and populism generally means a reduced capability to reach international agreements, then, yes, it could affect it. Or if the US administration was much less supportive, it would affect it,” he replies. The agenda received “very strong” backing from President Obama’s administration, Hague says, adding that Hillary Clinton had pledged to make CRSV an “important global issue” if she entered the White House.

“The United States has not been – even under a different administration – unhelpful on this. The US gives a lot of money to NGOs, it supports action to prevent sexual violence in many parts of the world. But there are degrees of leadership on it and yes, I am concerned that the increase in nationalism and populism could reduce the political space to lead on this,” he explains.

Hague agrees that the PSVI agenda, which relies on an internationalist approach to foreign policy, could be in contention with nationalist and populist ideologies. “But all the more reason to keep on arguing for that.”

As for UK foreign policy, Hague says Britain is still “behaving correctly in that tradition of wider responsibilities in the world”. He also notes the “tremendous enthusiasm” with which ministers in the Ministry of Defence have bought into PSVI. Some 300 British troops are currently deployed on a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, where there were more than 1,157 cases of sexual violence documented in 2018.

But there were concerns that PSVI was being reduced in scale after it emerged last year the number of experts has reduced from 74 to less than 40. Britain also faced criticism (Hague was one to raise concerns) about the speed at which it deployed experts in response to the widespread rape of Rohingya women and girls.

On Britain’s foreign policy outside the EU, Hague says: “It’s really important after Brexit that the UK continues its global role, partly for our own standing in the world, partly because it’s work is justified on its own merits and is morally necessary, and partly because not many other countries are going to fill the gap – on this or other subjects.”

Though Hague notes a “reduction” in trust of global institutions such as the EU, Nato and the United Nations, he is determined that people are not “defeatist” about the current complexion of global politics.

“Provided that the UK continues to give a lead and that other leading countries support that, and that there continues to be a groundswell among civil society, the media and so on, I believe we can still make a lot of progress. But it will take decades to fundamentally change attitudes in every part of the world,” he concludes.