A global summit on sexual violence, co-hosted by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, focused on sexual violence against women as war strategy, and would hopefully bring lasting changes to global peacekeeping missions and war crimes prosecutions.
The four-day summit which began on the tenth of June, had delegates from 141 countries, discussing how better to investigate sexual violence within military conflicts. Both investigative and punitive measures have proved to be woefully inadequate so far.
As Jolie told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper during a visit to Bosnia: “I would hope that years down the line when war breaks out, people who are considering raping a man, woman or child would be very aware of the consequences of their actions, and that a woman crossing a checkpoint would be aware there was someone collecting evidence and that evidence would have a… result for her.”
"Jolie really succeeded in telling the story of the whole war in her film and to show the most characteristic situations that detainees faced – mass executions, rapes, being used as human shields and all the other horrors"
“When that begins to happen en masse, then things will change. That’s why it’s important that this effort isn’t just one single (approach). We are working with everyone who has worked on these issues for years, with every NGO and every government, to assist these people on all fronts.”
Visiting Bosnia recently with British Foreign Secretary William Hague as part of a two-year partnership aimed at preventing sexual violence in conflict, they discussed the issue with women survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
After a Dutch UN peacekeeping contingent withdrew, Serbian forces moved in to slaughter 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. This was followed by the rape of thousands of Bosnian women and girls.
Edina, a rape victim and survivor, told Jolie and Hague that none of her rapists had been prosecuted, and they continued to function openly and have Facebook accounts and she kept tracking their lives through the internet.
Some critics, however, point out that Jolie’s emphasis on sexual violence (along with the current focus on what happens to women and girls) could mean that attention was diverted from others issues.
Henri Myrttinen, senior researcher on gender issues for the peace-building organization International Alert says, for example, that sexual violence is not the only ‘weapon’ used for intimidation and subjugation in war situations. Nor is it used exclusively in the context of armed conflict. Moreover, males and sexual minorities such as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex persons, too, are often targeted. Nine per cent and fifteen per cent of reported sexual violence in the UK and USA respectively are against men and boys. But talking about this is even more taboo than talking about violence against women.
Nor is sexual violence always used as a ‘matter of official policy’. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo where sexual violence by the military and rebel groups is commonplace, it’s the result of a lack of military control and discipline rather than any official policy, as it happened in Bosnia.
As Myrttinen points out, the recent book ‘Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War?’ by Maria Erikkson Baaz and Maria Stern confirms his own organisation’s field research – that concentrating on conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls means funding is largely available for supporting only these victims, whereas others are turned away or are asked to pay for medical services.
He adds: “We should also not forget that sexual violence and gendered inequalities do not only need to be tackled in places such as Afghanistan, eastern DRC, South Sudan or Syria but also in our own western societies.Every day.”
Nonetheless, no one can question Jolie’s commitment to this issue, nor the strength and sincerity of her convictions. In this context, and as a UNHRC goodwill ambassador, she has always had a special interest in the Balkans. During the current visit, she together with Hague spoke to a group of Bosnian army officers who, as part of a British-Bosnian co-project, have developed a training course which will enhance the ability of international peacekeeping contingents to detect and prevent large-scale rape (during the Balkan conflict, some peacekeepers too, were accused of committing rape).
"We should also not forget that sexual violence and gendered inequalities do not only need to be tackled in places such as Afghanistan, eastern DRC, South Sudan or Syria but also in our own western societies"
The best testimony to Jolie’s commitment to this vital issue may be her movie ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ which she wrote and directed in 2012. It’s a powerful film which manages to not to blow itself up while working its way through an artistic and political minefield.
The plot revolves around Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) a Bosnian Muslim artist, and Danijel, a Serb army officer (Goran Kostic). They are in love as the film starts. But war and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia separates them. They meet again in very different circumstances. This time, Ajla is a captive in a Serbian military camp where women are systematically raped. Danijel, now a combatant known for bravery much respected by his men, spots her and rescues her by claiming her for himself.
He is a ‘moderate’ in a nasty conflict which leaves no room for compassion and compromise. He is ideologically at odds with his extremist father, a Serbian general who sees ‘ethnic cleansing’ as the only solution. Outraged after discovering that his son was keeping a ‘Muslim whore’ as his consort, he visits her and then sends one of his men to rape her.
The result is that both Danijel and Ajla are drawn into a spiral of self-hate as well as ethnic hatred and personal violence. It’s a stunning film. Despite frank depictions of brutal sex, it’s not a commercial film, hardly the glossy stuff one would expect from a Hollywood celebrity. Made on a shoestring budget of $13 million, it grossed only $303,877 in the US and Canada.
If she wanted to make money, Jolie would have made another Tomb Raider. Instead, she made an honest, gut-wrenching movie about one of the most brutal conflicts of the post-World War II world. ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ alienated her Serbian friends. There was criticism even from Bosnian quarters such as the Bosnian Women Victims of War association (they changed their minds after viewing the movie). The permit for filming was revoked, but Bosnia’s ministry of culture re-instated the permit after reading the script.
Answering a charge that the movie wasn’t balanced, Jolie said: “The war was not balanced. I can’t understand people who are looking for a balance that did not exist.” The importance of movies such as this (Hotel Rwanda and Killing Fields are other examples) is that they recreate for us a horror that is easily forgotten. It’s sobering to reflect that, while scores of movies have been made about the World War II holocaust, the three worst post-WWII genocides (Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia) have inspired just one movie each. The survivors and their descendants simply don’t have the kind of clout necessary to produce movies. It takes a Roland Joffe or Angelina Jolie to feel and act on their behalf.
After the film was shown to non-Serb victims in a special screening in Sarajevo, head of the association of prisoners of war Murat Tahirovic said: “Jolie really succeeded in telling the story of the whole war in her film and to show the most characteristic situations that detainees faced – mass executions, rapes, being used as human shields and all the other horrors.”
The Serbians thought otherwise. Serbian film director Srdan Dragojevic called it a “very bad movie.” The movie won several international awards. But what is relevant is that the movie established Jolie as someone who has the courage of her convictions. It’s really the outward expression, done through the cinematic medium, of an intense personal dialogue with herself and the people she met in the Balkans, and it’s the strength of these convictions that has paved the way for the June summit in London. It’s reverberations will be felt throughout the world, including Sri Lanka.