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"Let's replace the word gender for power": Madeleine Rees on sexual violence in conflict

The former UN human rights lawyer, and one of the Foreign Secretary's advisers on ending sexual violence in conflict, on how everyday sexism and rape in warfare are on the same continuum.

Madeleine Rees, who advised William Hague about ending sexual violence in conflict. Photo: Yasmine Akim

“How is he a Tory?” cries Madeleine Rees when I meet her, before she even sits down. “I find it shocking. He totally gets it!”

She is the human rights lawyer who has been advising the Foreign Secretary William Hague on his work against sexual violence in conflict. She has just been awarded an OBE for services to human rights – particularly women’s rights and international peace and security. I meet her on the last day of the global summit, where she has just met with co-chairs of the conference: the Foreign Secretary and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie, to discuss the summit’s findings. She also met Jolie’s husband and global superstar Brad Pitt. She grins at this revelation, but is more fixated with Hague’s apparent astuteness on rape as a tool of warfare.

“Some of the things that William Hague articulates, especially in relation to this issue of sexual violence against women, he is explaining in terms of women's economic empowerment, the need to create structures,” she enthuses. “And he totally gets it. Which is wonderful. And irreconcilable with the Tory administration, some would suggest...”

Sitting in a sticky meeting area within the warren of garish lanyards, plastic coffee, and free biros that is the ExCeL exhibition centre in London, Rees is dry but impassioned about the conference’s cause. She has worked in the area for over 20 years, as a human rights lawyer on discrimination cases, for the UN and elsewhere.

She currently heads the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a Geneva-based NGO. It was Rees who blew the whistle on the complicity of some UN officials in prostitution and the sex-trade in Bosnia, where she worked with victims of rape following the war.

A complacent lack of concern given to the subject of rape in armed conflict has recently been exposed by media voices suggesting Hague should have been concentrating on Iraq rather than “hobnobbing” with celebrities at a sexual violence summit. In this way, the event highlighted the absence of attention paid to this aspect of warfare, as well as allowing people to speak up for its victims.

Rees’ thesis is that everyday sexism and rape in warfare are on a continuum, and until we tackle a worldwide “system” that treats women as secondary, rape will “work” – will be viewed as acceptable by the perpetrators – as an act of war.

“Clearly you have to look at social constructs of gender – that's what gender is. It's a social construct. Therefore you have to look at constructs of masculinity, because the vast majority of the perpetrators are men. So what is it that enables men to use violence as a way of attaining, maintaining, retaining power?” she asks.

Rees suggests it could be a good idea to “stop talking about gender, because gender so far has only ever been seen as ‘women’. Like, what men do is normal and then you add ‘gender’ on, and it’s women,” she sighs. “What we should be looking at is replacing, perhaps, the word ‘gender’ for ‘power’. And then we have a completely new conversation of who's got it, who hasn't got it, and the vast majority of that power is occupied by men, but what about the rest, too?”

She argues that thinking in this way might give us “a clue” as to why men who don’t have power then use violence against women “because of their absence of power”. As an example, she refers to the terror to which women can be subjected in refugee camps, where she describes the men as, “distressed at having not fulfilled their masculine identities as protectors, warriors, providers for their families, so they become extremely violent.”

For a lawyer, it must be rather frustrating to rely on such wholesale cultural change, rather than international military law, which she admits can be “extraordinarily difficult” to implement. She suggests social policy and education are what can bring about such a structural transformation.

“Essentially what we're looking at is: do we want boys to be brought up to fulfil the sort of role models that have been created for them by current social structures? Is that what we want? Are we still constructing little soldiers for Queen, country and Empire?” she asks, drily. “Or are we actually having a more civilised conversation about militarisation, which is a logical consequence of creating stereotypes of masculinity? How should we be bringing up little boys so that there's not this automatic assumption of privilege and power?”

Rees admits this focus on young men does jar with the style of the “old feminist, always confronting men – it’s not about men, it’s all about us”, an approach with which she says she was brought up. But she clearly believes in this route to protecting women both in and outside warzones.

Cameramen below us suddenly begin surging to the entrance of the main exhibition centre. They’re probably swarming around Jolie and her husband. Rees raises an eyebrow. “Poor woman,” she exhales. “I don’t know how she has the patience”. Yet on a subject that unites Conservative ministers, celebrities and veteran human rights campaigners like Rees – around which stigma, sexism and stupidity nevertheless endure – it may be time for some impatience.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution