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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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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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