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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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Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times