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Guest Post: A Rejoinder to Megan MacKenzie

October 19, 2012

Guest Post by Andrew Mack, Human Security Report Project.

We obviously agree with Megan Mackenzie’s affirmation that the mainstream narrative on wartime sexual violence ignores sexual violence against males and domestic sexual violence––even though the latter is far more prevalent than rape by combatants.

With respect to other claims in her review of our just-released Human Security Report we disagree:

We did not “revive” the “war is declining” thesis about inter-state conflict —the focus of successive Human Security Reports has been all conflicts—the overwhelming majority of which are intra-state.

Mackenzie claims that intra-state violence, political violence, and terrorism are increasing. Not so. The evidence from the UCDP/PRIO armed conflict dataset indicates that while minor armed conflicts have kicked up in recent years, the average number of ––mostly intrastate––high-intensity conflicts (those that result in 1,000 battle deaths per year) has halved since the late 1980s. Today the average conflict incurs less than a thousand reported battle deaths a year––a huge reduction from the Cold War years and far less than at the end of the 1990s.

The number of campaigns that seek intentionally to kill civilians was lower in 2009 than at any time since 1989, (which is as far back as UCDP has data). The number of victims from those attacks has also been trending downwards. NCTC data indicate that terrorist attacks were 30 percent fewer in 2011 than 2007.

Finally, the data on conflicts that don’t involve governments as one of the warring parties—those between rebel groups, militias, and other non-state actors—show neither a decline, nor the increase that Mackenzie suggests. All these trends (except terrorism) are reviewed in detail in Part II of the Report.

On the Report’s specific claims about wartime sexual violence:

Our “overarching message” is not that “wartime sexual violence is declining”. Rather, we argue, among other things, that there is no credible evidence to suggest that it is increasing, as many major reports and senior officials––all cited in the Report––have claimed. One of our conclusions is that the indirect evidence suggests that conflict-related sexual violence likely declines when the number and deadliness of conflicts declines. Mackenzie’s post conveniently misses these important qualifiers.

We do suggest that in general there is an association between conflict terminations and reduced levels of conflict-related sexual violence. This is hardly surprising. It’s clear, for example, that the level of conflict-related sexual violence (however defined) in Rwanda today isn’t remotely comparable to the mass savagery that was evident the height of the genocide/civil war. We do not of course argue that there is a linear relationship between battle death reductions and reduced levels of conflict-related sexual violence.

If it is indeed the case that conflict-related sexual violence tends to decline when wars stop, then seeking to stop wars may be an effective way to reduce such violence. There is after all little evidence to suggest that, in the short and medium term, any of the direct strategies currently being deployed to prevent, reduce and stop sexual violence are having other than a marginal impact. On the other hand there is considerable evidence that strategies to stop wars and prevent them from re-starting, have achieved a modest, but important, success rate. (See, Chapter 4 in “The Causes of Peace” in the last Human Security Report.)

We do argue––drawing on Dara Cohen’s important new global dataset––that the countries worst-affected by sexual violence constitute a minority of all war-affected countries.

In the new millennium, the level of reported conflict-related sexual violence reaches the highest of four intensity levels in less than 10 percent of the years in which countries experience conflict. In more than half the country-years of conflicts, the levels of reported sexual violence are low to minimal.

Only a handful of researchers have asked why some war–affected countries have very low levels of sexual violence. Yet understanding this could be extremely important for violence prevention policies––as Elisabeth Wood has pointed out.

On ‘strategic’ rape, our point is that, notwithstanding numerous claims by high-level officials and major reports (all cited in the Report) there is no evidence that it is increasing. We have no disagreement with Mackenzie on this issue. There is however some evidence from a remarkable multi-country study of sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa by Dara Cohen and Ragnhild Nordas, which suggests that strategic rape may have declined in the region since the 1990s. We cite this research in the Report.

Finally Mackenzie writes that, “The HSR begins their report by chiding advocates and those who do research on sexual violence for drumming up unsubstantiated catchy headlines on sexual violence.” This is quite untrue. In fact the Report begins with a tribute to the extraordinary political campaign by advocates that got the issue of wartime sexual violence onto the agenda of the Security Council as a “threat to international peace and security.”

Moreover it should go without saying that, while a deep knowledge about sexual violence in war zones is essential to understanding individual cases, the findings from particular cases can neither prove or disprove claims about whether sexual violence in wartime is increasing or decreasing at the global level.

The 2012 Human Security Report draws on the best available data on sexual violence in wartime, although as we point out, the knowledge gaps remain huge. All the empirical claims in the Report are, however, subject to rigorous fact-checking.

We invite readers to judge for themselves whether Mackenzie’s criticisms are fair and correct. All chapters of the Report can be downloaded free of charge at

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.