In 1944, the iconic jurist and liberal political philosopher Hans Kelsen argued in his treatise, Peace through Law that the prevention of war is more important than the political or moral decision between democracy and autocracy, or capitalism and socialism. For if there is a self-evident truth in world history, Kelsen wrote, it is the one that “war is mass murder, the greatest disgrace of our culture.” Related to Kelsen’s unique style of social and political realism, almost intimately tied to it, is yet another truth, one so empirical and horrifying that it seems even more outrageous that there is relatively little policy concern with it: the ugly reality that where there is conflict and war, there is unspeakable sexual violence against women and girls. With the history of war taking new and unpredictable turns, and with many warning of the dark potential of AI in reconfiguring how war is practised and performed, we must begin to question why it is that this barbaric practice has not died in the history books along with swords, lances and crossbows and how such a phenomenon shines a light on serious blind spots in our conception of international security.

It is nothing new that in terms of deeply rooted gender dynamics, war has a disproportionate effect on women and girls. One doesn’t need to be a feminist to see that, by and large, men have been the ones who decide the question of war and peace in international affairs. While men are doing the fighting, it is the women who bear most of the suffering. That obviously includes mourning the loss of husbands, fathers, and sons. It also concerns food insecurity, where pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are particularly vulnerable; displacement, where the responsibility of fleeing the battlefield to somewhere “safe” falls predominantly to women; human trafficking, where women are at most risk of being violently used as forced labour, domestic servitude, or as some kind of “comfort women”. Then of course, there are the instances of war rape, the subject of disturbing books such as Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women. Only that cases of war rape are not mere instances. Rather they are, as Lamb puts it, the “unspoken weapon” in virtually every conflict that has been raging throughout history – be it in ancient times, the Middle Ages, the Westphalian age, the “short” twentieth-century, or closer in our time, whether we are looking with shock and horror at the sexual atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine or at the recent Hamas barbarity on October 7. 

War rape research shows that battlefield-related sexual violence committed by soldiers, mercenaries and terrorists against women and girls (data from the Rwandan genocide has hundreds of daily rapes in the victims’ age range of 2 to 75) can be explained by a complex interplay of cultural, social, as well as psychological factors, which also involved the weaponization of identity. Too often, however, classifying wartime rape as a weapon subjects rape to the same analysis as top-down military or battle-field strategy, where explanatory and “normative” priority is given to the notion that the systematic use of sexual violence is a tactical weapon aimed at terrorizing civil society. The problem with these kinds of portrayals is not that they are entirely wrong. Surely, throughout history, such orders have been handed down the military chain of command. The real problem is that war rape thus understood seems a fair bit too rationalistic. Instead, data from the frontlines of war reveal a much uglier reality. War rape seems to happen regardless of commands. One case file buried in the archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is particularly striking. For one commander about his troops committing rape: “I knew that there were people with their human faults. However, it was impossible for me to predict how each of them was going to react under war circumstances.” Other case studies have rapists claim that war rapes are acts of mercy – that being raped is better than being shot in the head; one even finds witness statements making the case that rape victims were in love with their perpetrators.

All things considered, one might say then that war rape is where the rational and the irrational meet, where so-called strategic factors of warfare unite with human nature at its worst, leaving scars that transcend generations. The situation is even more terrifying as war rape is not only men vs. women, rather on the victims’ side are also men and boys. We have seen victims on all sides across cultures, time, age, and gender. Not to argue for utopian pacifism, but as long as there is no international organisation with teeth, we will find ourselves in a position that may have us pick up the gun and fight our way through the fog of war in self-defence. What we must acknowledge as a global community, however, is that war rape is a fundamental fact of warfare old and new, and that we must take concrete steps to eradicate it.

To believe that innovations in technology make war more humane is, well, just a belief. Advancements in the realm of artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons systems are indisputable and those that underestimate its impact will do so at their own peril. Ultimately though, the paradigms of war are as brutal as they are human and wartime rape is no exception. There is a timeless wisdom and warning in the words uttered by one who must know. As General William Tecumseh Sherman once put it in a reunion of veterans, “There is many a boy here to-day who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” And surely, for women and girls, it is an even greater hell. We must strengthen political and legal frameworks that prioritize prevention, protection and prosecution to hold perpetrators of war rape accountable for their crimes.

Ayesha Peacock (*2002) is a Durham University graduate and has written her bachelor’s dissertation on a thematic comparative analysis of witness statements and statements of guilt of wartime sexual violence in the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

Robert Schuett (*1979) is Professorial Lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy and Chair of the Austrian Political Science Association.