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End impunity! Reducing conflict-related sexual violence to a problem of law


By Anette Bringedal Houge & Kjersti Lohne, Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo


(Image from Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, 2014, hosted by UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office)


In our recent article, End impunity! Reducing conflict-related sexual violence to a problem of law, we question the taken-for-granted center-stage position of international criminal justice in international policy responses to conflict-related sexual violence. We address how central policy and advocacy actors explain such violence and its consequences for targeted individuals in order to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. With the help of apt analytical tools provided by framing theory, we show how the UN Security Council and Human Rights Watch construct a simplistic understanding of conflict-related sexual violence in order to get their message and call for action across to wider audiences and constituencies – including a clear and short causal chain, and checkbox-solutions. The narrowing down of complexity serves important purposes, in that it brings with it opportunities for action in a field within which ‘the urge to do something’ has gained a particular stronghold.

However, by framing conflict-related sexual violence as first and foremost a criminal – and individualized – act, the multilayered, complex, social, and collective phenomenon of harm that it also is, is increasingly peeled away from understandings of the problem. This narrative about conflict-related sexual violence and its solution resonates and gains support because of its simplicity. It reduces sexual violence into clear-cut categories of rational, individual and evil perpetrators and powerless, broken victims – ideal causality on the one hand, massive suffering in need of legal catharsis on the other; in short, to a problem against which something can be done. Individualization of guilt corresponds poorly, however, to the collective crime and structural explanations that academic theories about conflict-related sexual violence underscore. Thus, the cost of the simplistic narrative is that the phenomenological understanding gets separated from its enabling social structures, including the collective out of which the phenomenon arises. Moreover, the deterrence rationale upon which the call for criminal prosecutions is based carries limited empirical weight.

We therefore ask for a more precise recognition of what criminal law can and cannot do with conflict-related sexual violence, and hold that the problem with the focus on ending impunity is not that it is an irrelevant task, but that it is not the solution its proponents claim it to be. Paralleling criticism of carceral feminism domestically, we see a need for greater attention to the political, economic and gendered inequalities and structures within which sexual violence take place. Conflict-related sexual violence is indeed part of a repertoire of illegitimate warfare, and a reaction to the chaotic, desperate and demoralizing experiences that war brings with it, but it is also the result of gendered hierarchies, subordination, and poverty, and a continuum of violence that transgresses war and peace.  

It is important to recognize the narrative processes at work that keep favoring criminal law – and to question whose voices and what stories matter, what reality “fits,” and what complexities are lost. This is important not because criminal law is inherently bad – but because conflict-related sexual violence is not a problem that can be exclusively solved in the court room.

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