Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative

sex and intl tribunalsThe gendered dimensions of violence are evident in the case law of both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Sierra Leone Special Court and in the final report of the Sierra Leone Truth Commission. Crimes such as sexual slavery as a crime against humanity, and rape as a form of genocide are adjudicated upon. My book Sex and International Tribunals does not claim otherwise. Rather, it asks the reader to interrogate the process of international justice for its prejudices and patriarchal culture which lead to an essentialized yet increasingly iconic image of the (brown) woman as a raped woman. The book also posits that sustaining this iconic image necessarily conjures up the menacing specter of a militarized African masculinity.

Writers like Dubravka Zarkov, Alcinda Honwana, Christopher Taylor, Mats Utas and Carolyn Nordstorm have made significant contributions to our understanding of gender and its impact on the nature of political violence in Africa and beyond. Sex and International Tribunals argues that in comparison, legal scholars are wont to deny any gendered complexity in the war narrative. The term ‘gender justice’ has come to signify the fiction that (i) gender and feminist theories have been mainstreamed into the legal construction of war crimes and (ii) women victims have been ‘given a voice’ by the tribunals.

Sex and International Tribunals critiques reductionism by addressing the outcomes for women, when they are excluded, as well as included, into the war narrative: Thus, when  a woman testifies in court she is required to present a narrative of violence that is sex-based and not gender-based. For example, the girl soldier is rarely called as a witness in the prosecution of the war crime of child conscription. Boy victim-witnesses are regarded by prosecutors as the genuine child soldiers, whilst girls were merely concubines, camp followers, rebel wives, prostitutes, sex slaves, bush brides, etc. The girl soldier testifies chiefly about conjugal or coital harms, i.e. sex-based narrative. How many men raped her and in what sexual positions? This limited scope of her testimony cannot expand the gender analysis of child enlistment and conscription. It only elaborates on the expanding category of the sexual depravities of armed combatants.

Shouldn’t sexual violence feature prominently in the indictments of war crimes tribunals? Isn’t widespread and systematic sexual violence a prominent feature of contemporary and historic warfare? Certainly.  Are there other forms of gender-based violence against women (and men!) that occur in war ? Certainly! My book Sex and International Tribunals argues that there are, and it draws alternative narratives from the case law that disrupt the dominant narrative of gender-based violence solely as the mass rape of women. In the case of Sierra Leone, for example, the book presents the prosecution of sexual slavery as a gendered form of enslavement as a failed gender analysis. And relying on the work of anthropologists such as Mariane Ferme, Janneke van Gog, and Chris Coulter, the book also deconstructs the tribunal’s imaginings of early marriage in peacetime Africa and challenges the wisdom of the introduction of crimes such as forced marriage and forced pregnancy as crimes against humanity. A rigorous gender investigation into the elements of crimes such as enslavement and torture would adequately address, for example,  the atrociously exploitative conditions of child conscription, labor and captivity in armed conflict.

One of the book’s conclusions is that the prosecution of wartime sexual violence in Africa has created a debasing narrative about the bodies of African women. The book’s gender and feminist legal critique disrupts assumptions of the impartiality of international justice and highlights the ways in which ruling elites conspire with international actors in erasing gender from the war narrative. Sex and International Tribunals introduces a timely discussion as transitional justice takes root as an integral pillar of postwar reconstruction in Africa and beyond. It is written for anyone who wants to do justice to gender justice.

Chiseche Salome Mibenge, Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative is published by University of Pennsylvania Press. It is available for pre-order here.

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