Imageries of Self: Guilty Plea Statements in Sexual Violence Cases at the ICTY

During its almost 25 years in operation, the ICTY convicted and sentenced 90 individuals, of which 20 pleaded guilty. Five of these guilty pleas were submitted by defendants who were directly involved in sexual violence. In a new article in International Criminal Justice Review, I investigate the ways that these defendants re-present themselves, their agencies, and their offenses in response to the legal framework within which they talk, building on a narrative expressivist framework.

The defendants’ narratives are wringed in-between individual needs, defense strategies, legal demands, and societal expectations—reflecting the situation’s demand for particular sensemaking. Their individual freedom is on the line, but also their public legacy is at stake. In front of the court, defendants tell a story that becomes a carefully crafted version of who they are, what they have done, and why.  

The analysis draws particular attention to the ways in which defendants consistently silence the sexual crimes they admit to in their guilty plea statements. While public discourse on sexual violence as such often condones, neutralizes, and denies sexual violence; blames victims; and renders most offenders ordinary, once offenders get prosecuted and convicted, or subject to justice campaigns, a large apparatus goes to show that they are deviant, different, monsters. 

The international legal discourse about perpetrators of sexual violence feeds into the hierarchy of violence that constructs conflict-related sexual violence as a particularly heinous crime, and coalesces their character, who they are, with the characterization of their offenses.  

By avoiding reference to a type of violence that, once established, is expected to merge their character with their offense, the silencing of sexual violence in defendants’ statements creates a narrative space that allows defendants to re-present themselves as now moral, rehumanized individuals, “fit to be among us,” detached from the offenses that is expected to essentialize them in the eyes of others.  

They offer personal stories of rehabilitative journeys within the criminal justice system, express hope that the guilty pleas will alleviate pain and contribute to reconciliation, and suggest that their experiences can have a general deterrent effect. The defendants’ statements suggest that their guilty pleas may animate the lives of others by inspiring others to atone for their wrongs and by impacting public imagination of the effect of criminal justice. These imageries of present and future remorseful and responsible selves allude to and confirm the rehabilitative and disciplining purpose of the criminal justice process, and play into the naturalization of criminal justice responses to CRSV

When defendants who plead guilty abide by the rules of the court, and live on according to their stated regrets and remorse, their narrative actions arguably support the legitimacy of the international criminal justice project. Yet, some defendants follow the script convincingly, and later retract their statements and deny their guilt – as is the case with one of the analyzed cases in this article, and is also elaborated on by others.  

Whether their stories help or challenge the prospects of justice and reconciliation, international criminal tribunals provide a platform for defendants to address multiple constituencies. Defendants’ stories matter because of the instrumental purposes they serve rather than in terms of the truth level they entail. And while it is not the task of the article to assess the impact of such statements (as self-serving affronts or not), it stirs questions about the form, role, and place of defendants’ narratives in the international criminal justice project. 

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