Defendant perpetrators and conflict-related sexual violence

As the International criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR, respectively) are concluding their mandates, the archives they leave behind comprise an unprecedented historical record about the war years, about the collective and individual harms suffered, and about the development of international criminal law. The tribunals’ legacies will be interpreted, negotiated, and renegotiated as more researchers dive into these materials. Undoubtedly, the archives will keep scholars from a wide array of disciplines busy for years and decades to come.

So what are we to make of these archives? What are they documenting? What are they leaving aside? What kind of historical record do they produce, and what is it that they establish? For whom? On what premises? What are the values of trial truths and the legal narratives they story?

In a recent article in the British Journal of Criminology I engage with these questions by focusing on a specific subset of cases at the trial end of these archives: cases brought to trial and ending in convictions of defendants for their direct participation in sexual violence.

Rather than analysing the production of jurisprudence before these courts, or the treatment of victims and victim witnesses, I ask how these direct perpetrators and the causes of their offenses are constructed within and by these institutions and its primary actors.

Emphasizing arguments that are interpretive or explanatory in terms of the defendants and their participation in sexual violence over those that are descriptive in terms of the offenses, there are two primary narratives in the court actors’ arguments. These explain the defendant either as someone whose personal characteristics and personality deviate from the norm, or they re-present the defendant as an ordinary man/woman, pointing to factors beyond the control of the defendant as explanations for his or her crimes.

Deviant defenders

So-called deviance narratives are either formulated by the prosecution, for which they constitute aggravating arguments. Here, the defendants are portrayed as sadistic opportunists who thrived on the opportunity to rape or sexually torture their victims. These narratives are often repeated in judgments, as in the case against Delić at the ICTY:

The manner in which these crimes were committed are indicative of a sadistic individual who, at times, displayed a total disregard for the sanctity of human life and dignity.

When defense counsels invoke deviance narratives, they do so for mitigating purposes. Thee narratives often involve partial acknowledgement of the crime, while also full or partial denials of responsibility. Typically they are based on the statements of psychiatric experts who account for the defendants’ dependent personalities and their extreme conformity, which in turn inevitably lead to criminal behavior if authority figures ask for it.

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