Violence and the ways we write it

‘What are the ethics of storytelling?’ asks James Dawes (2013: xiii) in his book Evil Men, where he seeks to increase our understanding of evil based on interviews with aging Japanese war criminals. This question has simultaneously guided and haunted me, both as a scholar and humanitarian, working on thematics that have violent profusions at its core. I have asked myself and colleagues in both sectors: at what point do descriptions of harm and the consequences of violence turn into sensationalism rather than necessary re-presentations of violent experiences? The question can be equally formulated from the other end of the continuum as: How comfortable a read can research that has mass violence at its core become, before the distance created by language becomes an ethical – and analytical – challenge in its own right?

In a new article published in Qualitative Research, I explore and reflect on these ethical dilemmas of re-presentation, following the traction of my own research on conflict-related sexual violence and international criminal justice. I argue that we risk producing violent re-presentations either by sensationalizing people through descriptions of what is meant to be sensational violence, or by silencing experience through euphemizing harm in conceptual categories. In my PhD-project in particular, I had growing concerns over the cementing of subjectivities that criminal justice processes produced on the one hand, and the concurrent paradoxical and lofty claims of its advocates, holding its existence and delivery to be a premise for healing, reconciliation, prevention, and peace, on the other. The two sizes – one categorically static and deterministic, the other transformative at its core – were strikingly at odds. Alas, the problematic consequences of the former were ever more visible than the promised positive effects of the latter.

Against this background, the article offers a personal and unsettled, yet academic reflection on the ethics of re-presenting harm and violence in our research, publications and teachings. I hold, with Krystalli (2021: 127), that ‘research methods and ethics are inseparable from each other’ and that the re-presentation work of our end texts (Mantzoukas, 2004) are an important part of both. I hope to encourage active engagement with a research ethics that goes beyond ‘procedural ethics’ (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004), to address what Baaz and Stern (2013: 32) labels our ‘impoverished framework for seeing, hearing, making sense of, writing about and empathizing with subjects of sexual violence’ in this particular empirical and theoretical field of research. That is, to expand and feed the discussion on researchers’ responsibilities for the stories we ask for, hear, read, analyze, and re-tell by addressing the ethics of re-presenting stories and the people they involve in our teaching and publications on mass violence and war crimes (see Boesten and Henry, 2018).  

I hope to stir some self-reflexive engagement, and that you will find it worthwhile to read.

How are multilingual challenges addressed at the ICC?

In June 2017, I observed the testimony of a prosecution witness in The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Ongwen stands accused of directing attacks by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in May 2004 against civilians in an internally displaced persons’ camp in northern Uganda. The alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by those under Ongwen’s command include murder, enslavement, inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering, cruel treatment of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, and pillaging.


Courtesy of ICC

The witness testifying that day was a victim of the attacks. She recounted how her newborn child was thrown into the bush by the attackers, and how she was subsequently pursued and brutally beaten as she searched for her baby. As a protected witness, her face was purposely distorted so that she was unrecognizable to the public. But her background was nonetheless clear – her experiences were that of a young woman from a rural area, her dress was traditional, and she testified in Acholi.

How does such a witness find herself in The Hague, addressing international judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers in a modern courtroom that is outfitted with the latest technology? Who takes her initial witness statement? Helps her arrange her travel to Europe once she has been selected to testify? Meets her at the airport upon arrival? Finds her suitable clothing for the European weather and helps her settle into her accommodation? Who orients her to the courtroom procedures, the microphones she will speak into, and the images that will flash before her on a screen? And very importantly, who interprets her critical testimony about what she experienced from Acholi into the working languages of the Court, English and French, conveying the tone of her speech along with her inevitable hesitation and emotion, so that it can become part of the official trial record?

These are just some of the questions I seek to answer through an ethnographic project I began in 2017, which I have tentatively titled “Global Court, Local Languages: How the ICC Pursues Multilingual Justice.” It is true that every international court must accommodate in some way the multilingualism found both across its geographic jurisdiction and within its own professional ranks. This task may not be particularly daunting, however, if the court has official or working languages that are widely spoken and for which there exists a large cadre of trained translators and interpreters. For institutions that must accommodate speakers of rarer languages, the challenges are considerably greater. Indeed, the difficulties associated with using such languages throughout the various phases of an international criminal process may raise fundamental questions about accuracy, fairness, and budgetary allocation.

As an anthropologist with a background in African sociolinguistics, I am particularly interested in the use of African languages in a wide range of ICC activities. A number of challenges arise in the course of these activities, stemming from a variety of factors. These include the absence of trained language professionals for many of the target languages, the lack of existing lexical items to denote international legal concepts, the languages’ frequent lack of a written tradition, and low rates of literacy in victim communities

The ICC is currently using more than thirty languages from the African continent in its investigations, trials, interactions with victims, and outreach activities. Despite the centrality of these languages to various ICC situations and cases, African language experts, along with the structures created to support their work, operate largely in the shadows. Furthermore, the innovative strategies developed by ICC language services staff around recruitment and training of African language interpreters, development of legal lexicons, and other vital activities are rarely acknowledged publicly. Despite the obvious multilingual nature of all ICC situations and cases, the constant use of interpretation and translation (even between its working languages), and the visible presence of interpreters in the courtroom, the Court’s language services remain strangely unseen and unsung.


Courtesy of ICC Language Services Section

I recently finalized a paper that presents some of the preliminary findings from this research project – “Unseen and Unsung: ICC Language Services and their Impact on Institutional Legitimacy.” This paper, prepared for a PluriCourts conference in October 2017 on the theme of “The Legitimacy of Unseen Actors in International Adjudication,” is currently under review for publication. I also had the opportunity to present these findings at the ICC itself, to an audience comprising language service professionals along with judges and other staff members.

I welcome all comments and suggestions on my paper, available at the link above, as well as my larger ongoing project.