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.

Beyond Sexual Violence: Gendered Political Insecurity as a Threat to Peace

Julieta Lemaitre and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

Based on extensive field research in Colombia, our new article Beyond Sexual Violence in Transitional Justice: Political Insecurity as a Gendered Harm examines political insecurity as a specifically gendered harm that must be addressed in the ongoing Colombian transitional justice process.

In a previous blogpost we described the tragic plight of the women’s rights activist and survivor of sexual violence Angélica Bello. Bello was one of the main proponents of Law 18 June 2014, which sets out to guarantee access to justice for victims of sexual violence. The Law is part of the transitional justice process and seeks to bring Colombian law into harmony with international law regarding sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict. It defines crimes of sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sets out criteria for investigating sexual crimes and protecting survivors analogous to those of the ICC. As the peace negotiations in Havana between the government and the FARC guerrilla continue to make slow but steady progress, the sexual violence agenda increasingly captures the field of harms to women in war.

While recognizing the importance of this law, we nevertheless suggest that it is a problem for the ongoing transitional justice process that there are so few articulations of what other kinds of gendered harms may look like and how they should be effectively addressed. Much of the growing literature on gender in armed conflict and the debates over post-conflict reparations for women focuses on the prevalence and harms of sexual violence. This development has engendered controversial debates concerning the alleged prioritization of sexual violence at the expense of other harms to women, whether this debate sexualizes and infantilizes women, as well as with respect to forms of victimization not captured by feminist frames of reference, such as male rape (This is often framed as a debate between the Halley and MacKinnon schools of thought). In her work on reparations, Ruth Rubio-Marin takes issue with what she sees as an excessive emphasis on sexual violence in transitional justice, embodying both a suggestion that sexual harm is the worst abuse that can happen to women and the entrenchment of a patriarchal ideal of female chastity. Rubio-Marin (2012) argues that the ‘hyper-attention’ to sex now risks doing further harm to women by deviating attention from other non-sexual forms of sex-specific harms, and isolating sexual and gender based violence from broader agendas that confront the multiple gendered forms of harm and injustice.

What are these other gender specific harms? What should transitional justice focus on beyond sexual violence? How can we think of gendered harms in relation to poverty alleviation or of resource redistribution?

In our article, we argue that if civic trust is to be built among all citizens, women’s experience of exclusion from the political through force and intimidation must be included in the narratives of armed conflict, political insecurity and the aftermath of war. Importantly, political insecurity is complex and extends beyond conflict between the state and the guerrillas, and yet the guarantee of security of political activity is a central component of a transition to peace. Arguably, political insecurity will persist as long as there is no effective challenge to the subnational hold of illegal armed actors emerging in the aftermath of war. The insecurity fostered by these actors is gendered, enforcing cultural mandates to confine women to the domestic space. In a transition to the end of armed conflict guerrillas can stop being both a threat for community organizing, and a justification for state repression.

Finally, we also suggest that the complete dismantling of gendered political insecurity will remain a challenge for transitional justice. A just transition to peace for women would require first, the dismantling of the capacity of private powers (at least of organized crime and business interests) to use violence to achieve their economic goals, and it will also require a vigorous promotion of women’s political participation at the grassroots level. More scholarly attention to the gendered aspects of these problems and scenarios is needed as Colombia continues to stumble towards the end of its 5o year old civil war.