Framing Rape: Patriarchy, Wartime, and the Spectacle of Genocidal Rape Comment on Debra B. Bergoffen, Contesting the Politics of Genocidal Rape: Affirming the Dignity of the Vulnerable Body

By Sheth, Falguni A. | Philosophy Today, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Framing Rape: Patriarchy, Wartime, and the Spectacle of Genocidal Rape Comment on Debra B. Bergoffen, Contesting the Politics of Genocidal Rape: Affirming the Dignity of the Vulnerable Body


Sheth, Falguni A., Philosophy Today


Clearly, the epidemic occurrence of genocidal rape, as has happened in numerous war-torn countries and countries embattled by ethnic conflict-requires an urgent thinking-through of the issues at stake and the context in order to understand what a proper response and resolution should be. Because of the richness and density of this text, it is impossible to address all the strands that Bergoffen has woven together to defend and illuminate the implications of the judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the trial of three Bosnian-Serb soldiers, namely that recognizing that genocidal rape is a violation of human rights affirms the dignity of the vulnerable body. Bergoffen's first few chapters describe the situation of women who were raped in the contexts of the ethnic cleansings of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She begins by pointing to the trials that were authorized by the UN Security Council; she then reflects on the judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR): namely, that these rapes were crimes against humanity, "the second most egregious international criminal offense."

As Bergoffen points out: the ICTR judgment against one of the rapists "linked the criminality of rape to the criminality of genocide," and that "rape, like torture, was a criminal genocidal tactic" (6). In the case of ICTY's trials, the ICTR verdict was acknowledged, and the link between rape and genocide was also acknowledged. The ICTY ruling went even further in several ways: First, "coercive tactics against rape need not include physical violence . . . [and] rape could not be identified as a species of torture" (7); second, ICTY convicted Bosnian-Serb soldiers of "crimes against humanity"; and third, ICTY ruling that rapes and associated crimes such as sexual enslavement and assault "violated the women's right to sexual self-determination," thereby constructing "the right to sexual integrity" (6-7).

For Bergoffen, these rulings are path-breaking in that they go above and beyond the simple understanding of human rights violations as those of liberal conceptions of human rights, namely of the right to autonomy and self-determination. Rather, these rulings transform our understanding of the magnitude of the depth of injury and violation, by pointing to rape within the context of genocide rather than ethnic cleansing. Bergoffen points to the depth of the implications of classifying rape within the former rather than the latter category. To locate rape within the context of ethnic cleansing closes off the possibility that the scope of the act has an effect on the "community's future viability"; it also precludes the acknowledgment that the forced relocation has long-standing effects on its viability (20).1

Let me address the fact that the locating of rape within the context of genocide changes the nature and scope of the recognition of the violation of rape. To understand rape within the context of genocide is to understand, not only the elements of coercion, power, and violation, but also of humiliation and dehumanization, as well the loss of the right to cultural determination, sexual self-determination, the viability of one's self-chosen community. Bergoffen quotes Claudia Card's notion of social death as one of the intrinsic factors in genocide-in order to illustrate its relevance in resituating the impact of rape as a human rights violation. I think it is helpful to bring up Bergoffen's description of Card's notion here: To equate genocide with physical annihilation (qua ethnic cleansing), we miss the unique evil of genocide-social death. According to Card, our singular and collective identities are inextricably linked. We are who we are through the bonds we forge with each other as members of a common culture. Our shared histories, traditions and languages anchor the meanings of our lives. Tactics that destroy these bonds produce social death. …

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