End Impunity! Reducing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence to a Problem of Law

By Houge, Anette Bringedal; Lohne, Kjersti | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

End Impunity! Reducing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence to a Problem of Law


Houge, Anette Bringedal, Lohne, Kjersti, Law & Society Review


[After conflict-related sexual violence,] the anger and shame left behind can tear communities apart and make wars last longer-especially when the monsters who do it are allowed to get away with it... But it doesn't have to be this way. Rape and sexual violence are the worst crimes you can imagine, but they are not an inevitable part of war. It's time to act, to end sexual violence in conflict. Time to act, to bring those responsible to justice (Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2014a).

In June 2014, the UK government hosted the high-level Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, reported as "the largest gathering ever brought together on the subject."1 It culminated in unanimous agreement among state delegates to "tackle impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war," (Gov.uk 2014) and a best practices protocol on how to document and investigate sexual violence in conflict-situations to promote accountability (Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2014b). The quote that introduces this article is from the voiceover of a campaign video released by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as part of that summit. Over the screams of women and roars of animated monsters/brutes/men, the female voice talks about the wide-ranging and devastating consequences of "the worst crimes you can imagine"-before she presents what needs to be done to end conflict-related sexual violence: End impunity. In many ways, this campaign video epitomizes the subject matter of this article: Through political, activist, and legal campaigning during the last two decades, the fight against conflict-related sexual violence has become the fight against impunity. That is not a small change. Until fairly recently, criminal prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence was practically unheard of. Today, criminal prosecution has become the framework within which all matters to do with conflict-related sexual violence are dealt with. As the current UN Secretary General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura (2013), has emphasized, "[t]here's no way to end sexual violence unless you end impunity." From being silenced in hard politics circles, rendered unavoidable, and seen as a natural side effect of war through most of history, conflict-related sexual violence has reached the highest echelons of international attention in recent years.

Whereas much has been written about the development of an international legal doctrine on conflict-related sexual violence (Copelon 2000; de Brouwer 2005; Halley 2008), critical approaches to international criminal law generally (Drumbl 2007; Tallgren 2002) have yet to merge with thematic scholarship on conflictrelated sexual violence. As a result, and albeit criticisms of case law development and prosecutorial strategies exist (Bergsmo 2012; Henry 2011), there have been few attempts to analytically reflect on the recent rise of criminal law as the utmost solution to the challenge that conflict-related sexual violence is. As Engle (2005: 784) commented more than a decade ago, "as criminalization of wartime rape marches forward ... there has been little reflection ... on whether more criminalization is necessarily better than less."

This article continues the scholarly conversation about conflict-related sexual violence and its emergence as a "hot topic" on academic, legal, political, and activist agendas (Grewal 2015; Henry 2014). In so doing, it connects with constructivist approaches in international relations theory that stress the constitutive role of human rights norms (Adler 1997; Risse, Sikkink, and Ropp 2013; Wendt 1999). Much of this research has been concerned with the emergence, diffusion, and internalization of norms, including the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the development of the "justice cascade"-that is the "shift in the legitimacy of the norm of individual criminal accountability for human rights violations and an increase in criminal prosecutions on behalf of that norm" (Sikkink 2011: 5; see also Glasius 2006; Haddad 2011; Lohne forthcoming). …

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