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

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
End Impunity! Reducing Conflict-Related Sexual
Violence to a Problem of Law
Anette Bringedal Houge Kjersti Lohne
Whilst sexual viole nce has been an offence asso ciated both with war- and
peacetime throughout h istory,its r ise to the tables where international pea ce
and security are negotiat ed, represents a significant shift. This article contin-
ues the scholarly conver sation about conflict-re lated sexual violenc e and its
emergence as a “hot topic” on acade mic, political, and activist agendas. Spe -
cifically, we ask how and why criminal law c onstitutes the ultimate ly mean-
ingful response to such v iolence. Building on fram e analysis, we address
how the fight against confli ct-related sexual v iolence has become the fight
against impunity. We examine what imagerie s of victims and perpetrat ors,
causes and consequenc es key actors within inter state diplomacy and human
rights advocacy evoke to dr ive this development. We argue that these narra-
tives shape the politic al discourse on conflict -related sexual vi olence, which
may in turn influence the perceived po litical maneuverabil ity in the face of
such harms.
[After conflict-related sexual violence,] the anger and shame
left behind can tear communities apart and make wars last lon-
ger–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
The authors wish to thank Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Sveinung Sandberg, Liv Finstad,
Inger Skjelsbæk, Nikolas Rajkovic, Marieke de Hoon, Anne Bitsch, and the anonymous
peer reviewers and the editors of LSR for thoughtful comments on the manuscript
Please direct all correspondence to Anette Bringedal Houge, Department of Criminol-
ogy and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo, PO Box 6706, Oslo 0130 Norway; email: a.b.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no
modifications or adaptations are made.
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 4 (2017)
C2017 The Authors Law & Society Review published by Wiley Periodicals,
Inc. on behalf of Law and Society Association
largest gathering ever brought together on the subject.”
It cul-
minated 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 cam-
paign 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 campaig ning
during the last two deca des, the fight against co nflict-related
sexual violence has become the fight against impunity. That is
not a small change. Until fairly recently, criminal prosecution of
conflict-related se xual violence was practically unheard of.
Today, criminal prosecution has become the framework within
which all matters to do wi th conflict-related sexual violence are
dealt with. As the curre nt UN Secretary General’s Special Repre-
sentative 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
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 conflict-
related 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
lenge 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.”
The summit attracted worldwide media attention and participants from 123 coun-
tries amounting to 1700 delegates, including 79 Ministers, 900 experts, NGOs, survivors,
faith leaders, and international organizations.
756 End Impunity!
This article continues the scholarly conversation about
conflict-related sexual violence and its emergence as a “hot top-
ic” 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 con-
stitutive 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 account-
ability 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). Here, our
focus is on the narrative authority of the end impunity mantra,
which we understand as already an internalized norm in debates
about, policies on and responses to conflict-related sexual vio-
lence. Mindful of this “‘taken-for-granted’ quality that makes
conformance with the norm almost automatic” (Finnemore and
Sikkink 1998: 904), we ask how and why criminal law continues
to constitute the ultimately meaningful response to conflict-
related sexual violence (paraphrasing Felman 2002: 3). Building
on insights from frame analysis, we examine what imageries of
victims and perpetrators, causes and consequences, key actors
within interstate diplomacy and human rights advocacy evoke to
promote criminal law responses to this particular type of vio-
lence. We show how these narratives shape the political dis-
course on conflict-related sexu al violence, which we in turn
argue affects the perceived political maneuverability in the face
of such harms.
The article proceeds by situating the analysis within the
ongoing scholarly conversation about conflict-related sexual vio-
lence and its intersection with international criminal law. Then
follows an account of how we engage framing theory in the
analysis. By identifying victim and perpetrator imageries and
representations of causes and consequences in UN Security
Council resolutions and reports from Human Rights Watch
(HRW), the subsequent analysis shows how and discusses why
legal mobilization takes hold of different key actors simulta-
neously, constituting the fight against impunity as a “rhetoric of
change” (Gamson and Meyer 1996 in Sandberg 2006), and the
end of impunity as a panacea for conflict-related sexual vio-
lence. Ultimately, we ask what the implications are of this global
force and consolidation of conflict-related sexual violence as first
and foremost a matter to be addressed—and solved—through
criminal law.
Houge & Lohne 757

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