Karen Engle’s The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict works to unsettle and reorient human rights studies at three different levels. On the first, the book confronts head-on what Engle describes as the “common-sense” narrative about the causes, consequences, and ethical implications of sexual violence in conflict. What Engle demonstrates—from historical, theoretical, and empirical vantage points—are the ways in which the problem of wartime sexual violence underwent profound discursive transformations as a key pillar in the development of women’s human rights during the critical early post–Cold War period. In the effort to ensure that violence against women was given heightened prominence by the international human rights community, sexual violence in conflict came to symbolize the unique vulnerabilities that women around the world experienced. In Engle’s clear-eyed analysis, the symbolization of wartime sexual violence against women eventually came to dominate international activism, thereby obscuring or diminishing—however unintentionally—other ways in which women experienced structural, ethnic, and class-based violence. This symbolization of sexual violence in conflict became doubly problematic when it was made the basis for criminal prosecutions within the embryonic international tribunal system. As Engle shows, the rise of international criminal tribunals as the mechanism for tackling the problem of sexual violence in conflict must be understood as an expression of a broader trend toward carceral governance, which fundamentally depends on what she describes as the “strong arm of the state.” In Engle’s analysis, the over-reliance on criminal tribunals puts the complicated and highly diverse phenomena underlying sexual violence in the hands of institutions that are distinctly unable to carry such a “heavy burden.”
At another level, The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict is a penetrating study of how cultural and legal categories that form the basis for humanitarian intervention and human rights activism are constructed and mobilized in ways that can run counter to underlying intentions. In this, Engle is inspired by the example of the historian Joan Scott, who was careful to emphasize the fact that her account of the politics of the veil in France was not principally about French Muslims themselves, but about the ways in which they were perceived through dominant French historical and cultural discourses. So too with Engle’s unraveling of sexual violence in conflict: instead of focusing on victims or the nature of sexual violence, her account foregrounds what she calls the “particular imaginaries” that have shaped global understandings of both sexual violence in conflict and the legal and political responses to such violence. And just as Scott’s study revealed the ways in which dominant narratives of citizenship in France worked to constrain and even pervert the background values from which these narratives emerged, so too with the particular imaginaries about sexual violence in conflict that form the core of Engle’s book. As Engle demonstrates, dominant approaches to sexual violence in conflict—while animated by a laudatory spirit of global solidarity and a desire to improve women’s lives—likewise are based on distorted understandings of gender, sex, sexuality, and ethnicity.
And finally, The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict takes its place as a powerful intervention within contemporary debates over both the limits and the future of human rights. If scholars like Samuel Moyn have focused on the ways in which the existing human rights system provides insufficient responses to major global problems like economic inequality, Engle’s study shines a critical light on two other dilemmas: first, the ways in which rights frameworks are always and necessarily reductive in relation to the complex cultural and psychological phenomena that get classified as “violations”; and second, the fact that the pervasive turn to international criminal law as the primary response to human rights violations constitutes what Engle describes as an “individualized approach to human rights,” something that strips the social context from conflicts and in the process elides the importance of a wider range of relevant actors, including “bystanders and beneficiaries.”
Stanford Studies in Human Rights