“Thugs” on Trial. Narrating conflict-related sexual violence in and for international criminal justice

International criminal justice institutions constitute an important actor in the international political order, and comprise an important source of information regarding mass violence, war crimes and political conflicts. But what kind of knowledge and understanding is it international criminal law and its institutions actually produce and contribute?

In my dissertation, “Thugs” on trial, I address how international criminal justice processes enable and constrain knowledge about complex forms of collective violence. Thematically, the dissertation focuses on international prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence. Institutionally and geographically, the main focus of the dissertation is on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Collective acts – individualized guilt
The dissertation centers around the contrast between social scientific theories on participation in war crimes – that is, explanations that emphasize structural and situational contexts on the one hand, and international criminal law’s individualization of guilt on the other. While political and social science primarily understand perpetrators as ordinary men acting under extraordinary circumstances, emphasizing the latter – criminal law establishes the circumstances, but emphasizes the individual perpetrator and his or her extraordinary character in order to explain the defendant’s participation in violence. Can international criminal law’s focus on the individual add to our understanding of participation in mass violence? Or is the knowledge that follows from criminal law’s orientation towards individual guilt fundamentally problematic for knowledge construction outside of the court context?

The dissertation focuses particularly on how the defendant is talked into being, explained and narrated before and for criminal justice institutions, by actors both within and outside of the court – and ultimately, what this juridification of a social problem entails for societal understandings of the phenomenon.

Trial ‘truths’ and ‘history’

Through four articles and an introductory part, I contribute an analytical review of the status of knowledge on a large and growing field of research. The dissertation explores and evaluates central empirical sources of knowledge pertaining to conflict-related sexual violence, and develops a theoretical and analytical approach to international criminal justice that focus on the courts’ role as both source and warden of knowledge about violent conflicts. Inspired by narrative criminology this approach, called narrative expressivism, focuses on court stories’ potential to animate – form – societal understandings of individual agency in conflict-related, collective violence.

As the archives of international criminal justice institutions are increasingly subjected to social scientific research, the dissertation is a necessary contribution that addresses what kind of knowledge these archives actually provide the empirical basis for.

“Thugs” on Trial is my PhD dissertation. On December 5th, 2017, I successfully defended my PhD thesis at the University of Oslo. The adjudication committee consisted of professor Peter Scharff Smith (UiO), professor Alette Smeulers (UoGroningen) and professor Susanne Karstedt (UofGriffith).



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